At the almost-halfway point of the season, Arsenal’s progress report would read just that…(work in) progress. As it happened, the 3-1 win over Burnley was the first game The Gunners took a half-time lead in highlighting the difficulty they have had in asserting their style.
Indeed, in the match, Unai Emery chose to go with a 4-4-2 diamond which seemed less of a continuation of his tactics so far, and more a needed compromise given the recent results. Of course, adaptability has been a key feature of Emery’s reign, switching formations from match-to-match – half-to-half even – but there was a need to reign that back a bit here and take a pragmatic approach in terms of selection. That broadly meant playing your best players in their best positions, so Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang started together up front, and Mesut Ozil played behind.
The experiment lasted about 37 minutes, when Nacho Monreal had to depart through injury, and Arsenal switched to a 3-4-1-2. In any case, they were playing a similar sort of system anyway, as Granit Xhaka tended to drop off, not right in between the two centre-backs, but slightly ahead because Burnley used two strikers themselves who stopped the two defenders passing out, so Xhaka was forced to come deeper to collect. Once Monreal exited the game, Arsenal lost some of their fluency as now Xhaka became the left-sided centre-back, and they were not comfortably able to draw Burnley out. (Burnley also played very direct, aiming long balls behind Arsenal’s midfield, meaning any attempts to get further up the pitch, would see the ball come straight back if they lost it).
Because the first part of the game was more encouraging than the second part, the diamond system will probably be in service again sometime in the season, even if it isn’t used in the next game. It’s clear, though, that there are some parts of the system that Emery is uneasy about.
For a start, a more inventive team would probably have exposed the space in behind so that does little to alleviate Emery’s conundrum of how to solidifying the backline. As such, the second factor, pressing, was largely bypassed, though, Lacazette in particular, showed his worth to the team in that regards. (Indeed, despite not scoring, Emery said he was very happy with the striker because, “he worked very well today. For me, the last matches are the best he has played. He is coming back as the best Lacazette to help us“).
Then there’s the effectiveness of the diamond during the build-up phase. Emery said the plan was “to impose our moments with possession, with good movement on the pitch, moving the ball quickly from one side to the other and progressing with combinations and attacking play in their half.” However, this is not too dissimilar to what he espouses with any formation he uses. The difference is with the positioning.
In most of the games this season, Emery has preferred two number 10s who come off the flank, who begin by stepping inside to receive the ball in the halfspaces. With the diamond, of course, there is an absence of such players. It requires then, the central midfielders to split wide and use their energy to support the full-backs. In the first period, The Gunners did have some good moments, though, it seems like the system would suit having Aaron Ramsey or Lucas Torreira as one of the interiores rather than the hard-working, if a little functional, Mohamed Elneny. In any case, Ozil is probably the master at overloading the flanks and he did that, along with Lacazette, who also provides another option in these areas, especially down the right-flank, for the first goal. Both players combined neatly with Ainsley Maitland-Niles, interchanging quick, short passes before Ozil evenutally found Sead Kolasinac with a sumptuous ball. His deft touch was then converted by Aubameyang.
Ozil’s pass map below shows how he drifted from flank-to-flank, looking to always make the extra man. Indeed, what makes Ozil so good is that he, contrary to certain perceptions of him (i.e. laziness), is overwhelmingly a team player. As Michael Cox writes for ESPN, there are two ways no.10s interpret this responsibility of being the fulcrum for the team. The first way is shining through their individuality, like Diego Maradona who would inspire the team with mazy dribbles and goalscoring; the second is less fussy, more concerned with using the confines of their creative freedom to make the team tick, and not with personal glory.
Ozil is much more the latter although Arsene Wenger always implored the German to add a ruthless streak to his game, and Emery now, has taken him out of the side because he hasn’t learned it yet. Whilst being aggressive might go against his character, it’s in keeping with the modern game where the best players are consistent in making their mark on the game directly. Ozil does that with assists, but his overall game is gossamer-like – about darting into spaces behind midfields. He tends not to really waste his time coming deep for possession. “I run a lot and if I see a path where I can really counterattack, I go quickly and read the game,” he says. Indeed, against Burnley, Ozil was involved, first indirectly*, then very directly, even if his shot was (typically) lacking in conviction, for both counter-attacks that led to Arsenal’s final two goals.
In that sense, Ozil is also thoroughly modern even if he seems quite classical too. Because, as Cox writes too, the best creative midfielders need to be able to roam laterally, and he does that well also. His main areas of operation are actually closer to the touchline than at the central edge of the box, using his team-mates runs to double-up and create the overloads that has been so crucial to Arsenal’s game.
Where Ozil doesn’t fit, however, is in Emery insistence of using “attacking midfielders” as he calls, it in the no.10 position(s). He, like Diego Simeone who outlines his thoughts below, probably realises that to play aggressive, possession football, it’s not really possible to play it with a classical no.10. Thus, that player has evolved and moved into other sectors; currently, it seems Emery is fixated on two wide midfielders who move into no.10 positions in the build up. “The word enganche (playmaker) is dangerous,” says Atletico Madrid manager Simeone. “But, I like enganche, although with some variations. More like the playing style of Zidane, call it a prototype of enganche? That evolved into the enganche roles today of Kaká, Totti, Pirlo, Ronaldinho and Robinho. I believe enganche today must come from another sector, there must be wider variety of options.”
Indeed, there has really been only four matches in the league where Ozil has played as a classical no.10; in the 3-2 defeat to Chelsea, where he was replaced on 68′ minutes (by Ramsey), the 3-1 win over Leicester City, where he delivered a virtuoso performance, and in the draws with Crystal Palace and Wolves – yet in that final game, he was asked to play more towards the left. Emery’s idea, though, is in some way, having two players who are stationed slightly inside to allow the team, as he said before, to “move the ball quickly from one side to the other and progressing with combinations and attacking play in their half.”
If we are searching for what is Emery’s philosophy, that to some degree has been the most obvious idea he has tried to implement. Certainly, he wants Arsenal to build better from the back and that set-up, what we’ve mainly seen this season as the “2-2” shape, is probably viewed as the best way of facilitating that style.
He can adjust the layout, as we saw against Burnley (though by necessity mainly, he changed it back to a 3-4-3 by the end of the game) and we have seen during the season. Indeed, in an interview with Marti Perarnau, at the end of last season in charge of PSG, Emery said that as a coach, “I have to develop my ideas on the game a bit more. I love studying tactics. Looking for ways to get the team to play better. For us to play with less fear, and without the handbrake.”
He’s looked to adapt that approach to Arsenal, still showing his commitment to the Arsenal way, but trying to implement his own nuances and outlook to the team. That has hit bumps along the way which he acknowledges will be the case so early in his tenure. “We are doing our process,” Emery said after the Tottenham defeat in the League Cup – which was almost exactly the same thing he said when The Gunners lost against Southampton. “We need to continue creating our identity, our strong ideas to be more consistent in the games. But this is our way.” We will see how much his approach changes during the season and whether he settles on one particular system as his default formation. But for now, it seems Emery will try and build on the key themes we have seen in this (almost) first part of the season.
*As an aside, Aubameyang added, for the second goal, that Arsenal have been working on finishing these types of moments, to be aggressive when facing the defender. Indeed, that can be backed up by the number of videos released on Arsenal Player, featuring these types of drills. “For the second one,” he said, “we worked on this, in front of goal, and this was like yesterday (in training). The first touch was good, the control is important, then you just shoot and try to score!”