Arsenal – Olympiakos: Flat Arsenal Bring Issues Upon Themselves (1-2)

Arsenal attacked Olympiakos non-stop but were held back by a flat shape that did not allow any kind of threat to be generated other than through individual actions. The visitors did not even need to struggle to produce their chances, as Arteta’s team kept them in the game for far too long.

Tactical analysis and match report by Kareem Bianchi.

Ever since Mikel Arteta took charge of a stray Arsenal team, the new manager has pleaded for patience, explaining the club needs time to make necessary adjustments, which in the long run, will give way to results. Perhaps even in hopes of being able to bolster the football admired over at Manchester City, courtesy of Pep Guardiola’s very own apprentice. So if Guardiola, one of the most winning managers of the decade, required a year to hone his craft in Manchester, why rush Arteta into delivering immediate results. 

Indeed, in the last months, there has not been a more emblematic demonstration of the expression ‘trust the process’ than Arteta’s work, as Arsenal have steadily been reaping the benefits of the young manager’s game model. 

And with a 1-0 win in the first leg placing the North London side in pole position to reach the next round, Arteta made two changes to the eleven that dispatched Everton on Monday. Bukayo Saka replaced the injured Sead Kolašinac, while Edward Nketiah made way for Alexandre Lacazette.

Olympiakos only made one change from their victory over PAOK at the weekend, replacing Ruben Semedo with Pape Abou Cissé.

Olympiakos target Ceballos early

Olympiakos setup in a 4-5-1 / 4-4-2 shape against the ball, from which Mady Camara stepped out to mark the ball near pivot while the other interior should have prevented the free pivot from getting on the ball.

However, Arsenal were able to free the two midfielders relatively easily after having circulated the ball wide, especially Granit Xhaka. Since Camara also made sure to block passes into the space behind him, Ceballos could move into the holding midfielder’s blind side. If a defender looks one way, an attacker can try to make a run behind the defender’s back, on the side where he is not looking. This is called the blind side. Subsequently, Arsenal could access the Spaniard with simple third man wall passes. A one-touch pass that quickly sends the ball back to sender. In the meantime the sender has quickly moved into free space, and he momentarily escapes pressure. Despite the attention to the six space, Camara’s multi-tasking inevitably exposed space, as the wingers did not tuck in to reduce the horizontal distances. As such, conditions for passes into the area behind the interior became frequent, although Arsenal failed to recognize them on various occasions. 

On the left side, things were even more straight-forward, as by merely dropping in the defensive halfspace, If you divide the field in five vertical lanes, the halfspaces are the lanes that are not on the wing and not in the center. Because there is no touchline like on the wing, players have the freedom to go everywhere. But this zone often is not as well-defended as the very center. This makes it a very valuable offensive zone to play in and a lot of chances are created by passes or dribbles from the halfspace. Xhaka could receive the ball unmarked. At times, though, he would engage in more elaborate patterns, such as that to push up the wing to draw the fullback out of position and open the outside channel for Aubameyang’s runs. Moreover, with Arsenal’s fullbacks remaining quite deep during buildup, the opposition wingers were not even able to track the movements behind them, as any step back would have freed Héctor Bellerín and Saka. Conversely, to allow Xhaka to dictate from a makeshift half-back role, Saka pushed up to pin the winger.

Arsenal’s buildup shape.

Olympiakos’ defensive passivity virtually invited Arsenal to take control, but the home side was unable to achieve penetration behind the defensive line due to a lack of movement on the last line. 

Arteta’s men were proficient at carrying the ball into the final third, connecting inside efficiently with diagonal passes to either the dropping striker or Özil, but lacked incisiveness in their runs behind the defense. Bellerín was rather reluctant to overlap, timing his runs late once he recognized the space, often making Nicolas Pépé’s and Özil’s passes from the right halfspace predictable. 

Arsenal’s flat attacking shape.

It was no coincidence that Arsenal scored – only for the goal to be ruled out for offside – thanks to a run behind the opposition fullback precisely picked out by a Xhaka through ball. Considering the space available out wide, it came as a surprise that Arsenal did not attempt to exploit it with more runs. 

The staggering provided a good base to block central progression from the opposition on the counter, with the two midfielders particularly efficient at stepping out aggressively. However, the flat attack did not guarantee many ball recoveries.

On the spot

Despite their organization on the ball, attacking plays became very Pépé focused, with Arsenal’s attack relying on the winger’s individual initiatives to create positional advantages. 

Arsenal’s inability to breakthrough provided Olympiakos with a lifeline, which they snatched at off their first corner kick of the game. The set-piece saw the two visiting center-backs position themselves in Aubameyang’s zone, near the penalty spot. Despite seeing the numerical disadvantage, Özil stayed ahead in his position, so when El Arabi ran towards the ball’s trajectory to pull Ceballos out of position, Pape Abou Cissé initiated his run and raced through an empty central channel down the penalty spot and headed the ball into the back of the net. 

The goal inevitably broke up the control Arsenal had enjoyed throughout the entire first half, and it took about ten minutes for the hosts to restore order after Olympiakos had been able to bypass the press on several occasions – finding spaces behind the aggressive Xhaka. Furthermore, Ceballos’ struggles off the ball as well as in possession, convinced Arteta into making his first substitution. In came Torreira, who should have increased the aggressiveness against the ball as well as the incisiveness versus Olympiakos’ now stiffened defensive shape.

Camara tracked back into midfield consistently, but even so, while central compactness was boosted, the width remained an issue for Olympiakos due to the narrow backline. 

Consequently, Arsenal now looked to target wide areas more often with repeated switches to isolate Pépé in one-versus-one duels against the fullback. Bellerín also pushed up, as Ozil positioned himself deep in the halfspace.

In desperate need of a goal to avoid extra-time, Arteta took Bellerín off for Joseph Willock. From that substitution onwards the game transitioned into an endless back and forth as the match headed into extra time. 

Extra-time drama

Extra-time jump-started the Arsenal offense, albeit in the same 2-3-5 shape with Saka and Pépé providing width, while Lacazette, Willock, and Aubameyang operated centrally. As the ball was moved forward, Mustafi pushed higher and Özil attacked the halfspace. 

The intentions were to increase the number of central runners, but with most players asking for the ball at their feet, Arsenal still struggled to threaten Olympiakos’ backline. Olympiakos manager, Pedro Martins reacted by asking his wingers to assist the fullbacks, forming a five and six-chain backline on most occasions.

The newly adopted shape from Arsenal had its risks since it was not able to sustain defensive phases in the slightest, as the 103rd minute showcased when Olympiakos found a free man on the weak side The side of the pitch where the ball is not. The term is related to defenses usually being weaker on this side, since the immediate threat is on the ball side. after Pépé’s failure to track back had forced the backline to shift completely to the ball side.

Finally, Arsenal found the goal they had intensely craved, although it came as the result of another of the endless crosses Ozil and Pépé were whipping in. This time the rebound fell to Aubameyang, who coordinated himself beautifully to score with an overhead kick. 

Just as Arsenal were preparing to close the game on a draw, which would have qualified them to the round of sixteen, the risks of defending deep with attacking personnel were exploited. First, Gabriel Martinelli – who had substituted Lacazette at the start of the second half of extra time – was easily dribbled past by Giorgos Masouras. The Greek international then played a cross toward the far-post, which El Arabi pounced on from Sokratis’ blind-side and put his side back in front.

Things were looking over for Arsenal, but with just one minute to go, Aubameyang had a last chance to equalize from extremely close-range but instead sent his shot wide. 


Arsenal showed their weaknesses in a flat attacking game that Olympiakos absorbed relatively easily without a particularly elaborate and compact defensive system. The two goals from the visitors were quite situational, and ultimately Arsenal deserved more from the game. 

The embarrassment of being knocked out this early in the Europa League, especially against a team of Olympiakos’ ilk, means the pressure to finish in the Premier League’s top four will automatically sky-rocket. A burden Arteta will have to prove to be ready for by solving his team’s offensive staleness.

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