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.
Emery: "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.." pic.twitter.com/HHI0d1VIUO
— Arsenal Column (@ArsenalColumn) August 26, 2018
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.
Quick piece trying to interpret Emery's post-match comments in context to the formation changes he made v West Ham. Went from lop-sided 4-3-3 to 4-2-3-1 with Torreira/Xhaka protecting the full-backs https://t.co/nZLgjKU6ku pic.twitter.com/jqSGnKBsTa
— Arsenal Column (@ArsenalColumn) August 26, 2018
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.”