Arsenal – Tactics and Teamwork

By Bob MacDonald

As an introduction to this article I wish to mention briefly my credentials, hopefully this will not be misinterpreted as arrogance.

Since the early 70’s I have held the UEFA ‘A’ Coaching Qualification, having used it in various coaching and managing posts over the years including work at a former Football League Club Academy. My main interests are modern tactical methods and the development of young players.
I am a retired Physical Education teacher having taught at the ‘chalk-face’ for almost 40 years. Being a paid up member of a northern branch of the Arsenal Supporters Club, my allegiance to the club and staff is solid.

However, the following ideas and observations are not rocket science and have all been formulated by watching live and televised games over a long period, which requires little knowledge or qualification. If you are already aware of the following, I apologise.
The formations used are all very similar………and I presume are used with the opposition in mind. The style of play and philosophy remain a constant.
A breakdown of the responsibilities required for each position is as follows:

Full- Backs – Both are required to play high up the pitch where attacking abilities are paramount. They only leave the line in the attacking third, but are expected to be innovative and not just cross the ball. Arsenal always play square at the back, therefore they do not cover round defensively. All the Arsenal FB’s are better going forward, apart from Monreal, with the emphasis on attacking play.

Central Defenders – This is one of a few fixed positions, Arsenal often play with a back 2 or 3 which explains why they are vulnerable to a counter attack. Their job is basically defensive, but they are vital in playing out from the back, positioned at least penalty area width apart when the keeper has the ball, which allows both the FB’s to play in advanced positions. The idea of passing the ball between them is to allow time for more forward players to find space to receive a pass.

Defensive Midfielder – Normally Arsenal only use one defensive MF. This is also a fixed position (quite often played by Arteta). He has to always to be in a position to receive the ball from the GK or CH thus being the apex of a triangle, then move the ball forward quickly. Rarely does this player go in front of the ball as he basically ‘trails’ the attacking play. Defensively his job is to block the space between the CH’s, and cover the wide area (this should really be the responsibility of the attacker on that side).

Mid-Field – This is where it becomes more complicated!!! As Arsenal do not normally play a fixed attacking shape all the positions are interchangeable. For example, the No.9 does not play at CF, Arsenal do not play with a number 10 (whatever the media try to say). But, recently they have used at least one ‘winger’. If anyone thinks that Carzola plays on the flank, have another look!! The wide forward player has to vacate the space to allow for the FB to gain a more threatening position. Obviously, Ramsey or Wiltshire etc. play more central, but can often be found in wide areas as well.

There are set attacking areas on the field, these are filled by different players. Movement in front of the ball is vital, when one player occupies a space and he moves out then another moves in retaining attacking balance but still causing problems for the opposition. When Arsenal play well the movement in front of the ball is mesmerizing, little movement or static players in front of the ball means the team are playing poorly.

Defensively there has to be a shape to cover the major attacking lanes. Arsenal’s fluid attack means that this is not prescriptive, and relies on the decision making intelligence of the players and can lead to lack of balance when players do not react quickly enough and in the right way to nullify the threat. The defensive duties are complex as they are often given to different players in a fluid attacking play.

Arsenal are a team built on attack………….it is very difficult to balance both aspects of the game.

The balance of the team is important, I suspect that Arsene always selects his teams with the intention of attacking the opposition, meaning a lack of defensive balance. You can’t have it all ways.

When Zonal Marking is used the defenders are positioned where the ball is likely to be played, their responsibility is to attack the ball and clear it. That is all, they do not pick up attackers. If a man to man system is used the attacker makes the first move to the ball and the defender tries to beat him to it. Would you like to give the opposition a start by being second out of the block? There is nothing wrong with zonal marking, just do it well.
Counter attacking is only possible when your team are forced back by the opposition, how many times does that happen at the Ems , especially against the weaker teams.

When teams are set up to defend deep it is impossible to get behind them so you have to play through by passing or dribbling…..not easy, and often requires many attempts and an awful lot of patience. The quicker the ball is moved the quicker defenders have to adjust position, wait for a slight mistake and you’re in.

Playing the Arsenal way is brilliant, though often frustrating for the fans, please be patient with our team.

I hope my article will help some to understand what they are watching, and for others just re-inforce their own opinions.


Note from the editor: I want to thank Bob for this excellent article and hope he will write more about this.

If someone wants to write an article for Untold you can send it to me ( ) for the next week. Later on you can send it to the Tony Attwood himself when he has left the Land of Oz.

31 Replies to “Arsenal – Tactics and Teamwork”

  1. Bob,
    I must say that having your coaching badge from the 70 was very early. As I was a young boy myself I only knew about one such person who had a coaching badge himself other than the badge: “yeah I have played for X years so know all about it.”

  2. An excellent/enlightening article; many pertinent points – based on facts!

    Sure does explain exactly how we play and why!

  3. Many thanks Bob. Your article was quite educative and reassuring. Coming from a man who should know and one who has a soft spot for this great club is absolutely welcome.
    We need more like you to speak up for the club, the players, the manager and the staff in general. We need more patience with this club going through so much change and rebuilding. That, and a lot of understanding and rock-solid, unflinching loyalty. So hard to find. Every little helps.

  4. Bob, I agree with this analysis and it is line what I do have been saying on here. Unfortunately, a lot of people get misled by what they read in the Media.

    I made the same point about teams who defend deep. Arsenal are the only team that have to battle against ten men behind the ball almost every week. This is a legitimate tactic and employed because teams know we are adapt at playing between the lines and move the ball quickly. If we do get between the lines, then we see tactical fouls. It is very difficult to break teams down and that is why we score a lot of late goals, its no coincidence. Fatigue makes it harder to close down and defend.

    My criticsm is how we play after we score. In the days when we had Vieira and company, we would shut up shop for a while after we had scored and take the sting out of the game. This was because teams are most vulnerable in that ten minute period after the opposition have scored. We would allow the teams to come onto us and as the opposition did, we would break at speed. This is where I have noticed a change. IMO the players seem less disciplined when we go ahead and appear too gung ho. Instead of taking care of the ball in that period, players are making poor passes, poor decisions and our full backs are still too far forward. Whether this is a change in tactics or a personnel issue is debatable. My own opinion is that this is not rocket science and the players should be more responsible. To be fair, losing Arteta has affected us, along with Koscielny and Debouchy so its not as bad as made out. However, a few tweaks and more discipline from the players is needed IMO.

  5. Excellent article Bob.

    Arsene Wenger has always favoured attack over defense. The downside to this method is Arsenal will concede goals on the counter attack, but the upside has enabled Arsenal to score enough goals to reach their minimum target each season.

    Some may view this tactic as wrong, it’s certainly never been the traditional way of things at Arsenal FC pre Wenger but I think the trade-off has proven to be beneficial.

    However, at present the balance isn’t right in the team and I put that down down to the clubs early season fixture congestion, on the back of a world cup year, than any perceived tactical decline.

    And because of this factor, the manager and his coaches have been unable to work on rectifying these problems with the players at the training ground.

    Something better explained by “Arsereview”.

    Just to add some weight to this belief;

    Swansea’s manager Gary Monk spoke to the press after beating Arsenal

    “We are doing a lot of work on the training ground and at the moment it is paying off”

  6. Thanks very much Bob, a very enlightenling read….and well explained for those such as myself without your knowledge. It is easy to get a superficial idea of what the team are doing, but such an indepth read is invaluable, and to me at least, explains a lot. Can see how difficult it is for them to counter negative tactics, rotational fouling and poor/bent refs. But, and no offence, it does not explain some of the substitutions…and even players left out…but guess Wenger has to keep a few things from even the most tactically aware of supporters!
    Your message seems to b optimistic, give them a bit of time and things will improve. Take it this means you believe in this style of play for the team?
    also explains how much we miss the more experienced players to this system, Giroud, Arteta…perhaps increasingly Ozil, and even the departed like Bac.
    Stating the obvious, but can see Wenger is so careful in his signings, this style of play demands a lot of qualities, and may take many payers quite a while to master. The aaa favorites…like Chris Samba, Matic…might be good at stopping players, clearing lines, or kicking bangerous balls out of the ground…byt they might have difficulty in such systems. Shows how an intelligent player Arteta actually is, he seems to be able to hold all this together.
    Please write again, and continue helping to explode the media myths….you know, lack of tactics, headless chickens etc.

  7. it goes without saying that i agree with this article.

    hopefully it explains why we are where we are in the league

  8. @usama

    To achieve a Pro License you have to be an ex-pro player, I think.

    The ‘A’ License (previously called Fully Qualified or Full Badge before conversion ) qualifies you to coach at any European Club.

    Sorry this is a bit vague, but I have not tried to attain further qualifications due to work commitments.

  9. Hmm. Well to get such top level license since the 70’s is a great thing. Sad nowadays there are very less A license coaches in England. Untold Arsenal did a work on it quite a few times.

  10. A couple of things. There’s nothing wrong with implementing a system if you think you have got the players to execute that particular system.

    Case in point; trying to throw numbers forward to win the ball back ,high up the pitch as soon as you concede possession ( especially when ahead in the game), which is something Flamini said the players were instructed to do, may not be the best option for Arsenal right now.

    We are missing our defensive linchpin of a CB in Koscielny , who normally is very mobile and can cover for the less mobile Mertesacker . But even when Kos was playing , he was suffering from tendonitis which had hampered his movements.

    What we have now is a make shift back line with a slow and over used, and by his own words ‘difficult to be motivated’ from not having a proper break from football , Mertesacker , playing along two other players in Monreal and Chambers( both out of their natural position) , trying to play defense high up the pitch.

    Neither Monreal or Mertesacker are comfortable at doing that , so consequently they instinctively drop off a bit deeper , while our attacking mid rushes forward to win the ball back ( as per Wenger’s instructions) , thus creating huge gaps in the middle of the park for opposition to play in.

    Our current line up is ill suited to executing Wenger’s tactics.

    About zonal marking.
    ‘There’s nothing wrong with zonal marking if you do it well ‘
    That’s only partially true. Zonal marking works best when combined with a few individual assignments for each game. Our tallest players mark their tallest players for example.

    I spoke about this before . You can’t have a situation where Alexis Sanchez marks the eleven inches taller Brede Hengeland during a corner kick from which we concede, while our tallest player occupies a position he thinks the’ ball is most likely to be played into’.

  11. UEFA ‘A’ is effectively Level 4. The Pro Licence is Level 5 (the highest).

    To achieve the licences you have to be coaching at a progressively higher level which makes it hard for those working in the “national” (i.e. non-pro) game to progress pass Level 2 – or Level 3 at best.

  12. I must admit I do not understand the zonal marking tactic that we use. You say that in one to one marking you give the attacker a head start. That is not my experience. Instead, with one to one, you both attack the ball. Because you are goal-side, you have the advantage of being in front of the attacker.

    With zonal marking, you will generally stationary, whilst the attacker is running. He has a massive advantage of a running jump.

    My humble opinion, having played extensively, although nowhere near elite level, is that aggressive one to one marking is more efficient. I was a short player but could generally keep attackers away from getting a clean header. I find our current system enables an awful lot of clean headers from attackers with advantage if a running jump.

  13. If there is one thing that it become more clearer after reading this article is that the tactic is all the same.No matter what, Away at Home European FA .Nothing changes and the coaches like Mourinho no wonder they are on top of Wenger.Easily predictable tactics .Same old same tactics and formulation with or without the quality players required for the system.
    This kind of tactics we have seen it with Barca in its full strength.Admitedly they ship goals but with continous interchange of their rich midfield inevitably they score a lot of goals and win games.

    Sir Alex said that Wenger has an immense belief of his youth.As fans seems to me are carried a lot with our Little gems.
    Any player has to show consistency for at least a couple of season in my opinion.

    The likes of Wilshere or Ramsey or the Ox are just one season wonder.Yes that is a brute true and i can see let alone to win games it si not even beautiful to watch.

    Arsene he can be a master of that technik but he don`t have the right player to Emulate Barca.

  14. Several competent teams operate zonal marking. I believe our goals conceded from corners last season was very low (look at the facts, not the media) just as was our number of points conceded from winning positions.

    A problem for Arsenal is that we are short. Typically only 3 or so good, tall headers of the ball. Therefore zonal marking where one covers the near post, one central and one at the far post is probably better than trying to match up 1:1 leaving two or three significant height mismatches.

    Also if zonal marking is done properly the defender should be able to get a running jump at the ball as well – a bit like cricketing fielders walking in as the ball is bowled.

  15. Tasos and Tom. Very good comments.

    Re: zonal marking. It is very successful however I am not a fan.

    I dislike it because Teams can match up their best headers with our weakest. Attackers already have the advantage of being able to get a ‘run’ on the ball, which in itself gains additional inches and power to static player. We aren’t the tallest team at the moment, so for me it doesn’t work.

    Re: Poor defence is a myth
    We must be very careful we don’t fall into the trap of believing everything that gets printed. Defensively we have let in just two goals less than Chelsea and one less than Man City, yet we can’t defend! It is a nonsense. We have lost two of our best defenders and currently have a makeshift centre half and right back, yet our defence is getting crucified. Complete nonsense.

    Defending is a team game. As I have stated for the last couple of days, I blame the behaviour of our players after we take a lead. There is a separate debate regarding whether to blame the manager, the players or a combination of the two. The tactical geniuses in the media, the pundits and the office or factory workers can make as many accusations as they like but the fact is these ‘geniuses’ claims can never be disproved. It is a load of BS to say we cannot defend.

  16. Could it be that zonal marking is right in free play (all or most teams in the world use this system).

    But wrong at set plays!!!!!!

    I have used both methods, and also semi-zonal.

    Which is the most effective…………….you tell me.

  17. Thanks Bob. I hope you can write some more when and if you can find the time 🙂

    “Unfortunately, a lot of people get misled by what they read in the Media.” Yup!

  18. @Bootoomee
    November 13, 2014 at 3:17 pm

    hahahahahahaha…good one…I am on the floor with that one liner – perfect fit!!

  19. I like this article, and hope Untold will keep tactical articles coming.

    Nice one Bob.

    All we need is a little discipline. We lose the game after conceeding with the lowest shot on our target. Any mistake we do we get punished, so this any should turn to no.

    Arteta to me is one of the most important players in the team, his form declined a little last yeae, still he came back. Just watch him, only him, in Anderlecht game and you know why Flamini struggle.its not easy to sub Mikel

  20. @Bootome
    I m not sad infact I am happy as things get clearer and clearer by the day.

    You seem sad to me.

  21. Excellent and informative Bob. As a retired professional referee I saw both zonal and man marking systems used in the pro game equally effectively BUT the zonal strategy seemed to suit the smaller, shorter teams much better as there was no question of trying to ¨follow¨ and combat an opponent who is much taller and stronger than you. That said, the combination of the two is, as you say, perhaps the best option for many professional teams.

  22. The problem as I see it is that Arteta does not have a capable backup. I think Arteta is a superb player for that role but what price a Cabaye to rotate with him. It would be too simplistic to say Arsenal lost a 3 goal lead against Anderlecht because Arteta got injured but his injury certainly hit them very hard. I get stick on this site for my criticism but I am a fan of Arsene. I just think that the squad could be improved and with Chelsea 12 points ahead less than 3 months into the season it’s difficult to deny that.

  23. A little late to the party on this but the problems we have had defending corners this year are down to not having Giroud, Kos, and Debuchy for much of the season. Case closed.

  24. I am really pleased with the positive interest in my article, thanks for that.

    It is my intention to do something on the forthcoming United fixture, and possibly a developmental tactical suggestion.

  25. Giroud and Kos are two of our most important players. Debuchy was growing in influence as well. Add ozil to the mix, things have not been good.

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