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.
2nd-half, Guendouzi helps make the breakthrough moving wide to find space, help overload the left-side (as Arsenal have done a few times this season) #ARS 1-0 #HUD (via @StatsZone): pic.twitter.com/DD9J4AcIiM
— Arsenal Column (@ArsenalColumn) December 8, 2018
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.”