The high line

Quick post before the weekend’s games.

One thing I’ve seen developing over the last few months is Arsenal’s high line. More than once against Everton in the last match and also against Man City and other teams who looked to sit back and hit Arsenal on the counter, I’ve seen both the Arsenal center backs in the opposition half. In addition, we are also seeing much more advanced positions for Zinchenko in midfield (in addition to floating more on the left and right) and Granit Xhaka, who tends to be camped on the opposition 18 yard line quite often.

This observation isn’t a critique per se. Most teams will do this from time to time and it’s a normal function of trying to win a game. The real question is whether the team can switch from attack to defense quickly enough, press high to slow down counters, foul when needed, and ultimately get back into a defensive posture or chase and shut down the counter attacking players.

According to Whoscored’s “counter attacking goals allowed” metric Arsenal have only allowed 1 counter attacking goal this season (and scored 4). I remember asking them their definition and it was incredibly narrow (such as within a certain number of seconds after a corner or free kick) and feel like my intuitive sense of what a counter attacking goal suggests that we have allowed more goals than just the one.

But the high line has contributed to several high profile goals this season: two against Man U and one against Liverpool come to mind. And there have been a lot of close calls as well, Everton made a couple of good chances against Arsenal in the first 40 minutes of Wednesday’s match, Brentford too advantage of the space Arsenal left open, and even Spurs in losing to us 2-0 had quite a few good chances.

The type of attacking is a calculated gamble. If you want to win games, you have to attack but you can’t do so with reckless abandon. Guardiola of course knows this and his teams have structures in place to make sure that they can defend the inevitable counter attacks. Last season, Man City were well known for their fouling in potential countering situations. Arsenal also have a system in place, which relies on pressing up top with a rapid defensive response which often relies on the speed and intuition of Gabriel and especially William Saliba.

I both like that we play high up the pitch and I also hate it! I understand why Arteta’s doing this and frankly it takes courage to attack with all 10 outfield players in the opposition’s half or having your left back play RCM. The trick is to be brave, play on the front foot, but also make sure you can clean up on aisle 6 when there’s a spill.

Given Arsenal’s defensive record (3rd best xGA, 2nd fewest goals against, 2nd most clean sheets) I’d say that Arteta’s formula is working so far. We just need it to keep going.



  1. Having big gabi, saliba, and partey as the cb/dm trio makes playing with that high line feasible as a title-contending strategy i’d say. They can mop up the spills quite well.

    It’s not just on them though, as you note – a team needs all its players to, after losing the ball, focus immediately on getting it back asap while preventing the opposition from doing anything with it. Our forward players have been excellent in this regard for most of the season. I still would love to see tomiyasu get a real run at rb, people are forgetting how stupendous he was last year and i’d feel even more secure with him in than i do with benny blanco.

    But we saw the difference partey coming on made. He just smothered anything everton tried to do to break out, and then not only kept the ball superbly but used it well and so quickly to unsettle them. Jorginho has been pretty decent so far overall (glad we got him at this point after initial skepticism), but we saw several times where he just doesn’t have the physicality and quickness to give arsenal the same level of security or control.

    And it would be the same if we had to play holding at cb – this risks of this system are directly correlated with the qualities of the personnel being used. As long as we have #5 playing the 6, our forward players showing defensive intensity and positional intelligence, and 3 from big gabi, saliba, white, and tomi playing at the back, we should be good with this style.

  2. Everyone has a plan…until they get punched in the face — Iron Mike Tyson

    I dare say Arteta has a plan, has communicated that plan, and has won buy-in from the players for that plan.

    Let’s see how it holds up.

    Win the next match!

  3. Saliba, especially, has insane speed, which is one reason why White hasn’t even sniffed RCB all season. You can give the ball carrier a 10 yard advantage on him and he’d catch him. Him versus Martinelli in training must be fun.

    Remember Jesus exposing Gabriel on halfway line in a game against City a couple of seasons ago and getting him sent off? I wonder what the stats are for teams playing a high line against him and Martinelli.

  4. Many Wenger teams played an absolutely suicidal high line which got punished on the counter time and again. It was horrific.

    This team is nothing like those teams. We (mostly) don’t panic when robbed of possession, and have the composure and speed to adjust, track back and counter-press. We had a silly cheer for our basketball team in college:
    “Harass them, harass them, make them relinquish the ball!”

    We can absolutely clean up the spill in aisle 6 and keep pushing for goals and the 3 points as we are proving this season.

    As Mike Tyson also said: “Motherf#$ker, I’m going to f$%k up your s%$t”. That’s us.

    1. I remember those days. Both fullbacks push up, CBs high, caught out time and again..and Wenger never seemed to learn. Ugh, pain.

      1. Not just the CBs, but Bellerin and Sagna bombing up the side, crossing into the box, only for the opposition to ping back possession, hoof it over the midfield to catch us out because we had 7 players in the box and 1 lonely DM to chase the on-rushing, inevitable goal-scorer.

        1. It was always risk but the real downfall of that strategy was when we no longer had elite athletes to cover back. Clichy was an elite athlete. Ditto Sagna. Flamini had an incredible motor. Kolo Toure was an athletic marvel in his prime. Koscielny, wow, that dude could fly, so quick with his feet too. Even Eboue was a solidly built speed merchant.

          I don’t know how or why but we started to accumulate less and less physically robust players in those positions. I can’t wrap my head around it really. It wasn’t a money thing, we just kept buying players who didn’t suit our football. Debuchy, Santos, Mustafi, Chambers, Holding, Sokratis, Kolasinac, Mertesacker; these players were not equipped for that style of play. Gibbs was but he never developed offensively. Bellerin was quick but actually declined physically for some reason in his mid 20s and never developed defensively. Mustafi came the closest but he was still too slow and had the fatal error gene.

          Tierney was such a revelation when we signed him because he was a throwback to that elite level of physicality, and could play offensively too. Arsenal hadn’t had a FB like that since Ashley Cole. Arteta immediatley began signing athletic marvels like Thomas Partey, Gabriel Magellan, Takehiro Tomiyasu and Benjamin White. All of them tall, aggressive, anticipate well and quick on the first step and over the ground. That’s the standard you need to play a high line.

          1. True, sidenote though I wonder why we can’t score directly from setpieces anymore, and thought it was a lack of height..

      2. I think it’s unfair to say he didn’t learn. He knew what he wanted to do and did it pretty much exactly how he wanted for the better part of 20 years. He was, I think, quite the gambler. He mentions his addictive personality a lot and I think part of his football addition was a sort of “smart gambler” addiction. He knew that if we played high up the pitch the odds were in his favor and we would win enough games to stay top four and that he might even put together a title run or two. That’s exactly what he did until the last couple seasons when world football started catching up to him and used more elaborate understandings of the games to beat his kind of simple system on a more regular basis.

        1. I just dont understand the recruitment. It was flat out awful. Wrong profiles time after time.

    2. Wenger’s teams were imbalanced in a lot of ways.

      1. both fullbacks all the way up. How many times did we see a fullback cross the ball to another fullback in the box? Arteta RARELY does this because…
      2. Wenger played a back 2 in attack, Arteta plays a back three
      3. Wenger also played most games with a lone pivot (Arteta, Fabregas, etc.) while Arteta plays a box midfield
      4. Wenger also notoriously disliked playing with a robust physical DM, which is ironic because his best teams had one and his invincibles had two (yeah yeah yeah, Vieira wasn’t a DM, I know)
      5. But probably the biggest crime is that Wenger’s teams sucked at and rarely pressed up top. I lost count of how many times one of the attacking players would lose the ball and no one would press.
      6. And we weren’t great in transition going back. We ran forward like it was down hill and back like it was up hill.
      7. And Wenger’s sides often hung center backs out to dry. It took extraordinary speed and intelligence to play CB in a Wenger side because they were exposed in 1 v. 1 and 1 v. 2 situations so often.

      1. What I keep seeing from this team, that I did not from Wenger teams is an organized response to losing the ball.

        When the other team wins the ball this team knows what to do.

        I’d say that counter pressing was one of the biggest innovations coming out of the early Pep Barca teams. German teams (especially Klopp) refined the idea even further.

        And that counter press is what protects us against fast and dangerous transitions.

      2. He liked to fool the opponents remember? I interpret it as countering the counterattacks lol. Fabregas-era games were always entertaining to watch, even if we didn’t win.

  5. “foul when needed”

    Do you believe in fouling as a legitimate tactic? I think intentional fouls should be deterred and punished more harshly as totally outside the spirit of the game.

    BTW I’ve been following for years (decade maybe???) and you are and remain the best Arsenal blog, so cheers!

    1. EZ, I don’t think you would find too many Gooners to disagree with you in spirit, but good luck with that.

      How are you going to stop Saka if you’re Stoke in a Cup match? Kick him to pieces is how you’re going to try, and most likely (to your point) get away with most of it, most of the time.

      Real refereeing on this will take a sea change in PL and I’m all for it.

  6. Nelsooooonnnnn!!!! What a game. Off the bench, assist for the equalizer and then last minute winner!!!! That’s the second time this season he super subbed and turned the game around. Big game player!!!!!

  7. In an AirBnB in Colorado, and probably everyone in the building heard me when that shot from Nelson went in.
    This is the kind of thing that wins titles. For a team this young to have this much belief and never give up spirit…
    Could do with Jesus coming back pretty soon though. The attacking ranks are starting to look more than a little thin. Hopefully whatever happened to Trossard and Nketiah isn’t too long term, or Saka and Martinelli are going to get no rest.

    1. Nelson has had 3 goals 2 assists this season with a goal contribution every 17 minutes. Would be interesting to see what his xGoals looks like now. Arsenal still has depth.

      More crucial is to get ESR back into fitness and form. Was horribly exposed yesterday.

  8. Three wins – all different – in the space of a week, seven days. This is how you need to do it.

  9. This was the classic trap game. Big result mid week, 3 days later at home to a bottom feeder. Easy to look past it, to not be at your best, switch off… and that’s what Arsenal did right from the whistle. Unforgivable stuff defensively. Then we’re facing a deep block buoyed with extra motivation and belief. The pattern of the game was set and never changed. That’s how you get 17 corners, 800 passes and 31 shots in one game.

    You never want to go 1-0 down or especially 2-0 down, but the way that Arsenal managed to win this game despite that adversity will do more for belief and confidence than if we had hung a straightforward 3-0 on them like in the reverse fixture. The emotional release from everybody was immense. These moments are iconic and the players will remember it next time they are facing adversity. They’ll believe they’re never out of it, even more than they already did after late winners at Villa and against MU. What’s more the fans will too and their fervent encouragement will only intensify, even from losing positions. That’s powerful.

    There were some interesting tactical angles I want to get into with Fabio in particular but for now I just want to celebrate Reiss Nelson. That’s the second time this season that he’s saved us and he has just authored a genuinely iconic moment that we will remember for years, even if we don’t win the title. It wasn’t just the late winner but the cross for Ben White’s equalizer too. He changed this game and that’s no mean feat for a peripheral figure just back from injury. Thank you Reiss, we love you.

  10. Awesome win yesterday, couldn’t watch it ‘live’ due to lack of TV coverage in the UK. Spent hours after catching up all reactions, highlights, etc.

    Just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, ManU served up a treat. Wow, a hiding for the ‘Quadruple chasers’.

  11. Morning gooners…

    I was busy this weekend, and contrived to miss both our GOTS and the United mauling. There are times that post match highlights simply wont do. I so want to feel what you guys felt watching that high drama from this special team of ours. How much does team spirit account for? Because that Arsenal team has it in spades. I must have watched videos of Nelson’s goal celebrations one hundred times.

    I carry on a bit about two-footedness to the point of probably boring you, but remember that Reiss Nelson is right footed. What a sweet strike with his left. Ditto Saka, who scores with both feet. Ditto Martinelli. Ditto Saliba.

    Reiss’ and Saliba’s were both against Bournemouth. They must wonder at the odds of two right-pegged Arsenal players hitting it, left footed, from the edge of the box.

    Ah, the beautiful game.

    Remember Pepe, painfully, trying to transfer every shooting chance to his left, which the chance is gone. better analysts say why, but there’s an instinctiveness to our play.

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