Arsenal 3-1 Leicester City: Ozil points Gunners the right-way towards victory

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If the result was never in doubt, then that’s because we’ve seen it all before. Watching Arsenal for the first time, you’d be forgiven for thinking this style of making-it-hard-for-yourself-and-then-rescuing-it-in-the-second-half is not sustainable, but Arsenal have made a habit of it – and are winning matches. The 3-1 victory over Leicester City ensured Arsenal have now won 7 league matches in a row.

“We need to continue improving, we need to continue keeping our demand very high,” said Unai Emery. “[Because] every first 30 minutes we are suffering more than we want – like today. But after 1-0, I think the reaction from the team was very important, with the quality and also with the heart.”

The trouble began when Claude Puel sprang a suprise and deployed a 3-5-2 formation, expecting Arsenal to continuing using the 4-4-2 that worked so well vs Fulham. Emery obliged, though opting to bring Mesut Ozil back into the line-up in a 4-2-3-1 formation. Nevertheless, the idea was the same; the team would look to build from deep using Granit Xhaka and Lucas Torreira; and the two wide midfielders would look to come in and play in the halfspaces – but the latter especially played into Leicester’s hands as they had two central defenders marking that zone, whilst in the centre Harry Maguire swept up.

Alex Iwobi coped better with the system, but Henrikh Mkhitaryan, in particular, struggled to get involved and his only real contribution was probably not touching the ball in the lead up to Arsenal’s first goal.

That’s because he did what Ozil initially did well, in the first five minutes, by dropping off the centre-backs and thus outnumbering the midfield. It meant for the goal, Johnny Evans, the left centre-back was forced to follow him, leaving space behind him that Arsenal would eventually exploit, and allowing Ozil to collect the ball unnoposed.

Before then, however, Arsenal were often exposed on the break. Leicester’s formation more closely resembled a 3-4-1-2 and that saw the two strikers initially start by splitting wide to press the ball, and then, when possession was won back, run down the channels to hit Arsenal on the counter-attack.

This worked well because it’s obvious how Arsenal build-up, usually looking to use the wall-pass into midfield, then playing the ball to the full-backs before going into the wide midfielders. Constantly in the first-half, when moves broke down, Leicester were able to exploit the space behind, especially down the left, and it was Kelechi Iheanacho who provided the early danger. Jamie Vardy, on the other side was less of a threat, and indeed, by playing the two strikers wide-ish, Leicester probably lost some of their ability to arrest the pressure Arsenal put on them in the second-half.

“We tried another system,” said Claude Puel. “Arsenal played with desire, with quality, good concentration and we put this team under pressure. I think they were surprised with our system and we had a lot of chances and quality with our play on the ground. It’s a shame we didn’t have success in making the difference more in the first half.” 

The goal scored by Leicester was a good example of the amorphous nature of their system, initially pressing with what looked like a 4-2-3-1 shape as they tilted towards the left flank, but then, as the ball was played to Ozil moving high-up, one of the central defenders could squeeze up and stop him recieving the ball. Once Leicester won it back, Ben Chilwell could detach from the back, and burst forward with the freedom of a wing-back. And he did so with aplomb, chased down by Alexandre Lacazette because Mhkitaryan had narrowed.

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With Stephan Lichsteiner, a right-footer starting on the left, it was no surprise that Arsenal got all their goals down the other flank. Indeed, 42% of Arsenal’s attacks came down the right-hand side, a switch from the last five games where the majority of attacks came down the left. The left-heavy approach was especially evident in the games against Cardiff, where Ozil drifted towards that side; vs Newcastle when Granit Xhaka similarly showed considerable bias to building up down the left; and against Everton where Arsenal purposely targetted the flank with long switches (such that 56% of attack originated from that side).

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Here, once Arsenal figured out they were more threatening when using Bellerin, who set up the first goal, they completely (and visibly) ignored the left-flank such that Xhaka was moved there in the second-half and acted essentially as a left-sided possession balancer. Emery also made changes to suit that switch, bringing on Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and moving  Iwobi to the right. The subsequent reaction was that Arsenal scored instantly, a Bellerin cross finding it’s way to the far post to Aubameyang. (Puel saw this too, and took off Vardy for Albrigton to protect that side, but was punished straight away).

“It was a tough first half, said Bellerin, “because we knew they’re a team that plays good football and they have a lot of quality up front, but when we started playing in the second half and the passes were flowing and we could put a few attacks together the goals just kept coming.“

The third goal was all Ozil, and at the end, Emery wanted to praise the way it was created, because it showed how Arsernal could attack with great speed. At the start of the game, Emery chose not to go with the 4-4-2, losing the direct threat Welbeck provided against Fulham and Watford, but the goal, he said, showed Arsenal’s willingness to go quickly from A to B.

“It’s one way,” Emery said of the third goal. “For example we watched the Watford game this morning and we repeated the second goal in this match. Starting with Leno, long ball which we won with the head with Danny (Welbeck) in the second action and then we are doing a speed attacking and also scoring. This is another way. We can do a goal starting with all the passes and arriving in the box with these chances to score is very good because we can do one long pass.”

Also crucial in the lead up to the goals was Torreira, as he always looked to play the penetrative passes between-the-lines to the backwards facing attacker, here Lacazette for the first and second goal, and Ozil for the third goal. At the start of the game, it was the only way Arsenal attacked and it didn’t suit the players, as it made their attacks predictable. However, as Arsenal upped the tempo in the second-half, the speed at which they got support around him overwhelmed Leicester City.

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For Emery, it must baffle him why Arsenal tend to start so meekly, but that’s also mainly because their system seems preoccupied with getting it “right”; the need for the team to feel it’s way into games, rather than impose it on opponents, which Emery is trying to achieve. In these periods, the absence of counter-pressing is evident, and it’s perhaps that that part, which Arsenal showed with the second-goal, Torreira winning the loose ball back with a header, is the area in Emery’s philosophy which he has yet to even come close to implementing. Still, Arsenal are running more, and harder than ever before, and it’s perhaps, therefore no coincidence they keep on turning it around in the second half.

 

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Fulham 1-5 Arsenal: Emery strikes the right balance with switch to 4-4-2

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With Arsenal’s 5-1 victory over Fulham, Unai Emery earned what might be described as his first “convincing” win as manager. Which is strange to say considering Arsenal have now won 9 games in a row, but there was a feeling before this win, that his team was holding back, that there was more to give. Certainly, it was not that Arsenal were playing badly, but they were winning without ever really imposing their evident superiority for longer periods in games. Against Fulham, however, they left no margin of doubt.

Not that Emery was getting carried away. In fact, asked whether he felt that this was Arsenal’s best performance under him, his analysis was more sober. “I don’t think of this performance like it is the best,” he said. “But it depends each match on how it happens on the pitch in the 90 minutes. When we scored the first goal is the moment we can play with more confidence on the pitch and the opposition maybe didn’t have the mentality to continue pushing.”

Indeed, Arsenal did have a tricky start to the match as Fulham pressed high up the pitch, but that approach soon left gaps at the back for The Gunners to exploit. The first goal was an example of that as Arsenal were able to play a long ball directly to the middle of the pitch, then attacked the flanks and score. In the end, that weakness was all too frequently evident as Arsenal continued to exploit the space that Fulham left behind, and to the the sides of the midfield.

My sensations are mixed a little bit,” Fulham coach, Slaviša Jokanović, said after the defeat, “Because I thought we played the first 45 minutes well. We created the chances, the team was running well and we didn’t give them many opportunities to score goals. But in the second-half they scored really easy goals and I missed the team being more solid, I missed more speed, I missed more thought.

“At the end we opened all the doors and they finished the action easily after not so many complicated situations for us. The second goal arrived from some throw in, they kicked the ball and finished the action, we weren’t strong or fast enough to stop the shot, and the first goal too, we needed to be more solid and better in this kind of situation. At the moment we show so many weaknesses for this level where we are, especially on the defensive side so we must work very hard to find the solution to this kind of problem.”

Jokanović used a 3-4-3 formation instead of his usual 4-3-3, perhaps expecting Arsenal to deploy a variant of their asymmetric 4-2-3-1, so that they could match up better man-for-man. Emery, though, sprung a surprise of his own too, switching his formation to a 4-4-2. If both sides needed a period to suss each other out, then Fulham started the brighter as their press pushed Arsenal back. It forced The Gunners to play more of the game in their own half, and indeed, in the first twenty minutes it unsettled them a little. Emery admitted afterwards that the “first half was open, and it was more difficult to defend” and that team weren’t able to “impose ourselves in possession”.

Nevertheless, Arsenal were still finding moments to get through and it was no surprise when they scored their first goal, on 29 minutes when Lacazette swivelled then fired in a low cross from Monreal. Arsenal had threatened similarly before then, by getting behind in wide positions and taking advantage of the space left behind by the high press.

 

Fulham chose a 3-4-3 and whilst that could overwhelm Arsenal at times when the ball was with them at the back, once the pass got through, it was the two Fulham central midfielders, Anguissa and Serri, who were left outnumbered as frequently, Mhkitaryan and Iwobi would drop to the sides of them and pick up the ball unopposed.

The shape above, when Fulham equalised, shows when their press did work, because the fitness levels of Anguissa and Serri meant they were able to simulataneously mark two positions if they pressed correctly, but if they got it wrong, the demands were often to high. In the end, they didn’t really have anyone detailed to stop Iwobi and Mhkitaryan. Their wing-backs generally pushed up to stop Arsenal’s full-backs, whilst the two central midfielders were mainly interested in getting close to Xhaka and Torreira. Arsenal’s opener displayed that as Iwobi ghosted into the space vacated by the right wing-back, Cyrus Christie, whilst Anguissa was too late to cover him, initially engaged with Mhkitaryan who tucked in, and then stuck in no man’s land when the ball was played over the top.

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By then Arsenal realised they were playing a different game and that is perhaps one of the pleasing aspects of Emery’s early reign; that the players always seem to find a solution through the help of the manager (Iwobi said Emery “picked us up at half-time)” or not. Xhaka in particular was forced to adjust his game, in other games, often moving higher, up to the left-flank to affect matches, here however, he accepted that he was required deeper to balance Arsenal numerically. As a result, he attempted only 13% of his passes in the final third, when he usually averages around 29%. That’s not to say he wasn’t effective, however; he was still adept at finding his teammates on the turn, in particular Iwobi, but that area between-the-lines was about 20 yards deeper as Fulham squeezed up (and Arsenal played without a no.10). Indeed, the team as a whole was forced to play deeper, still attempting to play out from the back, but more counter-attacking, more threatening going behind. They entered the Fulham penalty box 38 times with a pass, the most in any game this season, despite conversely also, attempting the lowest amount of attacking third passes than they have in any of their previous 6 wins.

With Emery switching to a 4-4-2, the option to go longer was always available. Having Holding in the side adds to the viability of this tactic because of his willingness to chip the ball to the striker. Indeed, it helped set up the first goal as he played the ball long to Lacazette for a knock-down, and the team repeated the trick again, although in more fortuitous fashion, when Torreira punted the ball up field to Welbeck for Arsenal’s second. From then on Arsenal grew more comfortable, with the last two goals seemingly repeating more or less the same patterns; the central midfielders now gaining more time to pick a pass – usually to the wide-midfielder dropping into space, followed by an overlapping run. Sandwiched in between was a superb third goal, a counter-attack straight from the Wenger playbook.

With all the tweaking so far this season, it’s not clear whether Emery will stick to same structure. Of course, tinkering is part of a modern coach’s armoury, yet it feels like this is where it should end. The 4-4-2 eminently fits his players better, whilst in the majority of matches, to earn a win, he has tended to revert to a more simplistic version of the system that he started with, therefore it’s natural that it has ultimately led to this compact solution. (On the other hand, it felt like he had little choice but to go with this more orthodox approach – at least positionially, because the three players he has tried to fit into his first XI, Ozil, Ramsey and Aubameyang, didn’t start. And that the three that replaced them, Welbeck, Iwobi and Mkhitaryan have started most of their games in the Europa League, where Emery has tended to use a standard 4-2-3-1).

Even with the change in system, the team tried to play the same way as they have all season, looking to elaborately at times, build from the back – but the positioning is the key, and this is where Emery has subtly looked alter his team’s shape. He used “timing” for the first time to describe where the players should be, and it was particularly apt on here as Iwobi and Mhkitaryan, varying their positioning, helped put Fulham to the sword.

Today is the first we played more clearly 4-4-2 with Danny and Lacazette first, and then Laca with Auba,” said Emery. “It is one process, to know better after training, after every match, after every decision, how we are better on the pitch, between the players, in our tactical system and impose our timing on the pitch in possession with the ball.”

Arsenal 2-0 Watford: Front Four still yet to combine effectively

The balance of power looks to have shifted from Aaron Ramsey to Mesut Ozil, after Arsenal’s 2-0 win over Watford. The substitution of Ramsey early in the second-half seemed to have represented that, as contracted negotiations off the pitch have stalled – been terminated even – whilst Ozil remained on the pitch and scored Arsenal’s second goal.

The contrast in displays was evident; Mesut Ozil was perpetual, always wandering, always looking to affect the game whilst Ramsey was peripheral. That’s not completely his fault of course. Both players have had to accept compromised roles as Unai Emery has tried to fit, not just both of them into his first XI, but Alex Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubemayang too.

Ozil’s struggles have generally more documented because (of the narrative around his national team retirement and that) he’s had to move wide to accommodate, it seems, Ramsey. The Welshman on the other hand, started the season as the poster boy of Emery’s new era, the embodiment of his high-press philosophy – except; we’ve rarely seen that side from The Gunners. Instead, each game has been an experiment in reconfiguration, the subtle tweak here and there to get Arsenal playing properly. Emery again revealed that in his post-match interview explaining the win:

“My idea is to change small details on the pitch to win. Every player is very important, but we need players, when they are in the match, to be hungry to help the team. I think today, every player, starting with Leno – our performance with Petr Cech was very high and today, and with Leno also. Also, I think Danny (Welbeck) and Alex Iwobi went inside and helped us push with their quality. I’m very happy for the team, for the squad. Each match is very important for us to win, to get minutes, to take responsibility, confidence and continue creating our idea and our style. We need to work to continue what we’re doing.”

Against Watford, Emery used – to describe its shape without the ball – a 4-2-3-1 formation. With possession however, it was more ambiguous.  I’ve tended to describe this formation as a 4-2-2-2 because there’s a clear separation of what Emery wants for certain players and the way they react to each other. Indeed, I’ve even heard it described by someone as a 6-0-4, theoretically at least, though it is not completely unrealistic to say that, because there’s an evident split between those players that build, and those that are tasked with staying up the pitch and looking to get into dangerous areas.

Generally, Emery instructs the two central midfielders, Granit Xhaka and Lucas Torreira, to start attacks from deep, whilst the two full-backs push high and wide to open up the pitch, and act as the outlets. This should, in theory, then open up space in the opponent’s half of the pitch to allow the front four to move into pockets, and for Xhaka and Torreira to find them. For the most part though, the team ends up looking short of a linking midfielder, and usually it has been when Emery makes some tweaks at half-time that Arsenal improves. In one such circumstance, against Cardiff in the 3-2 win, Ozil even took it on himself even to roam across the pitch, looking for space to affect the game.

Emery recognised this problem, therefore against Watford, he allowed Ozil to play with more freedom and as such in the first-half, the playmaker was involved more centrally. Certainly, in the fixtures before this game, there was an odd fixedness about Ozil’s role – not even playing on the right wing and roaming inside as we were used to seeing him do under Arsène Wenger sometimes, but playing in a halfway position between the two and struggling to get on the ball as much. His underlying numbers across the board had been down from last season, namely passes per game and chances created (see below). Against Watford, however, he still created the one measly chance (probably because Xhaka takes corner-kicks now, though creating was mainly a team issue), but in terms of getting in the ball, he was more like his usual self. Ozil passed the ball 64 times; still down from his average last season, but encouragingly up by more than 20 this season. It also allowed him to combine more with Xhaka, and indeed, the pair passed the ball between each other 39 times, the highest combination in the game.

Ozil’s growing influence seemed to have a knock-on effect on Aaron Ramsey, who in his 63 minutes played, only managed 19 passes – extrapolated for 90 minutes would have only have got him about 10 more. This is still the main flaw in Emery’s system because this seemed to marginalise Ramsey’s role even further. Not required in advanced central areas – and he also found that he was crowded out in the times that he dropped deep – he was forced to play higher up the pitch, closer to Lacazette. This may have been a purposeful ploy because, as the attackers narrowed, it meant that Arsenal could switch the ball out wide to the full-backs easier, but it meant once again, asking the attacking players to make different movements than they are used to. Nevertheless, when Ozil or the two central midfielders received the ball in central areas, the players lacked the spacing to combine effectively.

 

Examples of the positions the front four took, with Aubemayang and Ramsey often joining Lacazette in the front line

The result of this in-game shuffling meant that Lacazette, in the first-half, tended to get a bit more joy sliding across the front-line and towards the right-channel. Aubemayang and Ramsey on the other hand, struggled to really get into the game – to find their positioning on the pitch – and it was no surprise that they were the first two players substituted. The aim for Emery is to get his four, star attacking players high up and combining/interchanging centrally, but perhaps, the starting position is more unnatural for these two. Iwobi’s impact probably highlights what Emery is trying to achieve but perhaps they lack the skill-set, the versatility, to fulfil his demands. Indeed, Emery has probably even adjusted Iwobi’s role somewhat, asking to take on defenders more so that he fits into the system better. “I’m very happy with his mentality,” said Emery. “He has the quality to play right or left, to [go past players] on the pitch. Also, I want him to stay nearer to the box to score or find assists for team-mates. I think that’s the way for him and for other players.”

Actually, when Iwobi came on, Arsenal actually lost a bit of control as the game became end-to-end and conceded, as the manager noted in this period, “two big chances.” By this point, Ozil had altered his position a third time, finally moving to the middle after having started the second-half on the left-flank, with Aubemayang switching to the right, giving Arsenal a more orthodox 4-2-3-1 balance.

Conversely, Ozil was less influential when he moved to the no.10 position, yet he still managed to get on to the end of a Lacazette cross to score the second-goal. When the opener went in, which was an own-goal from Craig Cathcart following a good run from Iwobi, you could even say the balance of play was more with Watford than Arsenal. Indeed, the Hornets troubled Arsenal right from the start, pushing them back with long-balls up to to Troy Deeney and Andre Gray, whilst initially, Will Hughes was the key man, helping to overload the middle. But Arsenal grew into the game after twenty-minutes and began exerting their ideas soon even if chances were not as flowing. In the end, Emery reverted to a pragmatic approach that once again earned Arsenal the win. To his credit, his tweaks have often got Arsenal over the line, yet it feels like an obssession, a statement even, that he can coach possession football – that he can follow the tradition of the “Arsenal Way” when perhaps the answer is simpler. The result, however, has meant it’s gone the opposite way – the build up is cleaner, but the attacking combinations are still a work in progress.

Arsenal 2-0 Everton: Emery prepared to play the long game to defeat opponent

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Arsenal secured their first clean sheet of the season by performing their now all-too-familiar routine of playing not-very-well, and winning. Since defeats to Manchester City and Chelsea in their first two games, the following four wins have repeated the same pattern; a stuttering first-half, forcing a change to the team, leads to a brief, but generally dominant, passage of play that sees them get over the line. Indeed, these are the same exact words I used in my last blog following the 2-1 win over Newcastle except there was no substitution – although there could have been, as Unai Emery was seriously contemplating taking off Andre Lacazette seconds before the striker opened the scoring.

For Emery, the question is not will Arsenal improve but when will they improve because the gulf in quality has been evident in each of those wins, but the manager has so far failed to impress upon their opponents’, their “ideas” for longer than brief periods of the game. Here that period Emery cited as “20 minutes where the team attacked well to win the game and in the last minutes we defended very well near our goalkeeper and in our box.”

The main issues that Emery needs to correct are the number of chances the team gives away, usually as a result of or after the laborious way in which they build up. Indeed he was conscious of that against Everton therefore he eschewed some of the short passing for a longer game, expecting the Toffees to press. By the end, Arsenal had attempted 62 long passes, their highest amount in a game this season, which was 11% of their total passes (usually averaging around 7%).

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Arsenal completed more long passes against Everton compared to vs Newcastle, but it’s the type that differs, generally looking for the switch of play to the left as opposed to the ball out from the back from Cech.

Emery asked his team to look for the switch early as much as possible; indeed he could be seen gesticulating, when the ball went out towards the near side to where he was standing, to spread the ball out quickly to the left-flank. It was a tactic Emery maintained in the second-half, sensing that Arsenal were getting a lot of joy in attacking the left side. “We know what we’re capable of and we had to keep doing what we’ve been pushing for,” said Rob Holding. “We were getting in behind them a few times down the left-hand side, so that was a good threat for us and we kept pushing and managed to get the two early goals in the second half. It was just about keeping a clean sheet after that.”

It’s possible that the tactic changed slightly to how Emery planned it initially, as he had practiced in the warm-up, Shkodran Mustafi and Sokratis pinging long-balls to each other but in particular, Hector Bellerin bringing down passes and crossing. The right-back has been a key weapon for Arsenal, often the main outlet when attacking, but here perhaps he was a bit exposed by the demands and the lack of cover from Mesut Ozil, and Marco Silva, Richarlison, sensed that by getting behind him or attacking that space frequently in the first-half. In the second period, the switch was to make Bellerin more cautious to minimise the threat, whilst Arsenal went the other way, targetting Nacho Monreal. Subtly, Granit Xhaka played wider too, towards the left-side; indeed, he seemed to do that as well, against Newcastle, when Lucas Torreira came on and he helped create the second goal.

In Arsenal’s system perhaps it encourages this type of movement from the holding midfielders because Emery asks for them to alternate splitting wide but here, Xhaka seemed to leave dropping between the centre-backs more for Torreira in the second-half. (And as such, maybe it’s no wonder Arsenal keep getting counter-attack if they keep opening the middle? Plus, it’s a really unorthodox way of building up as generally teams like to build with a 4-1-4-1 shape. Arsenal’s system is perhaps a variant of that as Ozil then takes the right interior position if Xhaka goes wide, and Ramsey the left side if Torreira/Guendouzi does the same). For the opener, Arsenal started the move going down the left-hand side, went back in, then utilised a switch of play from Ozil to Monreal before moving back up that flank again that saw eventually, Lacazette creep in to score.

Actually, Arsenal started the second-half on the back foot, on the one hand because Everton began pressing with more intensity, but on the other hand, The Gunners’ attacking players were quite aggressive in their positioning. It led to Arsenal struggling to find their target from the back and they initially looked susceptible in the middle of the pitch, but it suddenly began to pay off. The first-goal was a culmination of both these things, but also from the second-goal, you could see how high the front four were in order to hit Everton on the break or quick switch (see stills from below the 10 minutes after the break where Arsenal scored two quick goals).

 

For Emery, the victory, the subtle alteration of players’ positioning, was all down to a change of mentality of the players. It allowed them to earn their first clean sheet of the season and a 2-0 win. “In 90 minutes, there are moments for the opposition and there are our moments,” he said. “We needed our goalkeeper to stop their attacking moments and we needed our strikers to score our attacking moments. Today is a good example. Then we want to control the game more in the first half, because we didn’t have the ball like we want. We conceded two or three important chances to Everton, but in the second half we spoke in the dressing room about stopping their attacking moments with better positioning on the pitch. Also, individually, each player helped to push more in the second half. I think we only conceded one chance from a free-kick which Petr Cech saved very well and there were no more. In attacking moments, we played well in 20 minutes to win this match and in the last minutes we defended very well near our goalkeeper and in our box.”

Newcastle United 1-2 Arsenal: Torreira change brings balance

Matches under Unai Emery have already started to follow a similar pattern. A stuttering first-half, forcing a change to the team, leads to a brief, but generally dominant, passage of play that sees them get over the line. That has been the case in each of the two games for Arsenal since defeats to Manchester City and Chelsea, and indeed, it was no different in the 2-1 win over Newcastle United.

Arsenal were goalless at half-time, not exactly playing poorly but unable to, as Emery said, “input their ideas”. That is broadly, to control the game through possession and to stem the flow of fast attacks that Newcastle sent their way. Therefore at the interval, off went Matteo Guendouzi and on came Lucas Torreira and suddenly the team proceeded to find their fluency. They started playing higher up the pitch, forcing Newcastle back and crucially sapping the press that made life difficult for them in the first-half.

With better possession, Arsenal could finally play the game at their terms. Their reward was the two goals scored in quick succession, both involving heavily the two holding midfielders. First Torreira helped created the free-kick that Granit Xhaka converted from, picking the ball up in the middle and then implanting tempo to the attack with a quick give-and-go with Andre Lacazette. Xhaka himself then was involved in the second goal, darting to the left wing before his cross was eventually followed up by Mesut Ozil.

Emery has now brought on Torreira three times  to such great effect that surely he must be pressing to start. The fall guy unfortunately, looks likely to be Guendouzi who despite acquitting himself well, has not been able to help Arsenal control matches as well Emery would have liked. Maybe he has come to symbolise the beginning of new manager’s era; a player who has all the tools to carry Emery’s demands, yet, perhaps a simpler, more compact version is currently required.

Indeed, this is a slight more aimed at Emery than Guendouzi because it’s clear the manager is so  bogged down on the fine details, the careful positioning of his players, that in the end, he almost always reverts to a simpler formation than the one he started with. Against Newcastle, Emery chose to stick with the amorphous 4-2-2-2 formation that he tried vs Cardiff, but once it was obvious the players were struggling to find the connections on the pitch, he reverted to a pragmatic double-pivot with Xhaka and Torreira at the base. “I am very happy with Matteo and also very happy with Lucas,” Emery said. “Maybe in the second half we needed a little more balance on the pitch with the positioning. Lucas gives us this balance.”

The second-half improvement is borne out by the statistic that Arsenal completed a higher proportion of their passes in the opponent’s half. From only 18% of passes in the attacking third in the first period, that increased to 33% in the second-half. The clip below is perhaps a good example of Arsenal failing to find their connections in the first-half and probably highlights the fact that they played a tad too deep, with Xhaka noticeably gesturing to Guendouzi to push up and get closer to him. Suffice to say, Torreira did just that.

Part of the reason though, for Arsenal’s improvement in the second-half was perhaps that Newcastle tired, and subconsciously dropped back themselves thus inviting Arsenal to play. Indeed, Emery attributes it in part to simple reason that Arsenal scored the first goal and that allowed them to relax and indeed, sometimes the tide of the game turns through the good fortune of an event – a kick-off perhaps because it allowed Newcastle to start the game attacking from the off- rather than an overarching tactical tweak. Still, the substitution of Torreira probably gave Arsenal a rigidity in possession that allowed them to move the ball better. As Pep Guardiola once said it’s better “when the ball goes to the positions players are, than the players move a lot”. That may not align completely with Ozil’s style and indeed that may explain the sometimes perplexing permanence of his positioning, rarely playing on the right flank and drifting in as we’ve come to expect, but rather, starting and staying mainly in the no.10 position. That has perhaps stifled Ramsey a little bit too, and looked better once the change allowed him to move towards the left and the pair no longer clashed in the same areas.

Emery: “In the first half we didn’t control the match like we wanted to. Also, we needed that control to input our ideas. We conceded a lot of chances for transitions and counter-attacks, but not giving away major chances. They had a lot of corners and a lot of possibilities to arrive in our box. In the second half, the balance on the pitch was better – our positioning and when we were attacking we didn’t make the transition easy for us. I think the key is the first goal. This goal gave us the confidence to continue to improve in the match. We finished the match with the result.”

Cardiff 2-3 Arsenal: Emery makes slight tweak to fit Ozil in

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By the time Mesut Ozil’s number came up, six minutes before the end, there was an acceptance that he had done enough. For some reason he has a point to prove; to show to people, the coach, that he fits into Unai Emery’s philosophy. In the end, his impact on the match was subtle, inconspicuous almost – an improvement in the second-half nevertheless, that coincided with Arsenal eventually securing the win.

It was Ozil’s involvement in the second goal that displayed why he is so priceless to Arsenal, and why Emery must find a way to fit him in. He picked up the ball midway though Cardiff’s half, stopped, surveyed the scene, then almost as if the gears suddenly clicked into place, zipped the ball to Lacazette’s feet. The striker then played the ball first time round the corner perfectly for Aubemayang to curl home. It’s not inconceivable that Ozil planned the whole move through. Except that he probably wanted the return from Aubameyang as he made a run beyond him that for a split second, opened up space for the number 14 to shoot.

Indeed, before the game, Emery said that where Ozil will play will change; depending on the opponents, and the players that are available. “I like the possibility to have the player play different positions on the pitch,” the manager said. “It depends each match and it is the same for other players too. For that, Mesut has played with me on the right wing and also as No 10 and we are going to continue to do that.”

Here, the selection seemed like a happy compromise. Ozil started in a position in between no.10 and right wing – which was at times, neither really. As a result, in the first half, he looked slightly confused as to where to be on the pitch. Lacazette was in his areas, Ramsey was getting the ball in the space he likes to receive it, Bellerin too – and even Matteo Guendouzi as this denied him from dropping deep.

The shape similarly was a strange one as once more, Emery varied his structure in order to find the perfect balance. He used broadly what was a 4-2-2-2 in possession against Cardiff with Aubemayang vacating the left flank at times to support Lacazette in attack. Ozil occupied an inside right position though weirdly fixed rather than the roaming role he was usually given by Wenger. He was often on the same line as Ramsey in the first-half, with Guendouzi and Xhaka making the double pivot behind, the latter drifting more towards the left side, allowing often Guendouzi to pick up the ball from deep central positions.

As explained though, he never really got going in the first period. In the second-half however, through his own volition or as a result of better spacing from the team, as Emery reasoned, Ozil grew in influence. He began drifting to the other flank, much like he did under Wenger, following his own inimitable sense of intuition that just knows where to be on the pitch, that sparked intermittentnly, impetus to Arsenal’s play. The Gunners seemed, not so much to lack that in the first half, but were so preoccupied with fulfilling Emery’s demands to a tee that it was stifling. [Lacazette: “He [Emery] wants us to keep the ball and possession. Today we made a lot of mistakes, even though he told us before to be careful. If we listen to what we asks us, then we can do a lot.”] Ozil’s disorder then, was like an enzyme that got Arsenal going.

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Ozil before Arsenal’s second goal to came it 2-1: roamed mainly across the pitch v Ozil after the goal, becoming more disciplined

“I think today in the second half Mesut played a good match because he worked every minute that he was on the pitch,” said Emery. “Maybe with the control and possession [we had] in the second half, and the positions on the pitch, he feels better on the pitch.

“I want to give every player the same condition and every player is very important. With Ozil and his quality, I think we need… his quality for the team.”

The other big decision that again saw Arsenal needing a boost to get over the line was bringing Lucas Torreira in for Guendouzi. So far Emery has resisted the temptation to start him, instead using Xhaka in a base with Guendouzi to presumably help with ball circulation. Bringing Torreira in then adds a little more pragmatism to the setup, but one which has changed the dynamism to Arsenal’s attacks for the basic reason that it simplifies Arsenal’s approach.

Against West Ham when Torreira came on, the team went from an asymmetric 4-3-3 to a standard 4-2-3-1 that covered the flanks better, and that allowed Arsenal to manage the game better. At Cardiff, Torreira came up with the assist for the winner, and generally was tenacious without the ball. Perhaps a midfield of Xhaka and Torreira is a little slow for Emery’s liking (pace wise), and in the back of his mind, maybe he is wary of seeing a repeat of the approach Arsenal took against Chelsea where they sat back. He also seems to favour an asymmetric approach, but so far – which further adds to Torreira’s viability – Emery is unwilling to deviate from using two number 6s to achieve this balance.

Preseason suggested a use of a 4-3-3 and the team extensively practiced the approach, but once Emery realised the profile of players he has in his midfield – his squad – he has tried to tinker with a number of variations to suit them. Without wingers, the full-backs provide the width whilst the “wide” midfielders are no.10s nominally tuck in. Indeed the key reason Arsenal failed to find their fluency against Cardiff, according to Neil Warnock, was that they were often left exposed. “I thought their full backs were as poor as they’ve been when you look at the games they’ve had this season. We had some great chances today.” Cardiff especially had success down their left side as Ozil in the first-half failed to transition to the flank quick enough. (They played 10 out of 13 crosses from Ozil’s side in the first period). Nevertheless, the full-backs were often the best players especially Monreal on the other flank, whilst Bellerin wasn’t as effective without the in-to-out runs that Henrikh Mhkitaryan normally provides. Ozil was better, as noted when he went the other way, towards the left in the second period, but in the first-half, it was conspicuous the absence of any such movement from him.

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Arsenal’s right-sided bias was more pronounced v West Ham

For Emery, the positioning of the attacking midfielders are very deliberate in order to help with the “spacing” and allow Arsenal build out properly. So far, that has been the primary focus for Arsenal under the new coach, the pressing emphasised as well of course, and he accepts there will be growing pains as he guides the team towards to the Guardiola dictum that characterises the modern game.

Emery: “It’s very important for me to continue doing this and improving. If you play every time long balls, you lose possession and momentum. We take risks in moments of the match, but when you break their pressing on the pitch you can find space for attacking the opposition. It is for that it’s clear you can maybe do one mistake like today and one action, but we need to continue with this personality. We need to continue also then to do the mix, to [play a] long ball with the space for the first action, and the second action to win possession on the pitch and then continue going forward to the opposition goal.”

Arsenal 3-1 West Ham: Quest for balance continues

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Unai Emery’s quest to find the right balance continued with a 3-1 win over West Ham  United. It was not the most convincing of victories, and after the game, Emery chose to talk about the slight tweaks that led to what he thought, were improvements to Arsenal’s performance. Chiefly, he focused on how Arsenal went from being too open in the first-half, to adding defensive stability in the second-half, without affecting too much the attacking fluidity.

To underline this change, Emery focused on the first goal which he said ended with one full-back, Hector Bellerin, assisting the other, Nacho Monreal. However, he said that this goal wouldn’t have been possible if Arsenal hadn’t played so daring, but of course, in the first-half, playing in this way exposed the defence, particularly behind the full-backs themselves (or mainly, Bellerin). In the second-half, however, he changed it so the defensive midfielders would offer more protection to them.

“We needed to win today and we needed to show our supporters one match with the three points – it was the first objective of today,” said Emery. “But it’s clear we need to improve and we need to improve on working to not concede many chances like today for the opposition… It is clear today that maybe in the first half we wanted to use the right back and left back in the attacking moments and we needed the balance with the midfielders. In the first half, we conceded a lot of options. But in this balance, the first goal is in one action with Hector, finished by Nacho. And another option we didn’t do this attack with the fluidity and the balance for the transition.

“I think in the second half we found this balance better, because we spoke in the dressing room and after the substitutions of players, it made a difference in the second half and it is very important also to help and we need every player….. It’s clear that if we defend with more people in the moment, we can lose our performance for the attacking moments. For that, we need the balance not to lose our attacking moments with this balance. But I think we need to improve. Today, I think the first half and the second half is very different.

Arsenal started the game using a staggered 4-3-3 in the middle, with Granit Xhaka anchoring, and Matteo Guendouzi and Aaron Ramsey to the left and right side of him respectively. As shown by the first-goal, it was mainly a lop-sided system with Guendouzi dropping back to pick up possession, changing the formation to a 4-2-3-1 at times and Ramsey pushing up. Bellerin was the main outlet (44% of attacks came down his side), constantly offering width down the right-flank, and he dovetailed extremely well with Henrikh Mhkitaryan who provided a neat counter-balance to the right-back’s surging runs by positioning himself slightly inside. Indeed, this is how Emery has tried to build his attacks, asking the two attacking midfielders to narrow (then make in-to-out runs) and the full-backs to provide the width. Guendouzi’s positioning is such that he then drops off to provide protection behind, whilst using his energy to counter-press if the ball broke loose. Of course, the implementation didn’t match the theory as often Arsenal were caught on the break and the passing was sloppy.

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In the second-half, Emery changed the formation to a 4-2-3-1 with Lucas Torreira joining Xhaka in the middle, and Ramsey playing the number 10 role. This was more like the system he used in the first two games of the season, and here the balance was better defensively even if the passing still remained inconsistent. Ramsey pressed high up the pitch, whilst Torreira generally hung back to cover Bellerin’s surges forward.

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At the moment, it seems like the latter formation is the best style for Arsenal given that they are still developing their style, whilst Emery indicated before the 3-2 defeat to Chelsea that he probably doesn’t have the right profile in midfield to use a 4-3-3 – most of his central midfielders are no.6s who can play no.8.

“We can speak about the No 6, the No 8 and the No 10 [roles],” said Emery. “Torreira today is a six, eight. Normally every player has two positions – Torreira is six, eight. Maybe also Elneny is six and eight. Xhaka maybe also six, eight. Matteo [Guendouzi] maybe six, eight or eight, six.

“Maybe another player, a more attacking player like Aaron Ramsey, he is more of an eight, 10 – but this possibility to play with two or three midfielders, it depends on each match whether to change or not and the demand in each match. Whether we can do one midfielder more either more attacking or more defensive, it depends.”

It was Ramsey, though, who summed up Arsenal’s approach in the most simplest and frankest of terms: “Emery wants us to press and press really high up the pitch, so that’s the biggest thing really and then obviously we’re trying to figure it out going forward as well, so hopefully we can combine the two next week and get another win under our belt.”