Michael Cox: White’s role change to sixth attacker swung the derby for Arsenal
Throughout the first half of Arsenal’s 3-1 victory over Tottenham on Saturday, the pitchside hoardings advertised the Arctic Monkeys’ upcoming concerts at the Emirates Stadium — so it was fitting that the Gunners’ system could be interpreted as a 5-0-5.
Five to defend, five to attack. Mikel Arteta has tended to use this approach throughout his time in charge of Arsenal, but rarely has it looked so cohesive. Arsenal have found the right balance between being structured and being fluid — the roles on the pitch are well defined, but the players who occupy them rotate.
The defensive five remained tight together, with Oleksander Zinchenko as a left-sided half-back, Ben White initially as a third defender or third midfielder, and Thomas Partey in front of the centre-backs.
Further forward, though, was where things became exciting. This was the usual pattern, with effectively five attackers spread across the pitch: Bukayo Saka on the right, Martin Odegaard theoretically a No 10 but really an inside-right, Gabriel Jesus up front, Granit Xhaka bursting forward into the left channel, and Gabriel Martinelli hanging wide on the left.
That’s the pattern we’ve come to expect. But, in a way, the most important player in Arsenal’s system was the sixth player highlighted here, White. More on that later.
First, it’s worth assessing how Arsenal always managed to play with a front five, with each attacker making runs in relation to the other.
Here’s a situation early in the game, when Arsenal have won the ball quickly from a Tottenham goal kick, so the attackers aren’t yet in shape.
Martinelli has ended up through the middle rather than on the left and Saka is narrower than you would expect. Jesus, therefore, points and makes a run out to the right. He knows Martinelli is in his zone, he knows Saka is moving off the flank, so he runs out to provide width.
Saka elects to cross into the box, however, and his ball is met by Xhaka’s ambitious volleyed backheel. It was never likely to succeed, but Arsenal still had a target in the box despite Martinelli coming short and Jesus ending up on the right.
Little pieces of movement like that happened all game. Here, when Jesus has retrieved the ball near the byline, he plays it back to Saka from the edge of the box…
… and again, when Saka moves inside, Jesus diligently moves out to become a right-winger. Saka lays it back to Odegaard, who throws in another cross towards Xhaka at the far post.
It wasn’t unusual to see Xhaka trying to get on the end of crosses, as Arsenal rotated their front positions without looking uncomfortable. Here, Jesus is on the left flank, leaving Xhaka as the centre-forward.
Jesus, meanwhile, was happy enough when asked to play wide. In this situation, other strikers would half-heartedly occupy the wide zone but be attempting to sprint into their regular central position. Jesus, though, held width well when required and when he received this pass from Odegaard…
… absolutely bamboozled Emerson Royal with a feint, before shooting at Hugo Lloris.
Arsenal’s opening goal was interesting for various reasons.
First, they were in their usual front-five system. Second, it’s notable how deep Tottenham are, leaving a huge amount of space on the edge of the box. Third, Saka is faced by two opponents and therefore passes inside rather than trying to dribble. Fourth, it’s notable how White is free, in a narrow supporting position, to shift the ball inside to Partey…
… who produced an absolutely stunning shot, a powerful sidefooted curler, to give Arsenal the lead.
But Arsenal, for all their dominance, weren’t actually creating too many clear-cut chances. There were hopeful shots, like this one from White…
… and also hopeful crosses, like this one from White, in an identical position.
But Arteta altered his system at half-time and White’s new role changed the game.
Three minutes into the second half, Odegaard played the ball out to Saka. White is again in a supporting position. In the first half, Saka seemed to find himself crowded out and isolated in this situation, so always played the ball back inside.
But now, suddenly, White makes an overlapping run to provide Saka with support on the outside, effectively becoming a sixth attacker (Martinelli is out of shot on the near side).
By this point, Ivan Perisic has been shifted too deep because of White’s run. He’s encouraged Saka to check inside, and Son Heung-min, in his attempt to rush back and help, travels too far…
… which allows Saka to cut inside, shift the ball onto his left foot and shoot. Lloris saves, but pushes the ball out, then fumbles a second chance to claim it, and Jesus is free to poke home. White’s overlap has allowed Arsenal to go ahead.
And that wasn’t an isolated incident. Four minutes later, Odegaard plays the ball to Saka. White seems far too narrow to make an overlapping run, but he desperately sprints around the outside of Saka…
… which causes Spurs’ defence to panic. Clement Lenglet, dragged out from left-sided centre-back, points for Perisic to go with the overlap…
… but when Saka slips in White, Perisic can’t stop the cross…
… and Jesus heads narrowly wide after Emerson misses the header.
It’s significant that Emerson, the wing-back, actually ends up too narrow to make an intervention here because he’s been dragged across after the left of Spurs’ defence was attracted to Saka and White. Note Martinelli all alone at the far post — that shows Arsenal have effectively overloaded Spurs six against five.
Arsenal kept playing this move. Again, it’s Odegaard to Saka. Where’s White?
Here he is…
… and that run allows Saka again to cut inside and shoot narrowly wide of the far post.
The slight irony is that, by this stage, Arsenal didn’t need a sixth attacker because Emerson had foolishly got himself sent off for a foul on Martinelli.
Tottenham manager Antonio Conte took too long to reorganise and before he could introduce a replacement for Emerson, Spurs defended with four. And, in simple terms, Arsenal broke through for the third goal because they effectively had a five v four…
… and Xhaka fired home to finish the game. He was handed the man of the match award afterwards.
What truly proved the difference at the start of the second half, though, was Arteta tweaking the role of his right-back – from playing a supporting narrow role to becoming a sixth attacker.
North London is red – but really, it was all about White.
Source: The Athletic