Arsenal 2-0 Watford: Front Four still yet to combine effectively

The balance of power looks to have shifted from Aaron Ramsey to Mesut Ozil, after Arsenal’s 2-0 win over Watford. The substitution of Ramsey early in the second-half seemed to have represented that, as contracted negotiations off the pitch have stalled – been terminated even – whilst Ozil remained on the pitch and scored Arsenal’s second goal.

The contrast in displays was evident; Mesut Ozil was perpetual, always wandering, always looking to affect the game whilst Ramsey was peripheral. That’s not completely his fault of course. Both players have had to accept compromised roles as Unai Emery has tried to fit, not just both of them into his first XI, but Alex Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubemayang too.

Ozil’s struggles have generally more documented because (of the narrative around his national team retirement and that) he’s had to move wide to accommodate, it seems, Ramsey. The Welshman on the other hand, started the season as the poster boy of Emery’s new era, the embodiment of his high-press philosophy – except; we’ve rarely seen that side from The Gunners. Instead, each game has been an experiment in reconfiguration, the subtle tweak here and there to get Arsenal playing properly. Emery again revealed that in his post-match interview explaining the win:

“My idea is to change small details on the pitch to win. Every player is very important, but we need players, when they are in the match, to be hungry to help the team. I think today, every player, starting with Leno – our performance with Petr Cech was very high and today, and with Leno also. Also, I think Danny (Welbeck) and Alex Iwobi went inside and helped us push with their quality. I’m very happy for the team, for the squad. Each match is very important for us to win, to get minutes, to take responsibility, confidence and continue creating our idea and our style. We need to work to continue what we’re doing.”

Against Watford, Emery used – to describe its shape without the ball – a 4-2-3-1 formation. With possession however, it was more ambiguous.  I’ve tended to describe this formation as a 4-2-2-2 because there’s a clear separation of what Emery wants for certain players and the way they react to each other. Indeed, I’ve even heard it described by someone as a 6-0-4, theoretically at least, though it is not completely unrealistic to say that, because there’s an evident split between those players that build, and those that are tasked with staying up the pitch and looking to get into dangerous areas.

Generally, Emery instructs the two central midfielders, Granit Xhaka and Lucas Torreira, to start attacks from deep, whilst the two full-backs push high and wide to open up the pitch, and act as the outlets. This should, in theory, then open up space in the opponent’s half of the pitch to allow the front four to move into pockets, and for Xhaka and Torreira to find them. For the most part though, the team ends up looking short of a linking midfielder, and usually it has been when Emery makes some tweaks at half-time that Arsenal improves. In one such circumstance, against Cardiff in the 3-2 win, Ozil even took it on himself even to roam across the pitch, looking for space to affect the game.

Emery recognised this problem, therefore against Watford, he allowed Ozil to play with more freedom and as such in the first-half, the playmaker was involved more centrally. Certainly, in the fixtures before this game, there was an odd fixedness about Ozil’s role – not even playing on the right wing and roaming inside as we were used to seeing him do under Arsène Wenger sometimes, but playing in a halfway position between the two and struggling to get on the ball as much. His underlying numbers across the board had been down from last season, namely passes per game and chances created (see below). Against Watford, however, he still created the one measly chance (probably because Xhaka takes corner-kicks now, though creating was mainly a team issue), but in terms of getting in the ball, he was more like his usual self. Ozil passed the ball 64 times; still down from his average last season, but encouragingly up by more than 20 this season. It also allowed him to combine more with Xhaka, and indeed, the pair passed the ball between each other 39 times, the highest combination in the game.

Ozil’s growing influence seemed to have a knock-on effect on Aaron Ramsey, who in his 63 minutes played, only managed 19 passes – extrapolated for 90 minutes would have only have got him about 10 more. This is still the main flaw in Emery’s system because this seemed to marginalise Ramsey’s role even further. Not required in advanced central areas – and he also found that he was crowded out in the times that he dropped deep – he was forced to play higher up the pitch, closer to Lacazette. This may have been a purposeful ploy because, as the attackers narrowed, it meant that Arsenal could switch the ball out wide to the full-backs easier, but it meant once again, asking the attacking players to make different movements than they are used to. Nevertheless, when Ozil or the two central midfielders received the ball in central areas, the players lacked the spacing to combine effectively.

 

Examples of the positions the front four took, with Aubemayang and Ramsey often joining Lacazette in the front line

The result of this in-game shuffling meant that Lacazette, in the first-half, tended to get a bit more joy sliding across the front-line and towards the right-channel. Aubemayang and Ramsey on the other hand, struggled to really get into the game – to find their positioning on the pitch – and it was no surprise that they were the first two players substituted. The aim for Emery is to get his four, star attacking players high up and combining/interchanging centrally, but perhaps, the starting position is more unnatural for these two. Iwobi’s impact probably highlights what Emery is trying to achieve but perhaps they lack the skill-set, the versatility, to fulfil his demands. Indeed, Emery has probably even adjusted Iwobi’s role somewhat, asking to take on defenders more so that he fits into the system better. “I’m very happy with his mentality,” said Emery. “He has the quality to play right or left, to [go past players] on the pitch. Also, I want him to stay nearer to the box to score or find assists for team-mates. I think that’s the way for him and for other players.”

Actually, when Iwobi came on, Arsenal actually lost a bit of control as the game became end-to-end and conceded, as the manager noted in this period, “two big chances.” By this point, Ozil had altered his position a third time, finally moving to the middle after having started the second-half on the left-flank, with Aubemayang switching to the right, giving Arsenal a more orthodox 4-2-3-1 balance.

Conversely, Ozil was less influential when he moved to the no.10 position, yet he still managed to get on to the end of a Lacazette cross to score the second-goal. When the opener went in, which was an own-goal from Craig Cathcart following a good run from Iwobi, you could even say the balance of play was more with Watford than Arsenal. Indeed, the Hornets troubled Arsenal right from the start, pushing them back with long-balls up to to Troy Deeney and Andre Gray, whilst initially, Will Hughes was the key man, helping to overload the middle. But Arsenal grew into the game after twenty-minutes and began exerting their ideas soon even if chances were not as flowing. In the end, Emery reverted to a pragmatic approach that once again earned Arsenal the win. To his credit, his tweaks have often got Arsenal over the line, yet it feels like an obssession, a statement even, that he can coach possession football – that he can follow the tradition of the “Arsenal Way” when perhaps the answer is simpler. The result, however, has meant it’s gone the opposite way – the build up is cleaner, but the attacking combinations are still a work in progress.

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