Arsenal 1-0 Huddersfield Town: Gunners struggle, but Torreira, Guendouzi eventually find space

TArsenal FC v Huddersfield Town - Premier League

With Lucas Torreira’s late winner against Huddersfield Town, it stretched Arsenal’s unbeaten run in the league to 14 games. However, it didn’t go unnoticed that The Gunners once again failed to take a half-time lead.

Unai Emery tried his best to rectified that of course, by making two substitutions straight after the break, but it might be said for once that they didn’t work. Both Alex Iwobi and Henrikh Mkhitaryan entered the pitch, however, their impact was minimal. Instead, it required their midfield firefighter, Torreira, to step up and make the difference just when it looked like the game would be heading to a goalless draw.

Before the game, Emery stated that he likes to make early substitutions for the sake of change. “Maybe it is positive, maybe it is negative but [it is] change,” he said. Indeed, he has received a lot of praised in this regard for being proactive, for being daring to affect comebacks, but perhaps it glosses over the wider issue that maybe Emery is not choosing the correct team to begin with? Of course, at the start of the season, that assertion was not in doubt because he was taking charge of a new team looking to implement new ideas. He understands his team better now and the players seem happier with his plans, and if anything now, what the different changes show is that he has added adaptability to his team.

Indeed, against Huddersfield, Emery chose to start with a 3-5-2 formation, a mix of the system he moved to in the second-half of the Spurs win. We know now that it was the wrong choice; Looking to match up against Huddersfield’s similarly 3-5-2, the team lacked fluency, a connection between-the-lines that Emery has worked on extensively since the start of the season. Indeed, as the campaign has gone on, he has probably decided that his best system involves two attacking midfielders in inside-forward positions – and that’s what he reverted to in the second-half. However, When Iwobi and Mkhitaryan both came on neither player really made a difference.

In that case, it might be said then, that it’s the first game that Unai Emery has directly failed to make an impact with his substitutions. However, moving to the 4-3-3 was only part of the overall change, and when Matteo Guendouzi picked up the ball outside the box and lofted it in the area for what eventually led to the winner, Emery will have felt vindicated that his changes had some effect – for Guendouzi was always, in a sense, set-up to Emery’s key player.

In the first-half, Emery gave him free reign to step up out of the midfield three and use his energy and creativity to connect to the forwards. Arsenal were left frustrated however as Huddersfield pressed them high up the pitch and made it difficult to play out from the back. “We wanted to win this way playing with a bigger rhythm over 90 minutes, but they stopped our rhythm a lot over 90 minutes. There were also a lot of yellow cards, fouls and time wasting,” said Emery. Granit Xhaka also noted how tight Huddersfield marked in the midfield, essentially going man-for-man (in which case, Emery also going 3-5-2 played into Huddersfield’s hands) which made it hard for the team to find space. “I think it was a difficult game and Huddersfield played the whole game one against one,” he said.

As such, Lacazette and Aubameyang were isolated and were forced mostly to do their own work to get on the ball. Arsenal stilled created two very good chances, and both involved Guendouzi. For the first chance, he played a good ball down the line to allow Arsenal to get out of a tight area, before a shot from Xhaka was deflected wide by Aubameyang. And for the second, he was in an advanced area as The Gunners pressed high to turnover the ball. When he received the ball, Guendouzi then played it across to Lacazette but the striker could only slip as his executed the shot.

Strangely, Lacazette was replaced at half-time as Emery reverted to the 4-3-3, taking off also one of the centre-backs, Stephen Lichsteiner. His thinking thus, was that he wanted more of the play between-the-lines and to try to combine more down the flanks, especially with Iwobi and Kolasinac now reunited. Indeed, he added one last twist to this tactic by asking Guendouzi to move wider and overload that left flank.

Initially this movement seemed peripheral. Indeed, there was one moment, around the 70 minutes mark, when he looked to come towards the ball, but Xhaka motioned him to “get away, go anywhere but near me” he seemed to suggest. Of course, Xhaka was not being as dismissive as that; he knew that Huddersfield would press high up, and the need rather was to open the space in the middle. In a sense, it’s not too dissimilar to what Wenger used to ask of his midfielders, pushing them up the pitch, but here Emery wanted Guendouzi to go wider, specifically to that left flank.

 

His contribution to the game in the second-half is displayed above, as it shows he picked up the ball mainly high on the left-flank. He played a similar role in the 1-1 draw with Wolves as they too made it difficult to find space between-the-lines, whilst Xhaka did that earlier in the season in 2-1 win against Newcastle. Here, when Arsenal eventually did score, it was after noticeable targeting of that left-flank. Xhaka had already sprayed a couple of long balls towards Kolasinac and Iwobi for the two attacks previous to the goal, whilst Guendouzi had a call for a penalty waved away as he drove inside from a left-wing position.

However, for the goal, Guendouzi had stepped inside as Iwobi and Kolasinac were able to find a bit space to isolate themselves to the left flank. When the ball was eventually played in to Guendouzi, he suddenly realised for the first time in the game perhaps, he had time to get his head up in a central area to pick out a player. His chipped ball found Aubameyang and the striker, after taking it down and and having a shot, set up Torreira breaking forward, to finish acrobatically.

It was notable then it was the central midfielders that were the key players when initially it seemed Emery had given too much respect for Huddersfield by fielding them together. But Emery resisted the temptation perhaps to take one of them off. His style, ironically, is about continuity despite all the changes – of ideas, of trusting the game plan, which should if followed, lead to a positive performance. It must be said, all three central midfielders played superbly, and adjusted their roles as best they could to the game.

At the end of the match, Huddersfield midfielder Danny Williams perhaps summed up best how Arsenal were finally able to play their way to the breakthrough. “It’s frustrating because we gave them a good game,” said Williams. “Our game plan was to press them high and I think especially in the first half we did that very well.”

“Second half we got a bit tired because of all the work we put in during the first half, but the fans of Arsenal got frustrated and stuff, so we thought ok, there’s something in this today. Unfortunately, in the 85th minute they scored 1-0 and obviously, the quality they have they kept playing it down, so well done to them.”

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Manchester United 2-2 Arsenal: End-to-end encounter typified by Kolasinac involvement

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The tackles came flying in one after another – not so much with the muscular grace of a shark propelling itself at its victim, but of penguins colliding into each other on ice. Lucas Torreira was the latest to hobble away in pain; not long after, Shkodran Mustafi. To Unai Emery’s relief both players soldiered on. Emery had already shown all his hand and just had to hope that, in a scrappy game where both teams’ failure to properly control possession resulted in a lot of loose balls – and loose tackles – no more foul luck would befall his side.

In the first-half, he had already lost Rob Holding and Aaron Ramsey to injury and as a result, Emery’s chief weapon – the substitute – was considerably weakened. He still had one roll of the dice left, and he used it midway through the second-half by bringing on Alexandre Lacazette. The rewards were instant; Lacazette forced a second goal for Arsenal only after three minutes of coming on. However, in even less time than that, United equalised. The game then petered out despite a brief flurry at United’s goal from Arsenal, but after a demanding weekend, Emery just ran out of answers – and substitutes.

Indeed, that has been one of the key strengths of Emery’s reign so far in charge of Arsenal; that he has been able to change the dynamic of games through substitutions. It’s as if each change allows him to reassess Arsenal’s standing in the match, like moves on a chess board, because he’s obssessed with details, with the subtle arrangement of players. He has an initial plan, and he believes with a slight tweak here and there, it can make all the difference. That’s why, after every game, he talks about Arsenal improving their “control, possession, positioning, and movement” – his four favourite words after “good afternoon“. “He prepares us all and we have a plan,” says Xhaka. ”We know how to do it with the ball and without the ball. We know how and when to stand where.”

With each game, Emery learns more about how his team plays, how they react with each other, and then goes about looking to implement them in the next game slowly. Each substitution therefore is like a correctional measure.

For example, against United, Emery chose to start with Aaron Ramsey instead of Henrikh Mhkitaryan after his impact against Tottenham, but opted not to take out Iwobi as he did at half-time vs Spurs because he wanted to retain an element of two players dropping between-the-lines, but add a dynamic threat going-in behind. With the two enforced  injuries, however, it was difficult for him to react to the balance of the game, and therefore played it safe by not moving to a front two when he brought on Lacazette. He said after the game: “After the two injuries, every player played with good commitment and mentality to keep the performance [going] in a difficult moment. We could not control the game like we wanted for the 90 minutes, but for the second half it give us confidence, this draw. It is not the best, but it is not the worst.”

It’s clear, and it’s not just the injuries, that the game didn’t go entirely the way Emery planned. The manager stuck with the same 3-4-3 formation that he used against Spurs and Bournemouth, and Jose Mourinho matched him – well almost. Mourinho instead deployed a 3-4-1-2 to mark Arsenal across the pitch better and that initially caused The Gunners problems building out.

Jesse Lingard, playing as a no.10, dropped off to mark Torreira, whilst the two strikers ahead, split to stop the centre-backs playing out. Andre Herrera and Nemanja Matic then took turns to push up if the ball was played into midfield, and were really aggressve in closing down the space.

It took a while for Arsenal to grapple with the best way with this schematic – and it’s not clear, by the end of the game, if they really figured it out because United let them back into it by inexplicably dropping off. Indeed, below I separated the number of passed made by each team per 15-minute period to reflect how the game changed.

Arsenal started both halves slowly as United pressed from the off, and then got back into it each time because Mourinho teams at not geared to press aggressively for long periods. It’s as if a reflex kicks in to tell them to play more cautiously – as if it’s not natural to their game.

Arsenal grew into the game in the first-half, and with the extra space, moved the ball really well side-to-side, before eventually releasing Kolasinac behind. Indeed, in the 10-minute period that led to Arsenal’s opener, from 15 minutes to 26 minutes, The Gunners completed 104 passes to United’s 13. However, Arsenal too, inexplicably lost their concentration after they scored – both times – to let United back into the game instantly.

Arsenal’s chief attacking movements almost always ended with them springing Sead Kolasinac in behind. As such it was a bit surprising that Emery took Iwobi off as their combination play was always dangerous (but that would have meant a larger throw of the dice than Emery was afforded). Nevertheless, United dropped deep and denied Aubameyand space to run into behind. There was a large disconnect between their defence and attack, as they generally left their two forwards up the pitch, and that initially allowed Arsenal to play, before the game descended into a scrappier affair in the end.

For Arsenal’s opener, the corner-kick was won by the link-up between Iwobi and Kolasinac. Indeed, most of Arsenal’s attacks were funnelled to that side and indeed, I speculated before the game whether that would be a purposeful ploy, because in recent games, Arsenal have been vulnerable down the right-flank. Emery mentioned after the 2-1 win against Bournemouth that one of the reasons he moved to a 3-4-3 was that “we need some players for balance when we are pushing Hector Bellerin wide” (whilst addingKolasinac and Alex Iwobi was “very interesting combination”). On the other hand, United are strongest down that side especially when attacking with Martial, whilst both Rashford and Lingard tend to drift there.

By the end of the game, 52% of Arsenal’s attack came down the left, as opposed to 23% down the right. That in itself is not that strange; The Gunners have tended to favour that side in most of the matches they have played this season though here there seemed to be a more pronounced intention of doing so, starting from the back, as Bernd Leno rarely passed the ball to the right. In the whole game, he only found Bellerin once, whilst he didn’t pass the ball at all to Mustafi. In the second-half, Leno did find Stephan Lichsteiner 3 times as United’s pressed relaxed a bit, but that’s because his positioning as a right-sided centre-back was more aggressive than Mustafi’s. As such, when Lichsteiner got the ball and played it to Bellerin, 6 times, all but one of the passes was in United’s half.

The other reason why Arsenal’s play is generally slanted to the left is that Emery’s structure has that left-sided attacker playing a bit more fixed, whilst the right-sided one tends to roam more. Here, Ramsey, as Mhkitaryan did also v Bournemouth (and Ozil before then) assumed that role and he often, in Arsenal’s best spell in the first-half, moved all the way across to the left flank to contribute to attacks. There was one more spell where Arsenal could say they had a sustained attack on United’s goal and they should have scored another, either from Aubameyang or Mhkitaryan, both from Kolasinac’s crosses. “I think we could’ve done better today,” said Mustafi. “And we had a lot of opportunities when we were going forward and we were quite dangerous. We put in a lot of crosses, especially down our left side. If we were a little bit luckier, we could’ve got all three points.” At the end of the game, Emery revealed that Kolasinac entered the dressing room distraught; he was the game’s key player due to his perpetual threat down the left-flank, but it was his error, his lapse of concentration, which led to United’s equaliser.

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Arsenal 4-2 Tottenham Hotspur: Energised Gunners victorious in derby

*NB: didn’t have enough time this week to write a more detailed post, so I’ve decided to put up a summary of the game with quotes.

0-20 minutes: Unai Emery stuck with the 3-4-3 he deployed against Bournemouth, including using the same personnel. At first glance, it provided a good match up against Tottenham’s diamond in most areas of the pitch – a spare man at the back versus the two strikers, the wing-backs pushing up against Spurs’ full-backs, and a potential overload up front if the attacking midfielders joined Aubameyang – however there was a danger Arsenal could be overloaded in the middle.

Early on that proved not to be the case as The Gunners used their energy to alleviate this theoretical numerical advantage. Torreira and Xhaka would push up and get tight to the Spurs midfield, whilst in front, one of Iwobi or Mkhitaryan would join Aubameyang in the press high up, and the other would drop off and mark the deepest midfielder depending on which side the ball was on. This forced Spurs to go wide, but as there was no outlet for the full-backs to pass to, they were unable to progress the ball effectively.

Arsenal, by contrast, were strongest down the flanks as, alongside breaking with pace, the wing-backs constantly had space to bomb forward. They had joy early on when Kolasinac would often burst beyond Iwobi and he was involved in three of the most notable chances in this period; whilst Aubameyang also drifted towards that side, and it was the free-kick that he won which eventually led to the penalty.

20-45 minutes: Tottenham dominated the second part of the first-half by finally taking advantage of their numerical superiority in the centre of midfield. That was in part because Arsenal had relented their press a little bit and opted to drop off to manage the match.

However, their defensive balance suffered due to this loss of intensity, and in the end, they neither employed a low block, nor were they compact enough to close the space behind the midfield. Instead, their set-up was halfway between both approaches, more a mid-block focused on anticipating and intercepting the pass through to the forwards. This didn’t work and now Spurs were more readily able to access the space behind Xhaka and Torreira which they squeezed in that first early period.

The game swung with two quick goals, both involving Son. Indeed, he had drifted behind Arsenal’s midfield for the first goal, and also, notably, to the right-hand side of the pitch where Emery admitted last game Arsenal tend to leave space behind “when we are pushing with Hector Bellerin wide.“

45-90 minutes: Spurs continued in the same manner after the break, mainly threatening from set-pieces, before Arsenal finally settled. At half-time Emery replaced both Iwobi and Mkhitaryan, the star men, at least structurally in the 2-1 victory over Bournemouth, but here their influence waned after that fast start because Spurs, dominating the centre now, were better at the stopping that pass inside.

With Ramsey and Lacazette on Arsenal moved to a 3-4-1-2. The swith eventually helped weather Spurs attacks because with the security of Ramsey now ahead, Xhaka and Torreira could get tight to Spurs midfield more comfortably. The defence also were now less overwhelmed by the runners Spurs committed and were able to mop up easily with the long balls Spurs were now playing in front.

The equaliser Arsenal scored was almost out of the blue, a superb first-time strike by Aubameyang – who by the way had a complete performance up front – but it was reward for the energy Arsenal displayed, the “freshness” that Pochettino spoke of afterwards, of legs to get up and join the attack which overwhelmed Spurs backline. Indeed, Arsenal did something similar in the 2-0 win over Everton, playing almost, with the players they had on the pitch, as a 4-2-4.

Aaron Ramsey explained his contribution to the team after in his role behind the two forwards: “I was trying to play in between the lines, trying to pull the team forward, turning in little areas and we have some strikers who are in great form at the moment. It’s easy to pick out their runs and most of the time they put the ball in the back of the net. I’m happy with the way that I performed and the way that the team performed as well.”

Indeed, Ramsey’s run and pick out helped create the second goal, and he then nicked the ball off Juan Foyth in the lead up to the third.

Mauricio Pochettino admitted afterwards that he moved to a back three because Arsenal’s energy completed overwhelmed them at the back in the second-half. Later on, The Gunners went to a diamond and dominated the middle further, and they compounded Spurs misery when Torreira broke beyond the defence to seal the win.

Pochettino on moving to a back three in the second half: “I think it was in a moment where it wasn’t effective with Dier as a midfielder and it was too open down the channels. With two strikers I think our two centre-back started to struggle a little bit to manage that situation. That was after they scored though. We tried to be a little bit safer. We started to feel that the energy wasn’t there and we wanted to be more compact. The main problem for us was to be a little bit more compact and try to be stronger in our defensive face, but in the end we made some mistakes and we conceded. That is football. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.”

Bournemouth 1-2 Arsenal: Iwobi, Mhkitaryan key to victory

arsenal b mouth

Sokratis shepherded the ball, and man, out of play and let out a huge roar. This wasn’t to celebrate the end of the game, however – only 15 minutes had been played. Rather, it was to let everyone – his opponents, teammates and fans – know he was in for a battle.

Indeed, it was early in the game and Arsenal were already in a battle. Bournemouth had started strongly, and were causing The Gunners a number of problems due to the energy and speed they attacked with. Unai Emery was already aware of this threat and elected to use a 3-4-3 formation because he knew Bournemouth like to play with two strikers. Sokratis started in the middle of the back three, and he, along with his partners, relished the challenge the opponents posed. “We had to play against a very good team today,” said Shkodran Mustafi. “In their last game they played brilliantly, especially when I watched the first half of that game against Manchester United. We expected a good, organised team who knows how to get forward when they win the ball. It was a tough match but you have to give credit to every single player on the pitch for us to be able to win the duels and go for it.”

Once Arsenal adjusted to the threat, however, they were the better team. Indeed, a lot has been made of the fact that Arsenal have not taken a half-time lead under Emery in the league, and though this was the case again when Joshua King equalised with the last kick of the half, The Gunners edged the game from 20-75minutes.

In the early periods, Bournemouth were quicker off the blocks. It wasn’t just the two strikers, King and Callum Wilson, that were causing Arsenal problems, but the two wide players who came off the flanks and supported them up front. As such, the Arsenal backline was initially overwhelmed. Bournemouth scored an offside goal from such an attack, when David Brooks thought he stroked in, and when they equalised (at that point, against the run of play), all four of the forward players were involved. “Joshua King did well physically today and added a different dimension to the front line, working well with Callum Wilson,” said Eddie Howe. “I was very impressed, they were a threat in the opening period. They pinned the centre-backs back and gave them a problem in behind.” And he added: “The goal was great from my perspective, defending deep and transitioning into a clinical finish at the end of a counter attack, so it’s a shame for them we didn’t get anything from the match.”

With the change in formation, it was always likely that Arsenal would need a period of adjustment, although, they would have preferred it if it was less uncomfortable than it was. On the one hand, they needed to figure out the best way to deal with Bournemouth’s many-pronged attack, and on the other, to get to grips with how to build out from the back properly. Once The Gunners settled, they dominated. (Such that Howe switch Bournemouth’s system to a 3-4-3 as well to try and match Arsenal).

This was Arsenal’s best match in the league for passes attempted in the attacking third (33%). In particular, Alex Iwobi and Henrikh Mhkitaryan were key in getting Arsenal from back to front. From their inside forward positions, they were always on the half-turn, always acting as the outlet for the deeper players to aim for so they can face the goal. When Arsenal got their goals, it was notable then, that it was Iwobi who was the impetus, first receiving the ball from Lucas Torreira then feeding Sead Kolasinac to force the own goal; and then later, getting the ball from Xhaka and this time playing a superb pass around the corner for the same full-back. On both occasions, it is the position he receives the ball which is important, simultaneously seemingly surrounded and not, the fabled position in between-the-lines.

When Antonio Conte first popularised the 3-4-3 in the Premier League, the success was that it allowed players like Eden Hazard to play “a mixed role between the flank and the middle” – which is how Arsene Wenger described it when he used Alexis and Mesut Ozil in a similar role in his last two seasons. It was particularly effective because most teams used a 4-1-4-1 or 4-2-3-1 and the space, if they pressed, or dropped back, was often to the sides of the holding midfielder(s). Here, Iwobi constantly drifted to the space to left of Dan Gosling, whilst Mhkitaryan did similarly, away from Jefferson Lerma. You can imagine then, the disruption it causes to the opposition’s organisation if their aim, generally as it is for Bournemouth, to drop off, because if the wingers then react by getting narrow, it affords space down the flanks for the wing-backs to bomb forward, That’s what Arsenal did, and in the end, it was Kolasinac, who made the two assists.

Whilst Iwobi was more effective, there was a suggestion that Mhkitaryan had a wasteful game. Certainly it’s true that he turned the ball over 9 times through either being dispossessed or miscontrolling the ball – indeed, I argue that he doesn’t use his arms enough to protect the ball which leads him to squander possession easily – and he only hit the target with one of his 7 shots. Yet, as described before, he played his part in Arsenal’s gameplan.

If anything, there is a slight slant in Mhkitaryan’s role compared to Iwobi’s because he has more freedom to roam across the pitch. Of course, his primary areas of operation would be to the inside right position, but his positional instructions were seemingly less fixed, sometimes running behind Lerma into the no.10 position instead of dropping to the side of him. Indeed, that’s backed by his role in the defensive phase, because often you would often see him man-mark Lerma instead of going wide first to stop Charlie Daniels, the left-back. Emery’s comments after the game seem to indicate some sort of asymmetry too. He says that the decision to go with the 3-4-3 “was an opportunity for us to find our best performance, best system and best combinations. For example today there was Sead Kolasinac and Alex Iwobi which is a very interesting combination.” But he adds after, the nuance of Bellerin’s positioning, suggesting perhaps, that there is a different plan to the way Arsenal build up down the right. “Also when we are pushing with Hector Bellerin wide we need some players for balance.” Of course, the obvious explanation is that he is saying Arsenal tend to be more vulnerable when Bellerin pushes up but why is this the case more down the right than the left?

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Looking at the 12 league games Arsenal have played this season, only three times have they attacked down the right more than the left. What Emery likes is the overload down one side, before the switch to the other. Arsenal have a left-side bias when building up mainly because Granit Xhaka plays there. But in previous matches, Emery has tended not to really play a fixed right-sided player, be it Ozil or Mhkitaryan himself. That player tends to step inside 5-10 yards more than the attacking midfielder on the other side to facilitate this overload. Indeed, there were a number of times in the Bournemouth game where Mhkitaryan would aggressively move inside, leaving the right side open. As it happened, that just made Arsenal stronger down the left side anyway, and actually, they conceded when they were too zealous, at the end of the first-half, attacking down Bellerin’s side.

 

In any case, I highlighted on the pass charts of Iwobi and Mhkitaryan, who they received the ball from to help understand the differences in the build up. As you can see, Iwobi has more of a fixed inside-left position, and took most of his passes when combining with Kolasinac or between-the-lines from Xhaka. Mhkitaryan on the other hand, favoured drifting across at times, even picking up the ball from Iwobi. The passes he receives are also slightly different. From Torreira (10 passes), who is the midfield pivot most closest to him, they are more square, shorter even. However, when Iwobi receives the ball from the pivot on his side, Xhaka (14 passes), the passes are longer, more penetrative. As such, Mhkitaryan relied on Mustafi (11 times) to drive those passes to him to allow him to get on the turn. Iwobi only got the ball fom Holding three times; that might be because the angle Holding passes with – right footer always looking inside – means Iwobi is not really the viable option and rather, it’s Xhaka bursting into that space which is the go-to pass. Mustafi on the other side, is far more comfortable driving forward with the ball.

At the end of the game, Emery was forced to offer a final justification for his decision to select Mhkitaryan instead of Ozil. The answer he gave was that he knew the game would be “very demanding with the physicality and the intensity.” In fact, you probably have to look back to his quotes after the 1-1 draw with Wolves to get a wider tactical context. In that game, he had taken Ozil off at 1-0 down because he said he wanted to play with “two attacking midfielders. I decided that we had two players on the bench like Mkhitaryan and Aaron Ramsey, attacking players…so I made the change for this reason.” It suggests then his view on Ozil is that he’s probably not as dynamic as the other two, and perhaps even not as suited anymore to the wideish midfield role he used earlier this season. Against Bournemouth, Mhkitaryan showed great drive from his position, and probably should have scored with one of his chances. With 10 minutes to go Ramsey came on instead of Ozil, and he watched on as Arsenal held on to a win.

Arsenal 1-1 Wolverhampton Wanderers: Emery goes left-field in search of answers

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Arsenal were indebted to goalkeeper Bernd Leno for saving them from the jaws of defeat against Wolves. Once again, it was not a particularly convincing display from The Gunners, who performed their now familiar routine of not-playing-well-yet-somehow-securing-the-three-points-through-a-stronger-second-half. Here, however, even once Henrikh Mkhitaryan equalised, Arsenal were more in danger of losing the game were it not for Leno. The German stopped two one-on-ones whilst, with the last chance of the game, Wolves hit the post.

Indeed, in this match, Arsenal were more susceptible to the counter-attack than they have been in any of their previous matches – mainly because they faced a side who were better organised than the others to stop Arsenal’s predictable attacks, and then, when they won the ball back, had the speed to stretch The Gunners defence.

Arsenal were not effective enough with the ball despite accruing 71% possession, their highest in the league this season. Keeping the ball has almost been a way of keeping their opponents at arms length, a way of protecting the defence from counter-attacks. Unai Emery has had a large hand in this, as Shkodran Mustafi explains, positioning his players so that they are in the right place to be able to win the ball back quickly.

“I think that we are very good [when] attacking,” said Mustafi. “And that makes the defensive work a bit easier. When you attack well, and even when we lose the ball, we press straight away to win the ball back high up the pitch. That makes it easier for us to defend because you don’t always have to go back 60 or 70 yards back to win it in your own box. We are very good at attacking but with that, we still prepare being in the right position to recover when we lose the ball as quickly as possible.”

“Emery tells you exactly what he wants you to do, but gives you freedom to expose your talent. When we don’t have the ball, he tells you where to stand and how to get it back, when we have it, he gives you options you can use. You can decide which option you choose. For me it’s a good mix between freedom and discipline, and having the same plan in the whole team.”

The upshot of this, however, is that Arsenal , whilst seemingly more defensively secure, have been pretty lucky going forward. They have overperformed xG by 9 goals this season, creating not too many clear-cut chances but being clinical with what they have had. Indeed, against Wolves, they scored through fortunate circumstance, a cross aimed to the far post by Henrikh Mkhitaryan that crept in. Before then Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang had Arsenal’s best chance, hitting the post from Bellerin’s low cross.

Overall, Arsenal attempted only 13 shots – that again might be due to the meticulous, and sometimes, laborious build-up structure that Emery employs. “Each game we know what we do,” says Granit Xhaka. “We know well the opposition, where they are good and where they are not. He [Emery] is important. He helps us, not only me but all the players, with the small things. The tactical things. You can see that on the pitch.”

This typically involves deploying a specific “2-2” shape of two playmakers ahead of two holding midfielders. Their roles and positions are very defined; the pivot builds whilst the playmakers move with some freedom across and beyond the forward line to find space. Rarely however, do the playmakers tend to drop deep as it’s not necessary – their job is to find pockets. Emery it seems is quite specific about that, whilst the two holding midfielders have an important duty to not only circulate possession, but prevent counter-attacks. This was probably Arsenal’s worst game in that respects as Wolves  constantly posed a threat on the break with their pace.

Still, there were moments against Wolves where Arsenal did defend the counter-attack well, particularly down the right-hand side where Lucas Torreira was defending. However, The Gunners were less secure down the left – although that’s primarily because they preferred to attack from that side with Ozil tending to drift there, so space was left behind when moves broke down. In particular, Sead Kolasinac’s touch and distribution was poor, and Wolves’ goal came from his giveaway – although Granit Xhaka was more culpable for that as he inexplicably let the ball run to a teammate he thought was behind him. Wolves were in any case stronger from that side with wing-back Matt Doherty taking advantage of Aubameyang’s (weakness) tracking back to often burst beyond him centrally, whilst Helder Costa playing in front, tended to stay wide and then drive inside 1v1 against Kolasinac.

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The space that Wolves getting in behind on that side forced Unai Emery to change the system at half-time. The switch, however, was a slightly unexpected one as Matteo Guendouzi replaced Alex Iwobi, who had an uncomfortable game on the right flank – not for the first time and his body shape, I argue possibly lends himself less well to that flank as he’s not able to turn and drive forward – and Arsenal went from a 4-2-3-1 to a diamond.

“It was a tactical change,” said Emery. “We wanted to play our right and left backs deeper and win back more possession inside with Sead and Hector. Sometimes we did this situation well and we created chances to score. Their work was good defensively because their block was very high.”

With the switch, there was an attempt from Emery to correct – or build on – the themes from the first-half. From a build up point of view, the move to a diamond made sense because in the first-half, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was already committing himself high up the pitch, looking to get closer to Alexandre Lacazette so that he didn’t get isolated, and to help engage the three Wolves centre-backs. Ozil, on the other hand, got a lot of the ball but was fairly restricted to playing in a left-sided attacking midfield role. Iwobi too tended to step inside from the right flank, and together the two formed that “2-2” shape that we talked about before, but never really had the connections to find each other. By the end of the first-period, Iwobi was sloppy, whilst Ozil seemed to lack options. By switching the formation in the second-half, the thinking was that it would allow Ozil to pick up the ball behind the opposition midfield and roam laterally to find combinations.

However, the move wasn’t as effective as Emery would have hoped because with Iwobi now off, Ozil lacked that like-minded soul that he could bounce passes off. There was a period in the first-half, around 30 minutes where he looked better when moving across to the right flank and combining with Iwobi. Indeed, he tends to thrive with this kind of player yet in the second-half he was used in a purely creative role. Arsenal often only used the right flank for switches of play whilst Guendouzi, and Kolasinac’s sometimes narrow positioning, crowded his space.

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It was notable then that Emery took Ozil off in search of a goal, stating that the reason for this was that he wanted “two attacking midfielders. I decided that we had two players on the bench like Mkhitaryan and Aaron Ramsey, attacking players…so I made the change for this reason.” It suggests then his view on Ozil is that he’s probably not as dynamic as the other two, and perhaps even not as suited anymore to the wideish midfield role he used earlier this season. When Ramsey came on he provided the threat behind that was missing from the whole team, whilst Mkhitaryan earned his goal with a dangerous cross into the far post to Aubameyang.

The other reason for the change in formation, as stated before, was to shore up the left flank. When Guendouzi came on, he played a very wide-left central midfield role, often picking up the ball deeper, in the spaces where Kolasinac usually would. The left-back would still advance past him when possible but it put him, in the second half, more on the periphery.

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Arsenal were more defensively solid as they didn’t allow a shot from Wolves until the 80th minute, yet their offensive impact only improved minimally. Indeed, it was when Xhaka naturally moved to that left sided position that Arsenal created their first real chance of the second-half, a cut-back to Bellerin, and then eventually, when he went to left-back, was involved in build-up to the shot that Aubameyang hit the post from. Similarly, Guendouzi provided a bit more impetus from a central role, and when Ramsey came on, the team finally had an outlet – or rather someone with more nous to break Wolves’ back three – to play penetrative passes. His clipped pass found the run for Ramsey which eventually won Arsenal the corner for the equaliser. In the end, though, it was The Gunners who were made to hold on and keep their unbeaten run going.

Arsenal 1-1 Liverpool: Xhaka, Torreira typify Arsenal graft and intensity

Arsenal FC v Liverpool FC - Premier League

For the second match running, Unai Emery was begrudgingly forced to admit that a draw might have been the best result. “At the end, I think 1-1 [against Liverpool] is a good result for how we did in the 90 minutes after 1-0 when we are losing, and it’s the reason we are happy 50 per cent” he said.

Unlike against Crystal Palace however, Arsenal were probably the better team, and edged it because, for once, Emery was able to add pressing from the front to their performance.

Of course, Arsenal have been running harder this season, yet games under Emery have tended to be an exercise of playing out, of creating painstakingly meticulous patterns from the back.  “Each game we know what we do,” said Granit Xhaka. “We know well the opposition, where they are good and where they are not. He [Emery] is important. He helps us, not only me but all the players, with the small things. The tactical things. You can see that on the pitch.” 

However, pressing has been the one thing, perhaps, which has been lacking from Arsenal matches since he has joined; that collective and intense hounding of opponents which he promised upon his arrival. Against Liverpool, the team delivered what felt like a more complete representation of his philosophy. “I think we are getting the balance in intensity,” Emery said. “[Against Liverpool] we needed to push a lot and I think when the supporters are enjoying with the players, I think also the players give their all in their performance and their desire.”

The systems

This game, actually, was typified by the spirit and determination of Lucas Torreira and Xhaka who set the tone for Arsenal’s performance. Indeed, they had to be at the top of the game because Emery, with the system that he chose, demanded a lot from them.

Arsenal began the game with a 4-2-3-1, looking to press Liverpool’s centre-backs, and stop them from passing the ball into midfield. This meant that Lacazette and Ozil would engage Joe Gomez and Virgil van Dijk, often leaving Fabinho, in the holding midfield role, unmarked. The Gunners seemed happy with that; perhaps it was part of their pressing trap, but Ozil and Lacazette would do that if they felt that they had created an effective shield from passing it through. Indeed, they did that for the most part such that the Liverpool centre-backs were compelled to bypass the middle at times and go direct.

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Arsenal press 16’ minutes

If the pass did get through, however, The Gunners were tigerish in insuring that Liverpool had no time on the ball. Xhaka and Torreira in a sense, were outnumbered in the middle, 2v3, yet played with such spirit and intensity that they were never exposed. The attacking players in front helped as well in that regards, by adjusting their positioning to where their opponents were to stop the potential overloads. On 16’ minutes there is a great example of this, as Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang moves wide initially to press Wijnaldum then passes him on to Xhaka. Torreira is the free man, marking the area in the middle, and when ball gets through to Fabinho, presses him aggressively and wins the ball back.

https://streamable.com/s/jm651/wxynem

(above: arsenal’s shape when pressing, and then where they were vulnerable dropping back into their own half. Liverpool scored in an almost similar way, dissected below by BT Sport)

Liverpool on the other hand, also looked to press up the pitch but only on goal kicks. When the centre-backs had the ball, the forwards were happy to drop off and as a team, were more concerned with stopping Arsenal getting it through to the attacking players. The Gunners had a bit of joy especially  attacking the left-flank, with Mesut Ozil tending the drop off just behind Wijnaldum and finding pockets to play passes. As such Jürgen Klopp changed the system in the second-half, moving James Milner to the right and playing a 4-2-3-1 with Salah up front.

Klopp said: “It was intense, very intense. It is clear Arsenal are in a very good moment. We made life a bit too easy for them in the first half, formation-wise I was not happy at how compact we were and stuff like that. When we had the ball it was good, we were a threat, we were in behind. The start was like ‘Wow, Arsenal are there’ but then the first attack we had, everyone knew ‘OK, they are not too bad as well!’ It was then a pretty open game. That’s OK.”

“Second half we changed formation a bit and it helped us today…[..]…because first half we were not compact enough, the three in midfield had to do too much and then the one time we don’t close the half-space [in the second-half], they play the ball through and could score the goal.”

The goals

There were two type of attacks Arsenal defended well: on the counter, and when they pressed high up the pitch. But as the goal from Milner showed, The Gunners were less adept at stopping Liverpool’s attacks when they were forced to drop back into their own half. Rio Ferdinand and Martin Keown offered great insight for BT Sport as to why Arsenal conceded, saying modern defending is all about being on the “front-foot“, and perhaps Arsenal were caught between two stalls when they tried to stop the goal. Indeed, it was almost identical to the offside goal that Mane scored in the first-half (see second part of streamable video above), with a late run from midfield catching Arsenal by surprise; whilst they were also unsure of who should pick up the full-back – because for both chances it was from that position that the final ball was delivered – as the central-midfielders had also split wide to stretch Arsenal. Klopp: “It was actually a brilliant attack. It’s what you do in the training ground – you bring one player and you keep one player between the centre-halves, slightly offside and then the other player takes the ball. It’s a pity it didn’t count.”

https://streamable.com/z03qx

great insight and breakdown of the two goals by Martin Keown and Rio Ferdinand

For Arsenal’s equaliser, Emery had thrown all his attackers off, though surprisingly had replaced Aubameyang with Ramsey. At one point, that saw a subtle reshuffle moving Ozil to right midfield, and Xhaka following him to that side, swapping places with Torreira (perhaps Emery realises now the two linking up is key for Arsenal, as possibly, as Lacazette revealed himself with Torreira “working on the type of balls he likes”). Arsenal scored through sheer determination, overloading the frontline, which in the end, the Liverpool centre-backs has no answer for because, as Keown and Ferdinand had explained for BT Sport, they are not used to defending against two strikers. Danny Welbeck  roamed from his left wing position and Lacazette used that confusion to get behind and earn a well deserved point for Arsenal.

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For about 10 minutes, before the lead up to Arsenal’s goal and just after Aaron Ramsey entered the field, Xhaka moved towards the right following Ozil. The adjustment wasn’t significant in itself, but perhaps it helps to shed a little bit of light on Emery’s thinking, or indeed the players’ if it was themselves who decided to shift across.

Crystal Palace 2-2 Arsenal: Emery finally runs out of ideas in hard-fought draw

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For five minutes in the second half, it looked as if there would be a reassuring conclusion to this familiar storyline – except this time, Crystal Palace would equalise, and Arsenal would have to settle for their first draw under Unai Emery.

In the end, Arsenal could have no arguments with the 2-2 draw. If anything, Roy Hodgson argued, Crystal Palace were the better team. “Our offensive players were more noticeable than Arsenal’s, and that’s great credit to my team,” he said. “For…the amount of possession we had in the final third, two goals is a fairly scant reward.”

This was by no doubt Arsenal’s worst attacking display since their first game of the season. They were outshot 2:1 whilst their attacking forays, particularly in the first-half, were stiffled, and they rarely offered a threat in the second-half after scoring. Indeed, their final attack in the game even led to Palace’s equaliser, as Alexandre Lacazette gave the ball away outside the opposition box and they countered to win the penalty. Arsenal’s inability to find their fluency, to impose their “ideas” through “possession” and “positioning” – Emery’s usual buzzwords – were underlined by the fact that they attempted the lowest percentage of their total passes into the final third on Sunday – at 18%. Usually they average around 25%.

Their second-worst match for final third entries was in the 5-1 win over Fulham, but they turned that into a different type of encounter as they looked to attack directly and were effective on the counter. In that match, they entered the box 38 times – they most they have in any match this season. Here, Arsenal only entered the box (with a pass) 11 times.

“For us the first half was not easy,” said Emery. “When they scored it is the moment when we are on the pitch with the control, but not doing a lot of things in the attacking third. In the second half we scored two goals in two actions..[…]..I think we lost a little of our possession with the ball and the match was more about the transition..”

For the most part in the first-half, before they were hit by a late counter-punch, it was all about Arsenal finding a way through Palace’s defensive block. Crystal Palace chosed to start with a 4-4-2 that left the left-side slightly open (where Zaha could move into with freedom). That meant that there was acres of space for Hector Bellerin to bomb into initially, but due to the narrow positioning of James McArthur covering the flank, he was unable to play the usual ball inside. See below:

Arsenal didn’t really know how to prise open Palace’s defence. In the two real chances they had in the first-half, they got through via Bellerin’s determination when he had a shot that was blocked; and when Lacazette sliced wide. In that instance, it was one of the only times Arsenal able to draw Palace towards them and then zip a ball through to one of the attackers – here Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang – dropping into the halfspaces.

In both of theses instances, Mesut Ozil was involved yet for the majority of the match, he struggled to influence. Arsenal weren’t able to find him regularly in the half-spaces. The German playmaker tends to thrive roaming laterally, often combining with a like-minded soul. Here, he often strayed to the right looking for Iwobi to bounce passes off, but of course, that avenue was often cut-off. The splitting pass between-the-lines was rarely on too as Crystal Palace defended deep with two banks of four.

Ahead of them, Zaha and Ayew, the two strikers effectively marked Torreira and Guendouzi respectively in the build-up. That meant that they, especially Guendouzi, would move wide to receive the ball. This was in part forced as Emery relies on a “2-2” shape to build, therefore, the double pivot are a little restricted in their movements. In the previous games, Xhaka, rather than stepping out into the space in front, tended to move wide left, and look to release the full-back. He spoke before the game how Torreira has released him to do that: “You can see that he’s important for us because he’s strong in defence and in duels,” the Switzerland midfielder said. “He can play easily from side to side and going forward, he helps with our balance. He lets me play my game with the ball and go a bit more in front. I am happy with him and the other guys playing in the midfield.”

Of course, with Xhaka himself playing out of position in full-back, that option really wasn’t on. All this led to a stifling first half.

Still, Arsenal scored two quick fire goals in the second-half through the only part of the their game that was working: attacking down the right. The only difference was that Bellerin was replaced with injury by Stephan Lichsteiner, and Iwobi, seemingly subconsciously, played a bit wider.

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In the second-half, in the period where Arsenal scored two goals, Iwobi seemed to get higher and wider

The two set-pieces that were won came from that side. It was a five minute spell that wasn’t to last. Crystal Palace piled on the pressure whilst Arsenal were unable to get out, and that eventually brought upon their first dropped points since August. At the end, Emery admitted some “mistakes”. What he’s done well, is game-by-game look to make subtle tweaks, learn from past games. Here, though, he suddenly brought Aubameyang back in to a wide left position though there was no pressing need to restore him to the line-up. That also meant shunting Iwobi to the other side, on the right, where he’s never really looked comfortable under Wenger.

Arsenal’s recent success has been through the use of attacking midfielders wide to aid the fluidity of their game. With the changes, however, it seemed to put Arsenal back closer to the system they used at the start of the season.

Emery: “We can make mistakes on the pitch. Every day I am making mistakes in my decisions. Mistakes are to learn from and not for us to lose our confidence or our belief on the pitch. For the second goal, Laca was maybe not thinking as much, and I was pushing him to think more. The second goal was an action where we had the ball in the opposition box and we did one bad pass. When we are in the box, in the opposition box, I want us to show aggression to find the last action to score or shoot, to win a corner or whatever action. But with this pass, we lost the ball and then they scored from the transition. For me, there are things that happen on the pitch when we continue in our process to learn, and the mentality we need to show when we are in the good moments to keep and hold the ball. We need to keep that mentality to continue to find our moments and our chances. In the last 10 minutes, I wanted to push for that, but that didn’t happen for us because it was not very easy for us on the pitch.”