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4-4-2 vs 4-4-2 zonal high press – a common encounter in the modern game

Arsenal vs Manchester United is a classic match-up of a 4-4-2 vs 4-4-2 high press, or a 4-2-3-1 if you want to refer to their-on ball systems. Both of Arsenal’s previous two fixtures were against Southampton who also play with a 4-4-2 high press so that’ll give Arteta’s men apt preparation for the game against Manchester United. The primary focus of each manager will be to press the game high up the pitch whilst reinforcing their players to be secure technically in the build-up phase. Whichever team makes less mistakes in these affairs typically comes out on top.

The entire emphasis of a well-structured 4-4-2 high press is on using the opposition midfielders and fullbacks as pressing triggers. As we can see below, Southampton progress the ball to the ball-side fullback and Pépé braces himself to sprint to the receiver. Walker-Peters does well to recycle play under pressure but Arsenal’s forwards are now closer to Southampton’s centre backs forcing them to play quickly because they’re under more pressure. Arsenal reset and Lacazette points out to Southampton’s left back to make sure Saka is ready to press his man if required.

The pressure on Southampton’s centre backs ultimately pays off as Bednarek makes a crucial mistake resulting in The Saints being in an incredibly vulnerable position.

On the other end of the spectrum, Arsenal have to play out of Southampton’s press. Play is recycled from the fullback shortly before the start of this GIF which triggers Southampton to increase the pressure on Arsenal’s centre backs shortly after pressurising the fullback. 

This is the type of situation where Arsenal are exploitable because they do have error-prone players such as Holding, Bellerin, Leno, Luiz, etc. Xhaka and Partey are the most reliable build-up options they have by far so it’s imperative the back four and the goalkeeper are brave and find the double pivot players with their passing. The overload created as a result of the 4-2-3-1, which I discuss in more detail in my Manchester United vs Liverpool preview, creates good conditions to play out of a high press, so Arsenal’s players must use that.

Although Arsenal’s build-up is error prone, if they do successfully play out of United’s press it can leave them in situations such as the one seen in the below picture.

Creating situations such as this is the entire reason managers instruct and build their team around playing out of a high press. Here, Arsenal have Saka, Pépé, Lacazette and Smith-Rowe running at Southampton’s defence in open spaces. This is every manager’s worst nightmare from a defensive perspective.

United, on the other hand, are more reliable when playing out of a press than Arsenal despite having the same overload thanks to the natural dynamics in the 4-2-3-1. They aren’t totally error-prone, as no team is, but they’re quite good building out from the back vs a high press, and Solskjaer is very good at picking and choosing when to play the more reliable on-ball options in McTominay and Fred over Pogba and Matic. United recently kept a clean sheet against the best pressing team in the world in Liverpool at Anfield, and this is how they nullified the press: 

Again, the entire purpose of taking the risk in playing out of a high press is to create situations such as this:

United’s high press

In the same vein as Arsenal, United also press high using the fullback and midfielders as pressing triggers. The intensity of the United press increases dramatically when Tielemans and Castagne receive in their respective zones:

As football isn’t linear, the game won’t solely consist of high pressing. It’s simply the primary feature of the game early on because the players are fresh and the gamestate is even. When, or if, the gamestate changes, the losing team typically takes charge of possession as the defending team generally takes their foot off the gas pressing-wise as they don’t have to force the issue as much as they did when they weren’t winning. However, it’s important to note that the winning team will remain aggressive in their pressing but not *as* aggressive as they don’t need to take unnecessary risks. Arsenal did this against Southampton when they dropped into a 4-4-2 block for the majority of the second half and averaged just over 30% possession. 

United are similarly comfortable in doing this and recently did so when the game was of incredibly high intensity for the first 30 minutes so the ferocity of the game naturally died down for periods.

Overall, the game is of incredibly fine margins thanks to the tactical advantages both managers have afforded their respective teams. There are certain injury concerns around the game for Arsenal with the likes of Aubameyang’s availability being unknown, along with Martinelli’s lack of match fitness which negatively impacts their chances of winning because their deputies are less likely to score, or create, goals. Manchester United also undeniably have more devastating transitional players than Arsenal. This, combined with their less frequently error-prone build-up, gives them the edge in what will still undoubtedly be a tight affair.

One reply on “4-4-2 vs 4-4-2 zonal high press – a common encounter in the modern game”

Great analysis. Some thoughts however : If you said a week ago that United would have the edge over us, I would have agreed. However this analysis is ignoring the current context of Rashford playing with an injury (as seen V Sheffield) and Martial being in horrific form, so their transitional powers are greatly diminished with Bruno being the only threat. Therefore it’s fair to say Arsenal are favourites as Saka, Lacazette, ESR are in great form with Martinelli potentially exploding back into life. Also note Fred as a technical liability in the pivot prone to giving the ball away which can be exploited as seen in the reverse fixture. Lastly De Gea is disgraceful and could truly cost United the game single handedly if he has another horror show, Arsenal may have orders to shoot on sight. Therefore I believe Arsenal are favourites.

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