With Arsenal’s 5-1 victory over Fulham, Unai Emery earned what might be described as his first “convincing” win as manager. Which is strange to say considering Arsenal have now won 9 games in a row, but there was a feeling before this win, that his team was holding back, that there was more to give. Certainly, it was not that Arsenal were playing badly, but they were winning without ever really imposing their evident superiority for longer periods in games. Against Fulham, however, they left no margin of doubt.
Not that Emery was getting carried away. In fact, asked whether he felt that this was Arsenal’s best performance under him, his analysis was more sober. “I don’t think of this performance like it is the best,” he said. “But it depends each match on how it happens on the pitch in the 90 minutes. When we scored the first goal is the moment we can play with more confidence on the pitch and the opposition maybe didn’t have the mentality to continue pushing.”
Indeed, Arsenal did have a tricky start to the match as Fulham pressed high up the pitch, but that approach soon left gaps at the back for The Gunners to exploit. The first goal was an example of that as Arsenal were able to play a long ball directly to the middle of the pitch, then attacked the flanks and score. In the end, that weakness was all too frequently evident as Arsenal continued to exploit the space that Fulham left behind, and to the the sides of the midfield.
“My sensations are mixed a little bit,” Fulham coach, Slaviša Jokanović, said after the defeat, “Because I thought we played the first 45 minutes well. We created the chances, the team was running well and we didn’t give them many opportunities to score goals. But in the second-half they scored really easy goals and I missed the team being more solid, I missed more speed, I missed more thought.
“At the end we opened all the doors and they finished the action easily after not so many complicated situations for us. The second goal arrived from some throw in, they kicked the ball and finished the action, we weren’t strong or fast enough to stop the shot, and the first goal too, we needed to be more solid and better in this kind of situation. At the moment we show so many weaknesses for this level where we are, especially on the defensive side so we must work very hard to find the solution to this kind of problem.”
Jokanović used a 3-4-3 formation instead of his usual 4-3-3, perhaps expecting Arsenal to deploy a variant of their asymmetric 4-2-3-1, so that they could match up better man-for-man. Emery, though, sprung a surprise of his own too, switching his formation to a 4-4-2. If both sides needed a period to suss each other out, then Fulham started the brighter as their press pushed Arsenal back. It forced The Gunners to play more of the game in their own half, and indeed, in the first twenty minutes it unsettled them a little. Emery admitted afterwards that the “first half was open, and it was more difficult to defend” and that team weren’t able to “impose ourselves in possession”.
Arsenal’s shape playing out before conceding, and similarly, the shadow pressing/marking Fulham used to stop Arsenal finding passes into midfield pic.twitter.com/2kTuEFHvdT
— Arsenal Column (@ArsenalColumn) October 7, 2018
Nevertheless, Arsenal were still finding moments to get through and it was no surprise when they scored their first goal, on 29 minutes when Lacazette swivelled then fired in a low cross from Monreal. Arsenal had threatened similarly before then, by getting behind in wide positions and taking advantage of the space left behind by the high press.
Fulham chose a 3-4-3 and whilst that could overwhelm Arsenal at times when the ball was with them at the back, once the pass got through, it was the two Fulham central midfielders, Anguissa and Serri, who were left outnumbered as frequently, Mhkitaryan and Iwobi would drop to the sides of them and pick up the ball unopposed.
The shape above, when Fulham equalised, shows when their press did work, because the fitness levels of Anguissa and Serri meant they were able to simulataneously mark two positions if they pressed correctly, but if they got it wrong, the demands were often to high. In the end, they didn’t really have anyone detailed to stop Iwobi and Mhkitaryan. Their wing-backs generally pushed up to stop Arsenal’s full-backs, whilst the two central midfielders were mainly interested in getting close to Xhaka and Torreira. Arsenal’s opener displayed that as Iwobi ghosted into the space vacated by the right wing-back, Cyrus Christie, whilst Anguissa was too late to cover him, initially engaged with Mhkitaryan who tucked in, and then stuck in no man’s land when the ball was played over the top.
Really nice buildup to the first goal yesterday.
– Drawing opposition deep
– Resisting pressure with the wall pass into the CB
– 2nd ball connections
– Wide overloads
– Playing cutbackspic.twitter.com/MoxkedWXxI
— PM (@ThatGooner) October 8, 2018
By then Arsenal realised they were playing a different game and that is perhaps one of the pleasing aspects of Emery’s early reign; that the players always seem to find a solution through the help of the manager (Iwobi said Emery “picked us up at half-time)” or not. Xhaka in particular was forced to adjust his game, in other games, often moving higher, up to the left-flank to affect matches, here however, he accepted that he was required deeper to balance Arsenal numerically. As a result, he attempted only 13% of his passes in the final third, when he usually averages around 29%. That’s not to say he wasn’t effective, however; he was still adept at finding his teammates on the turn, in particular Iwobi, but that area between-the-lines was about 20 yards deeper as Fulham squeezed up (and Arsenal played without a no.10). Indeed, the team as a whole was forced to play deeper, still attempting to play out from the back, but more counter-attacking, more threatening going behind. They entered the Fulham penalty box 38 times with a pass, the most in any game this season, despite conversely also, attempting the lowest amount of attacking third passes than they have in any of their previous 6 wins.
With Emery switching to a 4-4-2, the option to go longer was always available. Having Holding in the side adds to the viability of this tactic because of his willingness to chip the ball to the striker. Indeed, it helped set up the first goal as he played the ball long to Lacazette for a knock-down, and the team repeated the trick again, although in more fortuitous fashion, when Torreira punted the ball up field to Welbeck for Arsenal’s second. From then on Arsenal grew more comfortable, with the last two goals seemingly repeating more or less the same patterns; the central midfielders now gaining more time to pick a pass – usually to the wide-midfielder dropping into space, followed by an overlapping run. Sandwiched in between was a superb third goal, a counter-attack straight from the Wenger playbook.
With all the tweaking so far this season, it’s not clear whether Emery will stick to same structure. Of course, tinkering is part of a modern coach’s armoury, yet it feels like this is where it should end. The 4-4-2 eminently fits his players better, whilst in the majority of matches, to earn a win, he has tended to revert to a more simplistic version of the system that he started with, therefore it’s natural that it has ultimately led to this compact solution. (On the other hand, it felt like he had little choice but to go with this more orthodox approach – at least positionially, because the three players he has tried to fit into his first XI, Ozil, Ramsey and Aubameyang, didn’t start. And that the three that replaced them, Welbeck, Iwobi and Mkhitaryan have started most of their games in the Europa League, where Emery has tended to use a standard 4-2-3-1).
Even with the change in system, the team tried to play the same way as they have all season, looking to elaborately at times, build from the back – but the positioning is the key, and this is where Emery has subtly looked alter his team’s shape. He used “timing” for the first time to describe where the players should be, and it was particularly apt on here as Iwobi and Mhkitaryan, varying their positioning, helped put Fulham to the sword.
“Today is the first we played more clearly 4-4-2 with Danny and Lacazette first, and then Laca with Auba,” said Emery. “It is one process, to know better after training, after every match, after every decision, how we are better on the pitch, between the players, in our tactical system and impose our timing on the pitch in possession with the ball.”