Arsenal secured their first clean sheet of the season by performing their now all-too-familiar routine of playing not-very-well, and winning. Since defeats to Manchester City and Chelsea in their first two games, the following four wins have repeated the same 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. Indeed, these are the same exact words I used in my last blog following the 2-1 win over Newcastle except there was no substitution – although there could have been, as Unai Emery was seriously contemplating taking off Andre Lacazette seconds before the striker opened the scoring.
For Emery, the question is not will Arsenal improve but when will they improve because the gulf in quality has been evident in each of those wins, but the manager has so far failed to impress upon their opponents’, their “ideas” for longer than brief periods of the game. Here that period Emery cited as “20 minutes where the team attacked well to win the game and in the last minutes we defended very well near our goalkeeper and in our box.”
The main issues that Emery needs to correct are the number of chances the team gives away, usually as a result of or after the laborious way in which they build up. Indeed he was conscious of that against Everton therefore he eschewed some of the short passing for a longer game, expecting the Toffees to press. By the end, Arsenal had attempted 62 long passes, their highest amount in a game this season, which was 11% of their total passes (usually averaging around 7%).
Emery asked his team to look for the switch early as much as possible; indeed he could be seen gesticulating, when the ball went out towards the near side to where he was standing, to spread the ball out quickly to the left-flank. It was a tactic Emery maintained in the second-half, sensing that Arsenal were getting a lot of joy in attacking the left side. “We know what we’re capable of and we had to keep doing what we’ve been pushing for,” said Rob Holding. “We were getting in behind them a few times down the left-hand side, so that was a good threat for us and we kept pushing and managed to get the two early goals in the second half. It was just about keeping a clean sheet after that.”
It’s possible that the tactic changed slightly to how Emery planned it initially, as he had practiced in the warm-up, Shkodran Mustafi and Sokratis pinging long-balls to each other but in particular, Hector Bellerin bringing down passes and crossing. The right-back has been a key weapon for Arsenal, often the main outlet when attacking, but here perhaps he was a bit exposed by the demands and the lack of cover from Mesut Ozil, and Marco Silva, Richarlison, sensed that by getting behind him or attacking that space frequently in the first-half. In the second period, the switch was to make Bellerin more cautious to minimise the threat, whilst Arsenal went the other way, targetting Nacho Monreal. Subtly, Granit Xhaka played wider too, towards the left-side; indeed, he seemed to do that as well, against Newcastle, when Lucas Torreira came on and he helped create the second goal.
In Arsenal’s system perhaps it encourages this type of movement from the holding midfielders because Emery asks for them to alternate splitting wide but here, Xhaka seemed to leave dropping between the centre-backs more for Torreira in the second-half. (And as such, maybe it’s no wonder Arsenal keep getting counter-attack if they keep opening the middle? Plus, it’s a really unorthodox way of building up as generally teams like to build with a 4-1-4-1 shape. Arsenal’s system is perhaps a variant of that as Ozil then takes the right interior position if Xhaka goes wide, and Ramsey the left side if Torreira/Guendouzi does the same). For the opener, Arsenal started the move going down the left-hand side, went back in, then utilised a switch of play from Ozil to Monreal before moving back up that flank again that saw eventually, Lacazette creep in to score.
Actually, Arsenal started the second-half on the back foot, on the one hand because Everton began pressing with more intensity, but on the other hand, The Gunners’ attacking players were quite aggressive in their positioning. It led to Arsenal struggling to find their target from the back and they initially looked susceptible in the middle of the pitch, but it suddenly began to pay off. The first-goal was a culmination of both these things, but also from the second-goal, you could see how high the front four were in order to hit Everton on the break or quick switch (see stills from below the 10 minutes after the break where Arsenal scored two quick goals).
For Emery, the victory, the subtle alteration of players’ positioning, was all down to a change of mentality of the players. It allowed them to earn their first clean sheet of the season and a 2-0 win. “In 90 minutes, there are moments for the opposition and there are our moments,” he said. “We needed our goalkeeper to stop their attacking moments and we needed our strikers to score our attacking moments. Today is a good example. Then we want to control the game more in the first half, because we didn’t have the ball like we want. We conceded two or three important chances to Everton, but in the second half we spoke in the dressing room about stopping their attacking moments with better positioning on the pitch. Also, individually, each player helped to push more in the second half. I think we only conceded one chance from a free-kick which Petr Cech saved very well and there were no more. In attacking moments, we played well in 20 minutes to win this match and in the last minutes we defended very well near our goalkeeper and in our box.”