The 2019/20 football season has brought us many new things. VAR has been introduced to the Premier League, Steve Bruce is now the Newcastle head coach, and, for a brief moment, Paddy Power emblazoned themselves on Huddersfield’s new kit in a horrific ‘Miss Universe’ style satchel.
There have also been some rather consequential rule changes – perhaps the most significant being the new goal kick law. This rule change allows players on the defending team to stand within their own penalty area as a goal kick is being taken. The opposition however, have to remain outside the box until the ball has been played.
Initially this sounds like it might not make much difference at all. After all, goal kicks are just a way of getting the ball back in play and getting on with the real action – right? Well, if the Premier League has any say, this will change the game more than the back-pass rule did in 1992.
Largely, the reason for this is space. If a team’s defenders can now stand in the six yard box, and the attackers remain around the halfway line (or even further forward), the pressing opposition will be stretched further up the pitch, creating holes behind them that can be exploited.
This means that if the defenders have the capability to pass their way through the press, once the ball reaches the forwards, they will be left with a numerical advantage (or at worst, evens).
In order to illustrate this, we can first observe how it should be done, before watching the same technique crumble, using last weekend’s games as punctuation. Believe it or not, Norwich City actually gave us some of the finest examples of how to best exploit this new rule in their shock victory over the reigning champions, Manchester City.
From their goal kicks, they mostly set up with the two centre backs just on the edge of the six yard box. The full backs dropped deeper and the defensive midfielders looked to receive the second ball and support. This allowed four attacking players to push up and fully stretch the City midfield.
In this example, Sam Byram (3) has pushed up from right back to give the option of a wider ball. The Norwich centre backs (24 and 4) pass between themselves before Krul (1) hits a longer drive to Pukki (22), who despite losing the header, has the support of the fluid defensive midfielders (27 and 23), who win the second ball.
The option of Pukki, Byram and Buendia (17) on the right gives the defenders a get-out-of jail- free card, should playing out from the back not go as planned. Yet the fact that Norwich have both long and short options available, means that either choice can be just as effective.
The City defence doesn’t know whether to push up and close down the ball, at risk of leaving Pukki with a one v one, or to sit back and allow Norwich to have possession (which just isn’t the Guardiola way).
This uncertainty caused real problems for Manchester City in this match, and it was only a matter of time before Norwich punished them.
As City pressed Norwich high on their goal kick, Krul takes the option of ‘Plan ‘B’, and sends a long ball straight to Buendia (17), who has dropped into an area of space, present thanks to the stretching of City’s midfield and attack.
Stiepermann (18) steps across to support, and quickly sends a long ball away to Pukki (22), who beats the offside trap. After this, it is a simple pass to Cantwell (14), who can probably daydream about what he’s having for dinner later, such is the simplicity of his tap in.
It is a really well worked goal, and tactically something that last season’s Championship winners have given all the other Premier League clubs a masterclass in.
Rather embarrassingly, the club sitting at the back of the classroom with no clue what the teacher is talking about is Arsenal. They have indeed shown all the other pupils exactly what you should do if you wanted to fail the test with flying colours.
Against Watford on Sunday, they set up with a fairly similar layout to Norwich from their goal kicks. Generally, they had five to six players looking to become involved in a playing out from the back situation, with four players there as a ‘Plan B’ long ball.
The problem lies in the utilisation of ‘Plan B’. What Norwich were so good at was the variation – Man City didn’t know whether they were coming or going.
Sometimes they played out from the back completely, other times, Krul knocked it straight to the winger. Every now and then, they started to play out from the back, then hit a long ball instead.
Arsenal however, seemed to have no capability to play the long ball. Time and time again, they tried to pass their way out, but only between Sokratis (5), Luiz (23) and Guendouzi (29). The full backs in Maitland-Niles (15) and Kolasinac (31) barely got to the ball, let alone any of the front four.
Every single person in Vicarage Road, and indeed watching at home, could clearly see it was inevitable that Watford would penalise Arsenal for this. How Unai Emery failed to spot this is actually rather baffling.
After losing possession from goal kicks three times (resulting in big chances on their goal), Arsenal try yet again to play out from the back in the fifty-fourth minute. Leno (1) passes short to Sokratis, whose terrible pass to Guendouzi is intercepted by Deulofeu (7). He then squares it to Cleverley (8), who smashes it into the net. Simple.
Only Unai Emery knows exactly why he chose to persist with playing out from the back. There are managers famous for having only a ‘Plan A’ (Marcelo Bielsa is the Godfather of this), and perhaps Emery was trying to imitate this; stick to your guns and in the end, if the tactic is good enough, it will work.
To be fair, if Arsenal did manage to play out from the back without problem, Emery would be praised as a genius. He’d have stuck to his plan relentlessly, in the knowledge that eventually it would pay off. But there is a fine line between genius and stupidity.
Unfortunately for Emery, he ended up on the wrong side of this line last weekend. It looks like Arsenal could’ve learnt a few things from Norwich City.
It’s quite surprising that one of the Premier League’s all-time best clubs has been shown up by a team who were in the second-tier last season. Who knows, if this trend continues, next year Guardiola might just be trying to emulate the famous high press of Luton Town.
Edited by Katherine Guerrero