What is more exciting: the return of Arsenal in the Premier League or the chance to see Patrick Vieira in the Emirates Stadium back among his people?
One of the greatest players ever to grace English football let alone north London, while Vieira left the club before the move from Highbury happened, it’s going to be a special occasion being so close to the man many consider their hero.
The technical areas featuring two FA Cup-winning former captains of this club? It’s strange to think.
As the season reaches its eighth round of fixtures, Crystal Palace pose an inviting opportunity for Arsenal to extend their unbeaten run in all competitions to six matches and potentially move up to seventh – if results kindly fall their way.
Arsenal vs Crystal Palace: 4 key tactics implemented by Patrick Vieira and how Mikel Arteta’s side can exploit them in Premier League meeting
The Eagles have only won one game this season, that 3-0 demolition of Tottenham, yet there have been marked changes in how they play compared to the previous tenure of Roy Hodgson, so naturally there will be plenty of learning on the way. After all, in his first season at the club and after the outstanding squad turnover in the summer, staving off relegation will do just fine for Vieira.
They’re most fans’ second team in the division. They can’t not be.
But there are only two matches where we want Palace to lose; this is one of them. Mikel Arteta’s side can continue building on the results they’ve accrued over the past four league fixtures and this is an opportunity to show the weary supporters that Brighton was merely a blip.
That doesn’t mean it will be easy. Palace are a completely different side under Paddy and the tactical nuances he’s introducing are having a positive impact. They may only be 14th, but the performances have warranted more points than they’ve gained.
So, what tactical changes has Vieira made, and how to Arsenal combat them?
1. 4-3-3 Shape Out of Possession
The tactical change: Under Hodgson you always knew what rendition of Palace you were going to get, especially away from home: they were a side heavily centred on long balls into the channels where the likes of Wilfried Zaha could use individual flair as the foundation of rapid counter-attacks.
Vieira has changed the Eagles’ approach, which is visible in their shape. No longer dropping into a 4-4-2, his side maintain a 4-3-3 shape that is narrow out of possession as they look for high turnovers that can then exploit open spaces and attack with pace.
It’s a drastic alteration to that Hodgson adopted as it’s distinctly more front-footed with a change in emphasis on where the ball should be won back.
How to exploit it: The 4-3-3 is often considered the pinnacle of football setups as it covers all grounds both in and out of possession: width in the press, midfield can’t be overloaded, back four protected and positionally set up to add additional cover out wide.
Working around a 4-3-3 is something Arsenal inadvertently already do. When building up with a three-man defence there is a numerical equality between forwards and defenders, so moving one of the central midfielders wide, say Sambi, to offer an option with Tierney on the other flankmeans Arsenal can create numerical advantages out on the flanks. Play around, not through the press.
If this were the approach it would see Thomas Partey act as a solitary central midfielder in the first phase, but would allow Arsenal to heavily outnumber on either flank and remove the three Palace forwards from the game with the first progressive pass. From there combinations can work through the lines and the midfield can drift back into a two to offer stability and cut lanes to the opposition forwards.
2. Vieira’s Implementation of a High Press
The tactical change: Indeed, Palace are now a high pressing side. They couldn’t be any less Hodgson if they tried.
Adopting a higher line and a more fiercely engaged forward trio, the emphasis is on forcing passes in shorter sequences and then pouncing on those in possession in the central third. James McArthur is used completely differently and Conor Gallagher’s intelligence on and off the ball is well catered to.
Often Jordan Ayew may drop into a deeper role to aid numerically depending on the opponent’s shape, but the general demand is squeezing the pitch and looking to break into attacking transitions with pace.
How to exploit it: There are many ways to exploit a high press and Arsenal have had to become used to this approach against them far more in recent times. Teams clocked on to the idea that ‘getting at’ Arsenal is, it turns out, the best way to beat Arsenal.
While the three-man defensive build-up shape will work in exploiting Palace’s narrow out-of-possession shape, it won’t always be the case that Arsenal can start phase one in that manner. As with any side pressing high, you have to find the weak link.
One approach is to have the back four with the double pivot crowding the player targeted as the ‘weakness’. If Odsonne Edouard plays centre-forward then this could be him, in which case Partey and Sambi can drop behind him to offer two options to bypass the press centrally. It’s a way of playing through the press as opposed to around it.
It helps, also, having calm central defenders in possession like Ben White and Gabriel. Their skillsets and profile are instant advantages in such scenarios.
3. Use of a High-Line With Technically Comfortable Centre-Backs
The tactical change: Much like Arsenal play White and Gabriel over Pablo Mari and Rob Holding, Palace’s summer signings Joachim Andersen and Marc Guehi allow them to completely change the way they play.
Gone are the Gary Cahill and Scott Dann days. Palace now have two central defenders with more composed technical quality, greater mobility and a dynamic range of pass. Despite playing only seven matches, with three of those coming against Premier League ‘big six’ sides, Palace’s average possession has risen from 42.9% to 49.2%. Equally, their long passes are down from 14.5% to 12.7% (The Analyst). The shift in approach is clear.
While Vieira has looked to play with more impetus this season, he may revert to a slightly more reserved gameplan heading to the Emirates. If he doesn’t, however, then there are areas to expose.
How to exploit it: It’s an approach designed to suffocate the opponent with an attacking press where the ball can be recycled higher up the pitch to maintain pressure. It’s nothing especially new.
As with any high press there are pros and cons, which roughly equate to the same set of principles that can be used to exploit it: pace in behind and deep runners coupled with a forward dropping off. Funnily enough, Vieira was superb at this. Dennis Berkgamp would come short and the Frenchman would gallop beyond him into the box with a centre-back drawn out of position.
This is an area that may be Palace’s undoing. They’ve been exposed this way already this season by the likes of Jamie Vardy and Neal Maupay, thus the pace of someone like Aubameyang and perhaps later Pepe to continuously stretch the pitch and leave Cheikhou Kouyaté vacant in midfield needs to be pounced upon.
4. A Midfield Three With More Room for Expression
The tactical change: One of Vieira’s first calls was to move Kouyaté back into his favoured midfield position from the centre-back role he adopted under Hodgson. McArthur has kept his place in that area of the pitch but is being used as a much more aggressive pressing tool, even allowed to dribble and carry with more adventure.
Gallagher is the most attacking of the trio, yet the Scot joins him in the front-footed pressing system and the long legs of Kouyaté provide a strong screen in front of the defence.
In unison the midfield pushes up with the defence the second the ball is won back, and while there are still teething issues in every tactical change that Vieira is stamping on this team, the signs are there already that the collective shape and midfield balance is improving.
How to exploit it: What will be key on Monday is to force McArthur back into a more defensive role than he’s been tasked with this season. It might already be the case that he does if Palace head to north London with some of their ambition reined in, and in which case it’s Gallagher who needs to be forced into defensive duties.
To do so, Arsenal have to continue getting Tierney high up the pitch, as per usual, in order to get the bodies into the attacking half-spaces that occupy the Eagles midfield at all times. Saka and Smith Rowe need presence in those areas to shift Palace’s midfield laterally, allowing for the wide players to make diagonal runs infield to continue moving them out of position.
As much as tactics play their part, so too does having better players. Sometimes it is that simple: McArthur isn’t exactly blessed with pace and Gallagher can be overly ambitious on the ball, leaving spaces in behind. Partey is the Bentley in midfield and Odegaard’ calmness and vision can thread balls through the tightest gaps.