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.”