Manuel Neuer plays playmaker in Liverpool draw

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The talk before the game was how the Anfield crowd would whip up a frenzy such that it would inspire their team to replicate it on the pitch. Bayern Munich though, remained unflustered. Each time Liverpool came at them, they simply seemed to grow more composed. In fact the most composed player on the pitch was the one who was the most vulnerable to Liverpool’s pressure: Manuel Neuer. But the goalkeeper seemed to thrive off it, and his defenders sensed it too. Each time they were pushed back, and were unable to pass it through, they simply played it back to Neuer who had the confidence – and just that little bit of extra time to take stock and potentially find a free man.

In reality, weren’t at their fluent best in this 0-0 first leg draw versus Liverpool, but away from home, against such potent opponents, they dominated and that was in large part due to Neuer. His role was both stopper, which surprisingly was less relied upon, and playmaker in one.

Indeed, that’s why goalkeepers have exploded in price in recent years; you’re essentially signing two positions. Liverpool would concur with that thought having broken the transfer record to sign Allison and indeed, the goalkeeper fulfilled a similar role from them last night. However, he was less certain than Neuer, in one case wanting too much time to dribble past his opponent, but instead opting to flick it to a defender in the last minute. They both know the risks their style poses but by creating the conditions to allow them to pick the passes, the goalkeeper turns to such an effective outlet.

That’s how Bayern used Neuer against Liverpool because, knowing that they would be pressed in midfield, they essentially flipped the playmaker from the base of midfield, to the goalkeeper. Thus, Javi Martinez, nominally assuming that deep-lying role, rarely came deep for the ball, and instead moved up the pitch to drag the markers with him so that it would create that extra space for Neuer to pick out the pass.

Indeed, in the past you would probably expect that midfielder to drop in between the centre-backs to open to pitch to play through the press, but here with goalkeepers that are just as good technically, the emphasis has switched somewhat. As such, the two centre-backs Sule and Hummels, didn’t split that wide. This had the added benefit thus, of guarding Bayern from the counter-attack should they lose it trying to play out. In the end, The Germans were not as threatened by Liverpool’s dynamic trio.

In the second-half, to try and implant a bit more fluency to their play, the manager Niko Kovac, did ask Thiago Alcantara, to drop in between the centre-backs when he could. It was telling though, that Thiago was not traditionally playing as the holder in the match; he was just the most technically proficient of the three midfielders and tended to drop in starting from a leftish midfield position. Martinez continued to act as a decoy whilst Neuer was still taking responsibility to beat the press. He ended with 62 passes attempted, a number which you’d expect from a midfielder, and not a goalkeeper.

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West Ham United 1-0 Arsenal: Gunners’ attack just too blunt

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In leaving out one number 10, Unai Emery was punished by another as Arsenal lost 1-0 to West Ham United. Samir Nasri, returning from a doping ban to play against his former club, set up the game’s only goal, whilst Arsenal fans were left scratching their head at the decision to completely omit Ozil from the squad.

At the end of the game, Emery cited “tactical” reasons from dropping Ozil. Quite what they are is revealed, in some ways, by his comments afterwards, adding that “no one player makes the difference between winning and losing the game.”

Of course, this brings to mind his reign in charge of PSG and his difficulties in managing star players like Neymar and Edinson Cavani. In the end, it is said that he caved into the demands of the players. However, Emery insists that that wasn’t the case and instead, he quickly realised that his first job was to make Neymar happy, telling the Brazilian early on that “my work is limited to your strokes of genius.”

Indeed, Emery’s account of his time at PSG is actually more accommodating of his star players – the ones he says that can decide games by “imagining situations by themselves.” But he also talks a lot about the presence of disruptive individuals, and the need to get rid of them sometimes to move forward. “Nobody is perfect, and it is not always necessary to look forward to advance,” he said in an interview with Marti Perarnau. “Sometimes, you can advance while looking back, learning and correcting. Sometimes, you need to do what Guardiola did when he got rid of Deco, Ronaldinho, and Ibrahimovic. Afterwards, Zlatan and his agent got into an argument with Pep? Ok, but they got rid of him, and they got rid of the obstacle preventing them from completing their masterpiece. Pep is a coach who makes masterpieces. What am I missing? Making my masterpieces, real masterpieces. And making them my own.”

Is Ozil the obstacle getting in the way of Emery completing his plans? It’s still not quite clear, though his omission entirely from the match day squad is an error that even he (half) admitted. “Maybe for the bench, some attacking players could have helped,” he said after the defeat. “But I think we had enough with these players,” he added, referring to the decision to have three full-backs on the bench, and youngster Eddie Nketiah.

Indeed, the issue that occupies Emery’s mind greatest at the moment seems to be correcting Arsenal’s defensive stability, and the answer it seems is to throw more defenders into the team. Which is shame because that cautiousness has hampered the progress he was making in that albeit flawed unbeaten run.

For one, moving to the back three means the team has been forced to play through the full-backs more, making attacks predictable when once they were more there to facilitate the build- up style Emery is trying to implement. “Wing-backs for us, and I think for football generally, give us the opportunity to get wide, and sometimes also the surprise of getting deep,” Emery told Arsenal Player. “They give control with the ball when you have players inside.”

The players inside have generally been configured in a “2-2” shape – two holding midfielders (a double pivot) and two attacking midfielders broadly ahead – but more recently, there have been tweaks that have somewhat unsettled the identity; a diamond was used in the 3-1 win over Burnley, then a standard 4-2-3-1 in the 5-1 defeat to Liverpool, and now a 3-4-3 with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang playing loosely towards the right. This final configuration, whilst working very well vs Fulham (4-1), looked very disjointed against West Ham as Arsenal failed to find their connections.

Emery said that the team failed to “control the match like we wanted to….and impose our game plan, our tactical quality.” The Gunners attempted 11 shots in the game, the 5th lowest from any team in the Premier League this season. As such, it is not just an issue with the defensive department, but a shortcoming of the attack – which in some games, is stifled Emery’s philosophy. Of course, the manager has added value to the team with his outlook and approach, but on a match day seems exorbitantly obsessed with showing “respect” to his opponents before eventually making the positive changes that are required.

This, in some way, probably explains why Ozil doesn’t quite fit in because at the moment, the system is king, and if anything, the only one who is allowed to be spontaneous, inventive in the team is Emery. Unlike at PSG, the manager is unwilling to accommodate a free-styler like Ozil (and Ramsey) which suggests even, that he just doesn’t rate the German as much. If he does, he probably deems Ozil incompatible for the high style of pressing that he eventually wants to implement. Indeed, there is probably no space for a classical no.10 in Emery’s system – they have to come from other sectors, hence for him, they tend to start wide and come inside, like Iwobi and Mkhitaryan. When that happens, the full-backs can then push up and Arsenal achieve the optimal structure and positioning that Emery wants.

 

Against West Ham, Arsenal weren’t really able to achieve this shape. In the first-half, for the few chances they created, it was notable that the moves went through Iwobi first, dropping off into the left halfspace, or even when Aubameyang did it in the other other wing. But Arsenal were just too ponderous – too careful even – in getting the ball forward.

Here, whilst Laurent Koslcielny was competent enough to play the zipped pass between-the-lines, he was less comfortable moving wide to the left-flank and offering an angle and bringing out the ball as Rob Holding did. On the other side, Ainsley Maitland-Niles wasn’t as perpetually available as Hector Bellerin, whilst ahead of him, Aubameyang was more suited to getting onto the end of attacks than initiating them.

The lack of a number 10 was obvious – or even a player to move into that space though Mattel Guendouzi tried to do that when he could and flashed two long-range efforts wide. As such, in the first-half, Arsenal relied a lot on Iwobi to provide the impetus, initially starting wide, then moving into the no.10 position and opening up the space for Sead Kolasinac to move forward. This was almost Arsenal’s default tactic. When the formation changed in the second-half to a 4-2-3-1, The Gunners created a couple of chances straight after due to the renewed zest of Aaron Ramsey, but for 23 minutes up to the final whistle, they created none in the face of a claret wall.

“We tried to play, we did well in the first half but didn’t have a lot of chances in the final third,” said Koscielny. “We need to keep calmer in the final third and find the final ball, but in the second half we didn’t start well and conceded early. After that we tried to push for the rest of the game, we had some chances and we didn’t score.”

The goal Arsenal conceded was from a corner-kick, and indeed, Emery wasn’t happy about the number of crossing opportunities Arsenal allowed – 7 in the whole game, with 20 crosses overall. He said that whilst Arsenal didn’t concede many chances, “we conceded metres on the pitch and these metres gave them a lot of corners. From one corner, they scored, and then the match changed. We needed to attack more and better but today, defensively we needed to work well. We created chances but it wasn’t enough to win. Maybe in the first 20 minutes when we created some chances, that was the moment where we thought we could win the match, but then after it was difficult because we didn’t impose all the things we wanted.“

Conceding this much space might have been a consequence of using a back three as Arsenal had one less player to help close down up the pitch, therefore, because the team didn’t want to be overrun in midfield, they were forced to drop back a little bit. With the tweaks, it’s clear Emery is trying to find the system that allows Arsenal to build up with the shape he likes, but still offer defensive security. In the main this season, it’s clear he has veered along the side of caution. Certainly, whilst the main theme of this campaign has been about building from the back and trying to control the game, we haven’t seen the type of high-intensity pressing that he promised when he joined. Of course, it can’t be denied that he has added value to the team by getting them to run more, but his focus – his preoccupation and obsession – thus far has been about positioning and control. He says that actually, this is the purpose of his pressing, that “the idea is not to win the ball back and counter as quickly as possible, but rather to equip ourselves once we have the ball. What Guardiola’s Barcelona did magnificently. We win the ball off of them, but those bastards always won it back. And Pep is doing it with City now. High pressure and win the ball back to start again once in position.”

In the end, it’s not the philosophy or idea that is considered wrong, but perhaps the implementation of it; the insistence in always using two holding midfielders, and having a little bit more trust in his skilful players.

Arsenal 4-1 Fulham: Tightly-marked Gunners find left-wing solutions

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Before Arsenal scored their second goal in this not-entirely-comfortable 4-1 win over Fulham, there was a quite salient point made by the commentator on Bein Sport saying that “Arsenal need a free-stryler right about now.” It was a comment made on the state of the match, but it could have been about the whole season, for The Gunners, under Unai Emery, have played their football stutteringly at the best of times, which, whilst it wasn’t plain sailing under Arsène Wenger, is a contrast to what it was before.

Certainly, one of the reasons suggested for Arsenal’s cautious playing style this season is that Emery, by choosing to bench Mesut Ozil and Aaron Ramsey – and to some degree Alexandre Lacazette – has denied the team of some of their spontaneity, their “free-stylers.” The other argument too against Emery is that his obsession with “control” and “positioning” means that the football is generally stale, and that beyond the odd well-worked goal, can be easy to defend against once you figure out the patterns. Indeed, it’s either by sheer overall quality (namely great finishing ) that Arsenal tend to get over the line, or through changes by the manager – which suggests he might be the only true artist in this team, the only one really, who is allowed to be inventive.

With that being said, it’s through the players’ interpretation on the pitch that Arsenal beat Fulham.

In this game, Fulham chose to man-mark Arsenal all over the pitch by deploying, like their opponents, a 3-4-3 formation. To navigate this challenge facing Arsenal, they did what they usually do; to try to play their way out of trouble and as per usual, it was down the flanks where they found their most joy.

Indeed, when the two sides met earlier this season, a 5-1 win, it was, by Alex Iwobi and Henrikh Mkhitaryan stepping in off their respective flanks and opening room for the full-backs to bomb forward, that Arsenal found space. This time, however, it was the other way round – although mainly down the left – as Alex Iwobi looked to move wider to free himself of his marker (and allow Sead Kolasinac to get forward, often on the inside).

It wasn’t just Iwobi who had to be inventive to evade the attentions of his marker; Granit Xhaka too was being tightly watched in central midfield by Tom Cairney so whenever he dropped to collect the ball, he would follow him. As such, in the first-half, Xhaka tended to move up the pitch to collect the ball, behind the midfielder. That’s how he got his goal, the opener for Arsenal, first by collecting the ball off the centre-backs, but aware not to drop too deep as Cairney was right behind him, and then getting beyond him to get onto the end of the cross.

Indeed, in a neat symmetry of fate, it was Iwobi who found him with the cross, he too having to move away from his marker to get space. In this case, Iwobi moved wide and Odoi, the right centre-back who tried to stick tight to him all game even when Arsenal switched to a 4-3-3, was caught marking space and trying to square up to the onrushing Kolasinac, leaving Iwobi unmarked. Kolasinac, driving inside, played the ball instead to the free Iwobi, and with just a bit of time to get his head up, found Xhaka to prod home.

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Overall, Iwobi had a good game, despite the bouts of hesitancy that are no doubt brought on to some degree, by the groans of the home crowd. It’s clear that his game would be better appreciated by improved decision-making but for now he remains one of Arsenal’s most dynamic players. Which, writing it, feels like a contradiction because he’s very much an incomplete player, consisting of so many raw edges that he literally seems to be imbalanced by it. This season, Emery has tried to shape him into a high-end 1v1 player, urged “to be positive, be direct and prove it in the game.”

The result is a player who seems anxious to impress, sometimes misplacing what seem like easy passes, or important passes, but consistently puts himself into dangerous positions to do so. Against Fulham, Iwobi attempted 12 passes into the penalty area (7 of which found their player), the highest number that any Arsenal has achieved this season (which doesn’t include crosses). The next three in the list are also him showing just how direct he can be. In fact, he’s the fourth best in the top-5 leagues overall, averaging 2.86 (successful) passes per game. It’s not just his willingness to be aggressive, but to be in the right places. Wenger used to talk about the quality of “receptions” (where players received the ball) and it seems, Iwobi is becoming that player. The second and third goal both came from his side, and for both, he didn’t have try to evade his marker, but instead, pinned Odoi back and layed the ball off (both times too!) for the (in)rushing Kolasinac.

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Coming in second against Fulham for passes attempted into the penalty area was Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, and he seemed to enjoy his role on the right of the front-three. Given freedom to move inside he was involved in both goals two and three by drifting all the way across to the other side. On the right of the front three, he was afforded the luxury of not being marked as tightly, and it seemed to suit him, to attack balls into the box with an open body, especially since most of the play was coming from the left side. (In a way not too dissimilar to Theo Walcott perhaps, or when same man used to cross at the near post for Olivier Giroud).

By the time the fourth goal went in, Emery switched the formation to a 4-3-3, conscious he said that Jean Michel Seri was getting a lot of the ball, and “we needed to get a player close to him, to not let him play with the ball very easily. When Aaron Ramsey came onto the pitch, he could do that and can also help us in attacking moments and he scored. The reason for the decision was this and I need to do my work.” At that moment, Arsenal were in a bit of bother, having just conceded, and looked a bit suspect defensively on the counter. But two quick goals soon ended that nuisance as Arsenal got back to winning ways.

Liverpool 5-1 Arsenal: Defensive frailties shown up again in big defeat

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For a while it looked like there might be a tactical battle developing. Liverpool had committed left-back Andy Robertson, high up the pitch, forcing Arsenal’s wildcard selection, Ainsley Maitland-Niles – chosen in part to track the Scotsman’s runs – back with him.

Liverpool had already created a couple of low value openings stemming from that side in the first ten minutes, and it looked like it’d be a matter of time till they punished Arsenal. However, Arsenal adjusted. They saw that they couldn’t press Liverpool so far up the pitch, so instead, they let the centre-backs have the ball. This meant that now Virgil van Dijk and Dejan Lovren had to work a bit harder to find the space. Initially all they had to do was draw Arsenal towards them – towards the right side of the pitch – before switching it to the other side to Robertson (or Sadio Mane). However, on the first time that Arsenal really dropped off a bit, The Reds committed an error. The ball was given away by Lovren, Arsenal broke, and with Robertson so far up the pitch, Maintland-Niles stole free unmarked at the back-post.

“Arsenal…had the high formation,” Jürgen Klopp said of the match at the beginning. “And they knew where they have to defend us because we didn’t move that good in between the lines so we had not a lot of options. Dejan Lovren, ball right, everybody shouts him [but] nobody is moving anymore. Also he tries to play the ball in behind and we follow that ball, run a lot, lose it there, run a lot – it was not necessary. It was not Dejan’s fault, nobody moved. He has the ball but nobody wants it.”

After that, however, the match descended into farce; into the tactical battle we hoped wouldn’t develop but expected to develop: that of Liverpool attacking Arsenal’s (naive) backline at speed. Arsenal couldn’t cope* and fell behind 4-1 at half-time.

“I think we started well,” said Emery. “But after our goal, they pushed, and when they push here, they play with great determination and with players who can make a difference all over the pitch. They scored three quick goals and it was a difficult moment for us….Defensively we need to be stronger, to work. Our defensive moments in our box, it’s my responsibility and then we need the balance. We need to keep the balance in the middle. We lost today 5-1, we need to keep the balance in the middle, be serious and continue on Tuesday with a big match at the Emirates.”

Because Arsenal conceded so quickly, there was no question asked of what could have been if Arsenal had been able to hold on for longer. It felt like the floodgates were there to be burst open, and it was only a matter of time. True, some of the goals Arsenal allowed were through mistakes, but the biggest error was probably Emery believing Arsenal could go toe-to-toe with Liverpool up the pitch. Indeed, he seemed to suggest a more pragmatic approach was probably needed with his (almost throwaway) comments after the game: “Maybe we can do one balance, one mix between our draw (the 1-1 v Liverpool in November) and this result today,” and the reiteration of needing “to keep the balance in the middle.”

Emery chose to press up the pitch, using a 4-2-3-1 with Aaron Ramsey behind Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. The likely compromise, the one which he was hinting at to shore up the centre of the pitch, would have been to drop Ramsey into a 4-3-3 and play 10-yards deeper.** Certainly, the personnel he selected seemed to have the counter-attacking ability to spring forward from deep positions, especially since Liverpool, as Klopp bemoaned slightly, “were a bit too open, a bit too wide in the formation.” Alex Iwobi, in particular, was Arsenal’s most dangerous player, especially when he attacked the outside of the right full-back, and Emery was quick to praise how “after some matches not playing very well, today he played 90 minutes with a good performance.” Ramsey also received some appreciation, this time from Klopp, for his movement and by forcing Liverpool to readjust after the break because he “was constantly in the half-spaces. [That] makes life a little bit uncomfortable with only two central midfielders, so we put in a third one and controlled that.”

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With Emery proving he has the clear-headedness to reassess Arsenal’s style, he will be given some leeway in terms of getting the blame this humiliating result. It’s clear that he’s trying to build a different type of Arsenal and along the way, there will be bumps in the road. The issue is that the same shortcomings that afflicted the last five years of Arsene Wenger’s reign still prevail here. The playing style has marginally improved on last season if that, because the majority of Arsenal matches, even against teams lower down, are mainly dour affairs. It’s clear in those games, the team is trying to grapple with the demands of the system, which Emery in all honesty, seems to be amending on the fly.

Still, it’s been the saving grace of the season so far because these are necessary steps to get Arsenal into the modern age in terms of playing. All the top teams in the league have adopted some sort of positional play, and Emery, with his insistence of building out with a “2-2” shape, it is his way of implementing this approach. However, his ideas are not fully formed and that’s why you are seeing these jerky, half-performances. He admitted, at the end of last season in charge of PSG still, that he is still “learning and maturing. I am very fond of self-criticism. I still have a long way to go. Doing my best to manage the bad moments and defeats…[…]… 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.”

It’s clear that he’s taken that experience with him to Arsenal. The goal now would be, as he says, is to make Arsenal more secure defensively, and that may now mean we get to see more of the high-pressing philosophy he is renown for. And also, to improve on the attack, which while over-performing xG, is relied on mainly to be clinical to get its goals. That suggests that his ideas are still not being transmitted as clearly; that while there have been flashes of good combination play, some good goals, it hasn’t permeated through the whole of the pitch. Indeed, as much as you need to defend better and have good defenders, being able to attack well is a form of that and perhaps that might have been the best, and easiest way, to defend against Liverpool.

Footnote

*Shkodran Mustafi revealed he finds it harder to play against these types of attacks, and it’s little wonder then that he struggled:

“As a centre half, we’re a little bit bigger and not as quick as the strikers, and when the opponent is playing with a striker that likes to play a lot of short passes and run quickly down the channels, that’s a thing which for me is really difficult to defend against. It’s no longer one against one, it’s more and you’ve got to be comfortable in the back four and give quick information to your team-mate playing next you.

“When it goes through passes and there are quick one-twos, you can’t defend against it on your own. Until you give your team-mate that information, there’s always one or two seconds where you might lose your opponent and he goes through. That’s the most difficult style you have to play against as a defender.”

**Indeed, as Klopp reveals, many teams have chosen to counter-attack against Liverpool resulting partly in this 4-2-3-1 formation he used against Arsenal. Similarly, he says “a lot of teams saw that we were good at counter-pressing and realised they were overplaying.” Initially Arsernal also realised that, so were not scared to go long. Klopp says they forced Arsenal to do that, and interestingly, when they pressed, they used a 4-3-3 shape because they knew Arsenal would try to play. At the end of the game, The Gunners were forced to, and the second-goal came as a result of the Liverpool counter-pressing.  “The second goal was just brilliant defending,” said Klopp. “Sadio comes inside, puts the defender under pressure, wins the ball back then bam – Bobby (Firminho) goes more or less through the wall and scores that fantastic goal.”

Brighton 1-1 Arsenal: Emery changes have little effect in second-half

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If there was ever a honeymoon period for the new Arsenal manager, Unai Emery, then that’s well and truly over now. At the halfway point in the season, questions are being asked of Emery’s philosophy, his style, and after the 1-1 draw with Brighton, complaints of another insipid display by The Gunners.

Indeed, up until this point, the manager had been the star turn of Arsenal’s season for the way he has been able to reverse an often average or below-par display into a match-winning (or saving) one. Now, however, the changes are starting to seem of a manager who is unclear on how to deliver his gameplan, over-complicating matters to some degree, to the detriment of the team.

Of course, those accusations would be a little harsh on Emery because it can be said he is only now entering his first real downturn of results – and unfortunately, those teams in the top positions haven’t yet experienced a semblance of bad form yet. In any case, before then, his proactiveness during games seemed necessary for a team who in all honesty, are a mishmash of talents that, on a match day, you could arrange in an infinite number of ways, without ever finding the right balance. In that sense, then, a lot of burden has been placed on the coach to get it right and he’s grabbed that with gleeful hands. The problem is, however, that despite wrestling results through positive changes during games, it’s papered over the cracks of what have generally been low quality performances from Arsenal.

Indeed, against Brighton, Arsenal only mustered 7 shots during the whole game, and one of them after half-time where Emery made his first change. But that’s in keeping really with the whole season so far as The Gunners only average 12.7 shots per game, 10th in the league. Therefore, when Arsenal took the lead against Brighton, it was unsurprising to many that they couldn’t build on it.

They had started so well, taking the lead on ‘7 minutes when Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang slotted home, but any hopes that Arsenal would assert their dominance on the game further, would rest on them being as clinical as they have been for this season. (Arsenal have over-performed xG by 13 goals). Aubameyang had two further opportunities through the only way Arsenal were able to get through Brighton’s defence; from balls over the top. Indeed, the home side had approached the game looking to drop-off and keep Arsenal at arm’s length really. Going behind didn’t change their game-plan much – they were still very passive in the first-half – and as midfielder Dale Stephens reveals, it was all about staying in the game, looking for the opportunities on the break – which is how they got their equaliser.

“We were aware of the quality in their team and we knew we’d have to surrender a bit of possession early on,” said Stephens. “We did that, but they didn’t create many clear-cut chances overall and I thought we stepped up in the second half and could’ve won it. We were disappointed with the way we let him [Aubameyang] in with one pass in the first half (a one-on-one which was tipped wide), but Maty [Ryan] has bailed us out several times this season.”

As against Burnley in the last game, Emery chose to go with the diamond formation which, as I wrote, is the ideal fix for now simply because it allows him to use his best players in their best positions. The sticking point, however, is that it requires a compromise of the type of playing style which he is trying to implement, and it was clear, with his change at half-time, that it didn’t rest easy with him the space Arsenal could potentially afford Brighton when they pushed forward. As it happened, Brigjton really only punished Arsenal once, late in the first-half, and that from their (Arsenal’s) own corner-kick. Nevertheless, after the break, Emery reverted to his tried-and-tested format of using two holding midfielders (and two attacking midfielders broadly in front) – which some have labelled the “2-2” shape. The result, Emery said, was that “we had control with possession but not with creating chances against them. It wasn’t enough to win the game today.”

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Arsenal heat map from 1st to 2nd half, highlighting how the control and use of possession changed. In the first-half, it was more right-sided as Ozil drifted there; in the second-half, you can almost see the 2-2 shape in the middle!

By moving to the 4-4-2 at half-time (then changing the formation twice more during the game by first bringing on Aaron Ramsey to go to a 4-2-3-1, then Ainsley Maitland-Niles and switching to a 3-5-2 which he said was to “give Ainsley more chances to go forward in more attacking moments, because his quality is more for that”) it meant there was no space for Ozil in the system. Quite why Emery doesn’t trust Ozil in the wide midfield roles can be put down to his penchant for using attacking midfielders” in these positions, players who can fulfil a variety of demands, especially in Ozil’s case, defensively. (I’ve already expanded on this before so read my previous reports for a breakdown).

The change in formation, though, as we explained before, was also to allow the team to free up the full-backs and attack with this “2-2” shape. For Emery, this is the best way to exert control on the game – indeed, if there has been a philosophy, a playing style, which he has tried to implement so far this season, this has been it. With the two players in front of the defence, and two wide midfielders who can step in, it allows, in his eyes, a subconsciously even distribution of players across the pitch, and to help move the ball side-to-side and guard counter-attacks better. “Tactically, some matches I did that and I wanted to control it better with the positioning on the pitch. But in the second half we couldn’t do our ideas on the pitch for imposing ourselves and this imposing positioning can give us more options in attacking moments to score. We created less chances in the second half and not clear [chances].”

Of course, switching formations wasn’t really the problem but the change in personnel, which means for once, Emery got his subs wrong. He removed Ozil and replaced directly in his position on the right  – because in the first-half he tended to drift there mainly – Lucas Torreira. Initially there was some confusion about who was playing where, but Torreira did move to the right-flank, and Alex Iwobi came on to the left.

The dynamic didn’t change badly – in fact, Brighton started the second-half stronger and broke more freely as Arsenal’s build-up became more functional. Indeed, that’s another criticism of Emery; that his handling of Ozil (and Ramsey) means that he has stripped the team of the spontaneity that Wenger had, and that’s one reason the team creates so few chances. He’s put Lacazette and Aubameyang together up front now, and while the two are working as a tandem well, they are being relied on recently to be clinical. Guendouzi was actually the chief creator in the first-half but without the freedom of movement granted to him in the second, he, and Torreira too, was unable to pick out the runs.

Brighton, on the other hand, were less worked now. They chose to start with the match a 4-3-3, dropping Pascal Gross into the midfield whereas usually he plays behind the striker in a 4-2-3-1. “We have played that system here a few times and against a few of the top teams away from home,” said Dale Stephens “I think it works when you want to keep hold of the ball a bit more and it works away from home, and you look at the Burnley and Huddersfield games, where we’ve put in good performances. If the manager wants to play me sitting in a three, then I am happy to do that and help the team.”

Initially, however, Brighton were too stand-offish and Arsenal – and Guendouzi in particularly – could pick passes over the top. Granit Xhaka too, was comfortably able to receive the ball from just in front of the two centre-backs as Arsenal formed a de facto three at the back with possession. That didn’t seem to wash easy with Emery, however, as I called it during the game, thus the change of system – if not personnel – was predictable. Arsenal were getting forward a lot with the full-backs – Lichsteiner especially (even if his impact was lacking therefore Emery was forced to bring Maintland-Niles in later in the game) – and whilst Brighton rarely looked threatening, the set-up seemed to have a look of Wengerish gung-ho about it. That in part, tells you a bit about Emery’s philosophy, which, whilst since he has taken over, been trying to impart a possession/positional orientated play, is grounded in pragmatism and safety-first.

At the end of the game, Emery said the changes were tactical, to take advantage of the different skilsets individual players bring. “It is one decision tactically, and also because we have [done] it before….when it tactically changes something, not for the player but for the team. A lot of the matches when we play in the second half, for example Iwobi, it helps us with a different situation tactically and helps us to win the matches. In other matches, when we changed for the second half we took the performance to go to win. Yesterday, my intention was the same.”

Emery also addressed the issue in his pre-match conference, of having the right balance during transitions, and the need to improve that. But judging his comments, it seems as if there will be more tinkering abound.

“We need more,” Emery said. “But we need more from everybody and we need more also in our demanding ideas, and we need to continue working on things. But it’s not for receiving (conceding) the goal in the transition, because also, when we receive (score) one goal we are having mistakes. The mistakes are not only one player, or two players or three players, but maybe also in the ideas.

“Also, in the last matches we are having a lot of injuries in the defensive positions. We need to change some players and play in different positions, like they are usually playing, like with Xhaka and Lichtsteiner. The behaviour and the commitment of the players is good to help us in different positions, but we need also to take more balance in these situations above all, in defensive moments. It is one thing: collective. It’s not just for the defence or for the attacking player, it is for all. With this balance, I am happy but also knowing that it isn’t enough at the moment for us.”

Arsenal 3-1 Burnley: Diamond system likely to be quick fix

Arsenal FC v Burnley FC - Premier League

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.

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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!”

Southampton 3-2 Arsenal: Mhkitaryan’s double not enough

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So finally, Arsenal’s laborious 22-game unbeaten run has come to an end. There was no flurry at the opposition goal, no desperate salvo to save it; instead, inevitability, despite it being broken by the Premier League’s 19th placed team.

That’s because conditions were not the greatest to begin with. The Gunners only had one fit senior centre-back to choose from against Southampton, therefore they had to drop Granit Xhaka into the defence. When the winner came, it was the third headed goal Arsenal conceded, which in a sense, encapsulated their run; that failure to learn from their lessons will eventually come back to bite them.

Indeed, Arsenal fell behind again in the first-half in this match – stretching that other league record of not leading at half-time to 17-games. This time there was no comeback. Of course, we all knew that winning (or not losing) this way was never going to be sustainable but the hope was that Arsenal – or Unai Emery rather – would eventually learn from it.

There is an argument that Arsenal’s defence is simply not good enough and that’s the reason for the team consistently falling behind or losing their lead. It’s harsh to come to such conclusions against Southampton, who simply took advantage of the unfamiliarity of the backline. Their three goals were startling for their similarity as each was scored with the head. As goalscorer Danny Ings reveals, they targeted Arsenal’s makeshift defence with crosses. With the striker peeling off the blindside of the middle centre-back, Laurent Koscielny, he, and then later, Charlie Austin, was able to target the weaker, inexperienced defender in the air. “We knew that those crosses will be dangerous, we’ve been working on them all week,” said Ings. “The crosses were just unbelievable, and I was there to tuck them away.”

Whilst the defence, even with the first choice available, is a concern, after the game Emery seemed not unduly worried about the team going forward. He said: “One reality is we need to improve and concede less. We are scoring a lot, we are second in the table for goals scored, but we have also conceded a lot – at least more than we want for our objective.”

As we know, the team is over-performing xG (by 12 goals), and with the expert finishing skills of Lacazette and Aubameyang, perhaps Emery feels Arsenal will continue converting at a high rate. What’s more revealing, however, is Emery’s quotes before the defeat to Southampton on the need to forge an identity, and how each game is a learning process –  which inevitably brings with it growing pains. “Every match gives us a struggle in terms of work and continuing in our way,” he said. “Against Southampton on Sunday, it’s about preparing for a different match. We need to create a stronger identity and our personality is getting better in each game. We are playing games our way.”

Indeed, the need to play “our own way” is important to Emery as he looks to follow in Arsene Wenger’s footsteps and show that he is committed to Arsenal’s “style of play”. In a sense, he’s trying to establish a new type of Arsenal Way and this constant tweaking perhaps, is him trying to make his own stylistic statement. Certainly, previously he may have been seen almost exclusively as a 4-2-3-1 man (as Guardiola said) but realises that to play aggressive, possession football, it’s not really possible to play it with a fixed 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 right-sided player aggressively more so.

We saw that against Southampton as Arsenal continuously tried to get Iwobi and Mhkitaryan between-the-lines. Of course, they struggled, as Southampton marked them tightly, using a back three to allow them to stick tightly to those creators. Iwobi in particular failed to get into the game as the right-sided centre back, Bednarek, chose to follow him every time he dropped off to receive the ball. Indeed, using a back three, seems the best option now to counter-act Arsenal, especially since they’ve moved to a 3-4-3, because it gives the team coverage across the pitch as they know The Gunners will try to play the ball wide. That’s what Southampton forced Arsenal to do and as manager Ralph Hasenhuttl reveals, his team “set some traps and Arsenal with very good individual players have problems to create chances.”

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Still, Arsenal played with patience, refusing to get bogged down, and instead, used it to their advantage for the first goal, moving the ball from right to left, and then springing Nacho Monreal behind. Iwobi, by this point, was forced to get wider to receive the ball, and he combined nicely to free Monreal. His cross found Mhkitaryan and when the midfielder fired home, it was feasible to imagine then, that this was Emery’s perfect type of goal.

To begin with, the finisher. A lot has been made of Emery trying to fit Mesut Ozil in, but  at this moment, it doesn’t seem as if the playmaker fits the profile of what he is looking for in his no.10, an “attacking midfielder” as he called Mhkitaryan and Ramsey after the 1-1 draw with Wolves, a player who is aggressive, who takes on a lot of demands, and as Jose Mourinho says, anyone who plays in this position must take 3 shots a game. Mhkitaryan fits this remit, despite probably not having the possession-balancing qualities and creative abilities of Ozil. Emery gave him the freedom to aggressively move inside, as Ozil is wont to play, and it’s clear he had a little more freedom than Iwobi, tending to move into the no.10 position to pick up the ball, or deeper, off the full-back. Mkhitaryan got his second by playing a bit narrower in the second-half as Emery switched to a 4-4-2, picking the ball up outside the box as Matteo Guendouzi and Lacazette combined to steal the ball off Oriel Romeu, then seeing his shot deflected in.

The second aspect of Emery’s ideal goal was fulfilled by the role of full-backs. He wants his team to open the pitch of course, and that means committing the full-backs forward. At the start of the season, against West Ham, they scored with both Bellerin and Monreal combining but since then, Emery has had to reign that in somewhat because it was leaving The Gunners exposed. It’s notable then that both full-backs were involved for the first goal, because for a while, he was unwilling to commit both of them forward at the same time. That has led to the team focusing more on one flank – usually the left-side – but with the goal, perhaps it can convince Emery he can find the right balance to achieve this more regularly. He always wants a “2-2” shape, and with the full-backs going on the outside, it allows the attacking midfielders to step inside, and create a sort of subconscious symmetry. Perhaps in that sense, Emery has become a bit risk-averse. His first-half selections are thus about controlling, about feeling their way into games in the hope that the ideas will come together, and then their superiority will win it in the end. What’s happened instead, is that first-halves tend to be soporific, and the adjustments are not so much to correct the errors, but because of that inability to marry possession with risk.

In the second-half, Emery adjusted his formation and used a narrow 4-4-2, but still retained this “2-2” set-up in the middle. He said this led to “better control in the game and creating more chances than them, controlling the transitions….Our game today was very similar to how we have played before, but the result is different. We also had chances to score more than the two goals but we didn’t score. Maybe the difference is this. The control in the game over 90 minutes is more for us than them. We need to continue improving details, because three times we conceded chances.”