Arteta’s Unsolvable Puzzle – The Low Block

Arsenal have not scored a goal in the league this season from a losing position. The recipe to defeat Arteta’s Arsenal has been to go up a goal and to set up a low block. Most people will point to our lack of creativity and a #10 to be main contributors for why we cannot break down low block teams, but the truth is that a good low block generally negates your creative players from creating in those central positions.

Today, I offer three main ways to break down a low block:

1. Crosses into the box

2. Movement to pull defenders out of position (usually overlapping and underlapping runs)

3. Quick switches of play from one flank to another to create overloads

In order to do #1 effectively, you either need a target man (like Giroud) to capitalize or at least be a threat (we don’t have one) or swing in a mix of fast, low and early crosses before the defense is set (we don’t do this). The high, lofted crosses we are sending in are even difficult for a target man to slot home, as they rely on power and strength when heading to add pace to the cross.

Crosses into the box can also include cutbacks, which was the classic Emery specialty and something that Pep’s City teams often leverage for easy goals. However, we only used cutbacks on one occasion on Sunday and a dogged Laca could not get onto the end of the chance from Bellerin.

#2 only happens if you have an ultra-athletic midfield that understands the soft spots in the low block and how to capitalize on the half spaces (AMN is the only midfielder we have that can do this, along with Partey if he’s paired with a fairly mobile DM like Elneny).

#3 is a trained pattern of play that requires the player making an early, quick switch of play by sending the ball high to the opposite flank to begin an overload immediately before the defense can set itself. This is something Klopp’s Liverpool and Ancelotti’s Everton frequently do regardless of the low block, in order to create a numerical advantage in a dangerous attacking position.

As you can see, we have not been doing any of the above lately, which is why we have still not been able to solve this puzzle. Of course, having a world class creator that is confident and skilled enough to play those incisive passes in central areas helps, but your attacking players still need to make the correct runs to capitalize on those chances (our off ball movement is more or less non-existent most of the time). The irony is that the low block was exactly what Arteta employed last season to get results against the top sides and the futile high, lofted crossing was what Pep’s City resorted to once they could not break us down.

The answer then, is to coach your team on a combination of all three of the above, in order to provide some level of unpredictability in your attack. Liverpool, for instance, do #1, 2 and 3 exceptionally well, which allows them to often succeed against the low block. City do #1 and 2 well.

See the source image

Are there any solutions that I have missed? Which of the above do you think would be easiest for us to implement with the current pieces we have?

By Highbury Harmony

55 thoughts on “Arteta’s Unsolvable Puzzle – The Low Block

  • allezkev says:
    December 8, 2020 at 21:15
    Just seen some info regarding the Papa John Trophy and Arsenal lost 3-0 at AFC Wimbledon, having Tim Akinola and William Saliba sent off. That’s the bad news!

    The good news is the return of Gabriel Martinelli who played 45 minutes – now I wonder if he’ll go with the squad to Dundalk? 5 subs, a 15/20 minute cameo at the end of the tie perhaps?

    Cottrell and Azeez also both withdraw with possible their senior debuts in Ireland pending?

    Apparently Saliba was harshly treated by a very average referee but had played very well before his 2nd yellow card, from what I read he wins the ball and quickly moves to progress it with snappy passes. Positive…

    Akinola played well but then was dropped in it by the goalkeeper who playing out from the back put him in the brown stuff and he got sacked – which led to the first goal.
    Akinola then lost his composure and got himself sent off by the pedantic man in the middle, a case of youthful enthusiasm. Don’t worry, he’ll learn to be cynical, they all do.

    Finally for those older readers, Kenny Sansom has just had a brain operation and touch wood it seems to be that our old left back is on the mend. A bit of a tortured soul is our Kenny!

    Seems like only yesterday when I was watching him making his debut at the Hawthorns back in the days of disco and wide lapels. 🙂

  • Excellent footie brain-teaser, HH. I think I am indeed for doing a bit of all three, and I think the second option has the most leverage. My main point is that we need the numbers inside the box and outside the box to really hurt the opponent. We seldom have this and so it makes our attackers look poor etc. Arteta does not seem to dare to push up in the PL, and the way we conceded both goals on Sunday showed how vulnerable we are. There was so much space in midfield once we lost the ball in attack. Teams like Pool and Citeh dare to push up and hem the opponent in and that is paramount for creating opportunities either on the flanks or through the middle. The opponent needs to be solid everywhere and know that a chance can be created in a flash. Pool and Citeh create chaos and nervousness. We don’t.

    We just don’t have the numbers when we attack, but I saw some good combination football on our flanks in the second half and we can build on that. Tierney, Saka and Willian really tried everything.

    So would a creative midfielder like KdB make a big difference at Arsenal right now? Well other than his great individual qualities to score a goal, I still think he would struggle to improve us as a team until we dare to push up.

    What is needed to push up? For me that is three in midfield with two allround midfielders on the flanks and B2B in the middle. This B2B needs to score goals, 10-15 PL goals. Ideally they are all athletic but more important is that they read the game well and position in such a way that opponents’ counterattacks are quickly interrupted. It also means we need two very dynamic CBs and full backs who can run all day. I think it is fair to say we are missing a bit for that right now.

  • Tomorrow is a good game to watch. Ajax v Atalanta with all to play for. Ajax need to win and Atalanta will likely play with a low block. This will be very hard for Ajax but they will do all of your 3 options to crack the Italian panzer-positioning.

  • Will reply to HH’s thoughtful article later.
    But Manchester United will continue in the EL, even I cannot jinx that, as they are 3:0 down in the 72nd minute. Nevertheless the PSG:Istanbul game is interrupted due to the 4th official (from Romania) addressed a staff member from the Turkish side (to be sent off) in an allegedly racist manner, so Istanbul Basaksehir refused to keep playing. I don’t see how PSG could be penalized here, but anything can happen.

  • TA, some outstanding thoughts there and cheers for the kind words!

    I think committing more men forward is part of the solution, but Arteta needs to be less naive in his tactics too. For example, he sent Xhaka to the edge of the opponent’s box for the second goal and we were swiftly outdone on the counter – if there’s someone you’re committing, please play some one who can recover! Xhaka did his very best to get back (he was running very hard), but Arteta needs to do a better job of putting his players in a position to succeed. More numbers in attack does mean more athletic players that can sprint back OR ones that can intercept play exceptionally well in the opposition’s half. For some reason, we hardly ever strategically foul anymore too!

    You can strategically commit men forward, especially in option #3. Have them create numerical advantages in dangerous positions that don’t leave you open for a counter. If Arteta can find that balance, then hopefully things will improve. However, we’ve rarely seen switches of play unless it’s from David Luiz (the odd occasion from our CMs).

    Completely agreed that a KDB could only do so much with the current tactics we employ. It’s a more systemic problem that we have in attack that cannot be isolated down to needing one player.

  • Yeah JW, I wonder if the switch to the back four, before the midfield has been properly upgraded, was the wise choice although that’s the way Mikel wants to go.

    Maitland Niles can bring legs to that zone but I’m not sure that Arteta trusts him – yet?

  • Good post HH, I saw someone comment that the best way to put crosses into the box is to drive them in at an angle from just outside the 18 yard box, according to them it’s more difficult for defenders and goalkeepers to clear and for forwards it’s easier as you just need to flick it on and use the trajectory of the cross to carry the ball home rather than try to head home a cross coming in from almost the byeline as was the case with Aubameyang who struggled with direction and accuracy.

  • Thanks HH and all agreed. Pushing up is hard to do and at the moment we just don’t have the right structure and discipline to make it work. I guess that is where Arteta needs time with the team.

  • HH, I also would like to see us getting a good in the air, ‘holding’ CF. I am still annoyed at Wenger for letting Giroud go. The thought of an attack of Auba-Giroud-Pepe makes me instantly happy…. But the damage was done a few years ago.

  • Kev, spot on on about the crosses. There are many types of crosses, but for some reason, we have only persisted with high, lofted ones that have the lowest probability of going in the net! For example, Liverpool send in plenty of crosses – the difference is those crosses have a lot of pace and are whipped in fast and/or early, often perfectly timed to the runs of their attacking players (it is something that is practiced and trained).

    They don’t have great headers of the ball, but if you practice the timing and delivery enough in training, you will certainly start to flick some in and your attacking players will understand the timing eventually.

  • TA, the next Giroud like player in waiting that we’ve been linked to is Wout Weghorst from Wolfsburg, who would be a fine Dutch addition to our squad 🙂

    Never understood why we bought another striker when we had Lacazette and the best plan B striker in the game in Giroud. Though the incoherent transfer strategy we’ve seen these past 5-7 years is another article all to itself.

  • I also want to give a shout out to Nikolaj Moller aka the next Ibra that has been outstanding in our academy and won PL2 player of the month. That said, I don’t want to pile too much onto another 18 year old and Weghorst could hold over the role for a few years until Moller’s ready.

  • Weghorst is the type of backup striker that Arsenal should be signing. He’s essentially a faster Giroud 🙂 He’s a big reason why Wolfsburg have been able to perform at the level they’ve been at the past few seasons and he’s very underappreciated by those outside of the Bundesliga.

    If we’re offering contracts to older players (he’s 28), it shouldn’t be high wages for what they’re producing right now, but for what they will produce over the life of that contract. That’s why Chelsea never hand out big contracts to players over 30. Weghorst is the perfect type of Plan B striker to invest in say 50-70k/week wages.

  • You see HH, that is the difference with Ajax: if you are good enough you are old enough. Moller just seems to fills need, and why have him on the bench at least?!

  • TA just a glimpse into Weghorst’s stats this year and the last two seasons:

    2020-21: 10 games, 7 goals, 1 assist
    2019-20: 32 games, 16 goals, 3 assists
    2018-19: 34 games, 17 goals, 7 assists

  • Ajax are a club that can maybe take more risks and have established themselves as a destination where you can develop and become a star at bigger clubs. Arsenal have no real identity as a club right now and unfortunately that impacts player progression and recruitment.

    I would love to poach some executives from Dortmund, Ajax, Red Bull and Chelsea that actually know how to run a football club!!!

  • Thanks HH.
    Some good observations here– and not sure if this has been mentioned. I like the idea of crossing as staple of attack. However. If we are going to continue to put them in from 15yds to the goal line and closer– we’ll need more height. We don’t have the type of players who score from heading much– Laca excepted (where even he’s seemed to lose his knack).

    Where Pool excels– is in having Robertson and AA put theirs in from 20-25yds upfield. The angle lends itself to dropping a ball in an area– that can be one-touched or volleyed. When they don’t like what they see– the ball goes middle for a shorter ball-over-top from Henderson or Wijnaldum. And now they have Jota– who frequently finds a shot on goal at 18 or a drive through the defense. Sublime first touches and close control by Mane and Salah (and Jota) makes the tactic so dangerous. Arsenal are compressing the attack in far too closely to the goal– for crossing to give our front line a chance to use their feet. Tierney (left) and Saka (right) need to be our crossers at range. Willian would be deft in that middle role.

    Needs to be more space in the box by getting our crosses off a bit further upfield– from a less acute angle.


  • JW, yes correct mate. That’s what I was trying to get across and hopefully Arteta understands that there’s more than one type of cross!

    Pool send theirs in fast, early, cutbacks, low, high etc. There’s a lot of variety in the timing, the position and the speed. My fear is that Arteta is beating a dead horse at this point and that he won’t adapt his tactics…

  • HH, nice job, strong post to try and analyze the problem. I always feel there’s a chance when some one fizzes a ball hard into or near the 6 yard box. That’s when I worry if it’s our box. The weak lobbed crosses we’re attempting almost never worry me. Low ones always create havoc, own goals, more likely corners than high ones, tricky rebounds and ricochets that can be put in. I don’t want to improve our crossing though, not as much as I want us playing football again. We look so out of ideas with 40 crosses per game. Don’t you think opposing coaches are aware and prepare for it, when they look at our previous matches? Makes it even less likely to succeed it they know what’s coming.

    Another great point HH on Xhaka being played too far advanced to be able to recover for counters. This was how Wenger ruined him at first. Against this Mourinho counter attacking team in such great form, I would not have even started Xhaka, let alone try possession football against them.

    On the mention of AMN in midfield, TA and I have been hinting that we want to see it for many weeks, especially with Partey and Elneny out. Apparently Mikel doesn’t like it.

    Kev and Total also mentioned Martinelli as possibly being big for us, but Arteta hardly used him previously, still doesn’t use Nelson enough and the Europa group stage is ending, so probably less time for them. Will he have to justify signing Willian?

    Many of us are in agreement about these things. We don’t have all the answers of course, but we give some good suggestions.

  • I think we should have Nikloj on bench just for plan B and encourage our midfielders to take shots from outside the D as well . That’s another way to penetrate low block. We hardly do that and I agree with negatives of sending someone like Xhaka to overload. He should be in front of CB and protect them all the time.

  • TA, the Dutch team has great defenders – probably even better than the Frank de Boer and Jaap Stam times – and some quality midfielders too (but not in the quantity of the Cocu-Davids-Seedorf or the Rijkaard-Gullit-Wouters era, as I vouch for F. de Jong and van de Beek, but Klaasen and Wijnaldum are slightly beyond that level for me), but I don’t think that only a van Nistelrooy, Kluivert, or van Persie type of finishing striker is missing there. I can’t see the Robben/Overmars-type reinforcements from the wing or the Bergkamp/Sneijder quality in attacking midfield either. And is there a van Breukelen / van der Saar quality goalkeeper in the Oranje for the last 10 years?

  • HH, this was a great piece of analysis. I agree with your points (including the caveat from the comments that both high and low crosses are more dangerous if players are running into the box in waves – in a counterattack – than against static, already present and almost always man-marked attackers in the box). I only disagree that we need ultra-athletic midfielders for #2. I think the current Arsenal squad is capable to do #2, but we are not doing it enough. I’ve seen Tierney and Saka creating overlaps and cutting in the box (without the quality final ball, but that is a different topic), but Bellerin and Pepe had some promising moments, too. I think the technical skills and some space could do the trick. We don’t need different profile players to execute #2 (while we definitely don’t have the tall central striker for #1), we just have to focus on it more, than maximizing the quantity of crosses to the box, which is an outdated strategy in English football, not entertaining to see, and not efficient either.

  • PB, you are a watcher of the Dutch team then?

    Defence if all are fit is indeed great, midfield is very strong and Klaassen is much better than vd Beek. Wijnaldum is also very good but the team will be build around Frenkie. This boy is amazing. Depay is a Robben like special player and there a few youngsters knocking on the door, like Malen. Once again. Unfortunately we don’t have a Van Basten or Van Nistrltooy in attack which puts all the pressure on Depay at the moment.

  • I have to admit that I don’t (can’t) watch the Dutch team as often as I did when Begkamp and Kluivert or the van Persie-Sneijder-Robben trio were playing, but I’m still a die hard follower. If I cannot get a live stream I always watch the highlights. Probably that’s why I’m less found about Klaasen and Wijnaldum as their values are rarely pictured in the goal videos. But I did felt about Donny when he was playing for Ajax that he has no improvement ceiling and could become the Sneijder of the next generation. Too bad that his development has halted. But he is just 23, let’s nor bury him just yet. (I think he could have been a great signing for us, but I have already wrote about it.)
    I have high hopes for the next generation: the Alkmaar trio of Koopmeiners, Stengs and Boadu are very exciting (and I won’t stop demanding that we sign the former), and the Ajax contingent of Gravenberch, Schuurs, Ekkelenkamp are equally promising too. (Maybe even Scherpen whom I have never seen play, but he is huge.) Not to mention Kluivert, Malen and Zirkzee, who already have some hype around them. If they can team up with de Jong, de Light, van de Beek in a possibly post-Depay and post-VvD era they can to great things

  • There is indeed time for vd Beek but Klaassen has been so good since returning to Ajax (and the Dutch national team), exactly the sort of player we could have done with. Gravenberch is the big talent of the three you mentioned. The AZ players are good but not sure whether they would make it at Arsenal.

  • Morning all, don’t forget to make your predictions.

    Wolves v Villa
    Newcastle v W.B.A
    Man U v Man C
    Everton v Chelsea
    Arsenal v Burnley
    Real Madrid v Atletico Madrid

  • Morning GN5ho

    Wolves v Villa: H
    Newcastle v W.B.A: H
    Man U v Man C: D
    Everton v Chelsea: D
    Arsenal v Burnley: H
    Real Madrid v Atletico Madrid: H

  • PB, good points and additions! For #2 to work, you do need ultra athletic CMs to make it work, but let me explain why.

    Overlapping and underlapping runs from wide areas often do not pull the low block defenders out of position. You can make all the runs out wide that you want, but the problem will be that the space there will continue to be given to you.

    Now, if the overlapping and underlapping runs come from your CMs, in addition to the wingers drifting centrally, it creates overloads in those central positions to pull defenders out of position, while also leaving freedom out wide for the fullbacks. Essentially, you want to drag the central low block out of position and the best way to do that is from central movement.

    Of course, none of the movement matters of you don’t have players that can make the passes to hit those runners or the interplay is not intuitive enough between the players to break down teams 🙂

  • Madhu, who from the current ST would you remove from the league match day squad for Moller? As much as I would like him there, I wonder what kind of message it would send to say Eddie or Balogun if Moller made the bench before them!

  • Here goes GN5

    Wolves vs Aston Villa… H
    Newcastle vs W.B.A…… H
    Man Utd vs Man City…. A
    Everton vs Chelsea…….. D
    Arsenal vs Burnley…….. H
    Real M vs Atletico M….. H

  • Good point HH, this is a bit left field but I’d do it this way in Dundalk.

    I’d start Aubameyang through the middle and give him an hour, hopefully he would get a couple of goals and get himself out of this rut.
    On either side I’d have Balogun and Nelson.

    On the bench I’d have Moller and Martinelli if he’s fit enough, if he’s not I’d have Eddie and tell him anyway that he’s being held back for the big games in the Premier League and domestic cups.

    I’d then substitute as and when in an effort the give Martinelli minutes in his legs and experience to Moller.

  • Mari, Chambers, Kolasinac, Soares back four.

    Cottrell, Elneny, Willock midfield.

    Switch Azeez for Cottrell later in the game as the Irish get tired.

    Having only three subs is really stupid in this competition the authorities have messed this up big time.

  • I think I understand your point, HH. But what do you mean under ‘athletic’? Do they have to be speedy for frequent lightning-fast sprints (like Bellerin and Nelson)? Or muscular as they have to engage in body vs. body fights to disposition defenders (like Willock, AMN and Xhaka)? Or do you mean they need an incredible stamina as they have to be running a lot (possibly bot-to-box like Saka or Tierney)?

  • It would be too early for Martinelli in Ireland for fitness-wise, but as far as I remember he wasn’t included on the EL-list (as he was expected to return only in January), so we have to wait until the knock-out stages to see him in Europe.
    I expect the Nelson-Nketiah-Pepe attacking trio, with the 2 wingers swapping places to confuse defenders. Willock or ESR can play AM, as it did work out in Europe. I would also rather see Cottrell or even Azeez in midfield, but only as a sub as they both played 78 minutes yesterday. I think Arteta will go with the Kolasinac-Mari-Chambers-Soares back four (as he absolutely should) and in midfield we will see AMN, Elneny and one of Willock, ESR or Ceballos. But it is still possible that he will go again with the 4-4-2 (just to piss me off), but maybe Auba could get the confidence-boosting nod ahead of Lacazette. Still, my money is on the 4-3-3.

  • Very good question PB, by ultra athletic, I mean fast and endurance, not so much strong.

    However, you can’t just move without intelligence, otherwise you will just by occupying the space of others in the same zone/running around like a headless chicken and wasting energy. AMN, for example, understands where to position himself with his movement, which efficiently opens up space for players like Auba and Tierney on the left and also for himself to receive the ball in the half spaces where he can turn and attack the defense.

  • Interesting line-up thoughts Kev. This match is really difficult to gauge in terms of starting lineups. Auba needs confidence and to get going, but I would hate to see that happen at the expense of some of our youth getting a run out.

    If one of Balogun or ESR are not in the starting 11, I will likely be very disappointed. We have such an inflated squad that it’s definitely possible that they don’t start unfortunately. Guys like Eddie, Joe and AMN also need to play so it’s a difficult balance.

    I’m predicting a 4-2-3-1 for tomorrow. Likely a back four of Cedric-Mustafi-Mari-Kolasianc, a midfield pivot of AMN-Elneny, Nelson-ESR-Pepe in front of the pivot, and Eddie up top. Balogun to likely come on as a sub for hopefully more than 10 mins for once, and potentially some appearances for Azeez and Cottrell.

  • HH–
    I’d be disappointed too if ESR isn’t central to Arteta’s plans. He’s one guy, who, if he were to take the next leap forward now– could propel the team’s style in positive ways. Feel that about Martinelli as well. Those two– healthy– with game time? Seems the quickest way to change the attack.


  • JW agreed on both accounts. I too want to be cautious with Martinelli and would prefer we integrated him back in slowly. Our track record with rushing players back from injury has not been good lately (Luiz and Partey) and the last thing we need is another layoff for such a promising talent.

    And for ESR, he is just too smooth!

  • PB/HH yeah, you’re probably right about Martinelli, it’s a shame ascthe next game he can play in the U23’s is the 18th Dec. C’est la vie..

    Smith Rowe and Pepe, I’d forgotten all about them, yeah they’re bound to start.

    Where is our resident Gallic Professor?

  • Pb your lineup and suggestions make a lot of sense. Almost exactly as I’d do it. I’m not worried about the forwards, strikers, because so many options. I just want to see young guys play that haven’t had the minutes. Very important though, who gets the role of #10. It’s an urgent need for us, so we should focus on auditions for now and future.

  • Lots of transfer rumours flying around the past little while.

    Szoboszlai – Teams wanting to pay the release clause will need to provide the funds to Szoboszlai by Tuesday, December 15. He has until December 31 to make his decision on what club to join.

    Leon Bailey – Arsenal apparently scouting him ahead of a potential summer move. I don’t see this one happening, but if it did, it would mean the end for Pepe.

    Emi Buendia – Josh Kroenke is rumoured to only be willing to sanction moves for PL proven players this January and Buendia is high on the list. Third most chances created last season and highest % of chances created for his team. He’s been comfortably outperforming Aouar on every CM metric (tackles, interceptions, pressures, dribble success %, yards progressed, passes into the final third, shot creating actions and expected assists) with the exception of pass completion %.

    Yves Bissouma – More of an interest at this point since Arteta wants to revamp his midfield entirely. We also need more than just one CM (Partey) that allows us to play a back four. He reminds me a lot of Mousa Dembele, who was a critical figure for Spurs for years. Bissouma and Partey could boss prem midfields for years.

    Maxi Gomez – Valencia are cash strapped and willing to sell in January, with Arsenal and Wolves eyeing the situation.

    Houssem Aouar – Fabrizio Romano believes Arsenal will wait to see if Szobozslai chooses us first and will pivot quickly to Aouar again if Szobozslai signs elsewhere. Will be a difficult transfer to complete since it’s with Lyon and would be a risky investment if it doesn’t work out (see Pepe, Laca etc.).

  • We are in full agreement, J.
    The question about #10 is indeed critical, not only tomorrow but in general.
    I devoted a post about it 9 months ago, when I recommended Emile Smith-Rowe for the role:

    I’m not saying Arteta is against this, but he is a much conservative manager than Wenger or Emery when it comes to team selection. It’s not that he doesn’t have the balls to pack the team full of academy players, rather he learned from Guardiola, not to have too many youngsters on the pitch at the same time. It seems that Mikel finds it too early for ESR to start a game (it has nothing to do with his injury in September-October) which might be justified from the ‘field an experienced strong team’ priority point of view, but let’s not forget that Emery played with ESR, Willock, Nketiah, Guendouzi and AMN in the starting line-up more than 2 years (!) ago, when only the latter was over 20:

    I would also prefer to see ESR start. I just don’t think that will happen tomorrow, as it didn’t happen last week.

  • HH, let’s make a post out of it between the EL game and our Sunday clash against Burnley. This is becoming a major topic, maybe even too important to discuss here…

  • Excellent comments by all. I think it’s clear that Mikel has some challenges ahead of him and from this weekend seven key games will offer him an opportunity to turn things round this month. Let’s see which changes he will make.

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