Mikel Arteta has an Arsenal problem all of his own making ahead of derby day against Tottenham


“And Arsenal have done it again, victims of their own downfall,” the BT Sport commentator declared after Olympiacos equalised on Thursday night.

To those who have watched Arsenal this year, it was no surprise that this was the second instance of a silly goal which stemmed from playing out from the back in the last week.

Both Granit Xhaka and Dani Ceballos committed cardinal sins, their turnovers leading directly to goals against Burnley and Olympiacos respectively.

Thanks to a stooping Gabriel Magalhaes header and Mohamed Elneny thunderbolt, the latter’s error likely won’t matter, with Arsenal holding a 3-1 lead over Olympiacos ahead of next week’s second leg.

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But Xhaka’s error cost the Gunners two precious points in the Premier League and his blunder continued a run of poor goals conceded because of individual mistakes.

Mikel Arteta has made it clear that he will continue to play in this manner. He wants Arsenal to play out from the back, and in surveying the successful teams in world football over the past decade, it is clear that very few are incapable of dealing with the ball under pressure in their own defensive third.

From Bayern Munich to Barcelona, Manchester City to Liverpool, all build out from the back capably, even when put under pressure.

For those reasons, Arteta’s insistence in playing this way is vindicated, but it’s clear that the players are struggling to execute as required. A concern with Tottenham on the horizon this Sunday and Jose Mourinho no doubt acutely aware of such issues.

But of the two recent mistakes, who really is to blame? Is it Bernd Leno, who in both instances provided the midfielders with seemingly unhelpful passes that put them in trouble?

Or is it Ceballos and Xhaka, who are the ones ultimately responsible for losing the ball?

We analysed the footage to find out.

Let’s start with Chris Wood’s inadvertent hip finish last weekend. It starts with the following situation:

Bernd Leno receives the ball for Arsenal vs Burnley
Bernd Leno receives the ball for Arsenal vs Burnley

As you can see from the figure above, Leno receives the ball with only two realistic options: clear the ball long or pass the ball into Xhaka, who smartly makes a run deep into his penalty area to provide a viable option for Leno to pass to.

Leno chooses to play the ball into Xhaka – but notice the way in which the pass is played.

Instead of passing the ball to Xhaka’s left side, closer to where Wood is standing, he plays it slowly and slightly to Xhaka’s right side.

The pass often tells the receiver what to do with the ball, and that is the case here: Leno is telling Xhaka to play the pass first-time with his right foot, passing the ball past Wood and to one of the three Arsenal players in space at the top of the picture.

You can see the pass that Xhaka should play below:

Granit Xhaka receives the ball for Arsenal vs Burnley
Granit Xhaka receives the ball for Arsenal vs Burnley

Xhaka, though, takes a touch. He is notoriously left-foot dominant and, from his approach to the ball, he looks hesitant, lacking the confidence to play the ball first-time, a more difficult skill than controlling the ball first.

Xhaka knows that he must find David Luiz – and that is the pass that he eventually plays – but the touch to control the ball allows Wood to re-position, close off the passing lane, intercept and score.

BURNLEY, ENGLAND - MARCH 06: A dejected Granit Xhaka of Arsenal reacts at full time during the Premier League match between Burnley and Arsenal at Turf Moor on March 6, 2021 in Burnley, United Kingdom. Sporting stadiums around the UK remain under strict restrictions due to the Coronavirus Pandemic as Government social distancing laws prohibit fans inside venues resulting in games being played behind closed doors. (Photo by Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images)
Granit Xhaka committed a cardinal sign in Arsenal’s 1-1 draw with Burnley last weekend

Crucially, though, the lane for Xhaka to find Luiz was there. This was a relatively easy pass for a holding midfielder to make, and Leno provided him with the perfect pass to do so.

It was simply poor execution on Xhaka’s part.

Now, let’s consider the Ceballos situation. This is the position that Leno receives the ball:

Bernd Leno receives the ball for Arsenal vs Olympiacos
Bernd Leno receives the ball for Arsenal vs Olympiacos

This time, he has three options. The first, like against Burnley, is to clear the ball. As Arteta has repeatedly said, however, Arsenal will not play this way.

The second is to take a touch to his right and find Luiz, who is moving further wide to make an angle for the pass to be played.

The final option is to play the ball inside to Ceballos in a very similar action to the Xhaka pass.

The key difference between these two situations is the position of the player closing Leno down.

Wood takes a wider angle, meaning that the pass directly to Luiz is never available.

The Olympiacos attacker is stood much narrower, meaning it takes him less time to close down Ceballos – should Leno choose that pass – and opens up an angle to play the ball directly to Luiz.

Leno, though, chooses Ceballos.

This is the position that Ceballos receives the ball in:

Dani Ceballos receives the ball for Arsenal vs Olympiacos
Dani Ceballos receives the ball for Arsenal vs Olympiacos

As you can see, there is no available pass to Luiz. The Olympiacos attacker’s body weight was such that he could quickly change direction and close down the Spaniard, and while Ceballos’ first touch is extremely poor, as he tried to skip by the pressure, he has nowhere to go, no passes to play, no options to use.

Leno puts Ceballos in trouble, and Ceballos pays the price. In the first instance, Leno gave Xhaka an easy out-ball for Arsenal to relieve pressure, but Xhaka was unable to execute.

Arteta’s comments in his post-match press conference helped illuminate the difference.

“To discriminate the decision making and when it has to be done is what dictates in the next action whether you are successful or not,” he said after the Olympiacos error.

“But it is not about stopping or discouraging the team not to play, we just have to understand when to do it and that’s crucial.”

He added: “It is just understanding the risk and rewards, the balls we have to play and as I said before, when.”

Essentially, Leno has to correctly determine when to play.

After the Burnley game, however, Arteta said this: “We did it usually with Bernd trying to use the holding midfielder in that situation and we scored a goal with Auba, all the way from Bernd Leno.

“We conceded one [other] chance and that chance comes from Bernd Leno deciding to kick the ball long and we could not control the second ball with an open structure. It’s what it is, it’s the way that we play and the way that I want to play.

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“We just have to know the risk and the rules that we have in certain areas in terms of the type of balls we have to play. But it is what it is.”

Arteta blames the execution, not the decision-making.

As the head coach has reiterated time and again, he will insist that his team continues to play in this manner.

It is now down to the players – Xhaka, Leno and Ceballos – to prove that they can, starting with Sunday’s north London derby against Tottenham.





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