If the result was never in doubt, then that’s because we’ve seen it all before. Watching Arsenal for the first time, you’d be forgiven for thinking this style of making-it-hard-for-yourself-and-then-rescuing-it-in-the-second-half is not sustainable, but Arsenal have made a habit of it – and are winning matches. The 3-1 victory over Leicester City ensured Arsenal have now won 7 league matches in a row.
“We need to continue improving, we need to continue keeping our demand very high,” said Unai Emery. “[Because] every first 30 minutes we are suffering more than we want – like today. But after 1-0, I think the reaction from the team was very important, with the quality and also with the heart.”
The trouble began when Claude Puel sprang a suprise and deployed a 3-5-2 formation, expecting Arsenal to continuing using the 4-4-2 that worked so well vs Fulham. Emery obliged, though opting to bring Mesut Ozil back into the line-up in a 4-2-3-1 formation. Nevertheless, the idea was the same; the team would look to build from deep using Granit Xhaka and Lucas Torreira; and the two wide midfielders would look to come in and play in the halfspaces – but the latter especially played into Leicester’s hands as they had two central defenders marking that zone, whilst in the centre Harry Maguire swept up.
Alex Iwobi coped better with the system, but Henrikh Mkhitaryan, in particular, struggled to get involved and his only real contribution was probably not touching the ball in the lead up to Arsenal’s first goal.
That’s because he did what Ozil initially did well, in the first five minutes, by dropping off the centre-backs and thus outnumbering the midfield. It meant for the goal, Johnny Evans, the left centre-back was forced to follow him, leaving space behind him that Arsenal would eventually exploit, and allowing Ozil to collect the ball unnoposed.
Before then, however, Arsenal were often exposed on the break. Leicester’s formation more closely resembled a 3-4-1-2 and that saw the two strikers initially start by splitting wide to press the ball, and then, when possession was won back, run down the channels to hit Arsenal on the counter-attack.
This worked well because it’s obvious how Arsenal build-up, usually looking to use the wall-pass into midfield, then playing the ball to the full-backs before going into the wide midfielders. Constantly in the first-half, when moves broke down, Leicester were able to exploit the space behind, especially down the left, and it was Kelechi Iheanacho who provided the early danger. Jamie Vardy, on the other side was less of a threat, and indeed, by playing the two strikers wide-ish, Leicester probably lost some of their ability to arrest the pressure Arsenal put on them in the second-half.
“We tried another system,” said Claude Puel. “Arsenal played with desire, with quality, good concentration and we put this team under pressure. I think they were surprised with our system and we had a lot of chances and quality with our play on the ground. It’s a shame we didn’t have success in making the difference more in the first half.”
The goal scored by Leicester was a good example of the amorphous nature of their system, initially pressing with what looked like a 4-2-3-1 shape as they tilted towards the left flank, but then, as the ball was played to Ozil moving high-up, one of the central defenders could squeeze up and stop him recieving the ball. Once Leicester won it back, Ben Chilwell could detach from the back, and burst forward with the freedom of a wing-back. And he did so with aplomb, chased down by Alexandre Lacazette because Mhkitaryan had narrowed.
With Stephan Lichsteiner, a right-footer starting on the left, it was no surprise that Arsenal got all their goals down the other flank. Indeed, 42% of Arsenal’s attacks came down the right-hand side, a switch from the last five games where the majority of attacks came down the left. The left-heavy approach was especially evident in the games against Cardiff, where Ozil drifted towards that side; vs Newcastle when Granit Xhaka similarly showed considerable bias to building up down the left; and against Everton where Arsenal purposely targetted the flank with long switches (such that 56% of attack originated from that side).
Here, once Arsenal figured out they were more threatening when using Bellerin, who set up the first goal, they completely (and visibly) ignored the left-flank such that Xhaka was moved there in the second-half and acted essentially as a left-sided possession balancer. Emery also made changes to suit that switch, bringing on Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and moving Iwobi to the right. The subsequent reaction was that Arsenal scored instantly, a Bellerin cross finding it’s way to the far post to Aubameyang. (Puel saw this too, and took off Vardy for Albrigton to protect that side, but was punished straight away).
“It was a tough first half, said Bellerin, “because we knew they’re a team that plays good football and they have a lot of quality up front, but when we started playing in the second half and the passes were flowing and we could put a few attacks together the goals just kept coming.“
Seems like Arsenal were purposely funnelling their attacks down the right-hand side, ignoring the left-flank + Leichsteiner completely. He goes off, Arsenal instantly attack down the right, and Aubameyang finishes at the far post.
— Arsenal Column (@ArsenalColumn) October 22, 2018
The third goal was all Ozil, and at the end, Emery wanted to praise the way it was created, because it showed how Arsernal could attack with great speed. At the start of the game, Emery chose not to go with the 4-4-2, losing the direct threat Welbeck provided against Fulham and Watford, but the goal, he said, showed Arsenal’s willingness to go quickly from A to B.
“It’s one way,” Emery said of the third goal. “For example we watched the Watford game this morning and we repeated the second goal in this match. Starting with Leno, long ball which we won with the head with Danny (Welbeck) in the second action and then we are doing a speed attacking and also scoring. This is another way. We can do a goal starting with all the passes and arriving in the box with these chances to score is very good because we can do one long pass.”
Also crucial in the lead up to the goals was Torreira, as he always looked to play the penetrative passes between-the-lines to the backwards facing attacker, here Lacazette for the first and second goal, and Ozil for the third goal. At the start of the game, it was the only way Arsenal attacked and it didn’t suit the players, as it made their attacks predictable. However, as Arsenal upped the tempo in the second-half, the speed at which they got support around him overwhelmed Leicester City.
For Emery, it must baffle him why Arsenal tend to start so meekly, but that’s also mainly because their system seems preoccupied with getting it “right”; the need for the team to feel it’s way into games, rather than impose it on opponents, which Emery is trying to achieve. In these periods, the absence of counter-pressing is evident, and it’s perhaps that that part, which Arsenal showed with the second-goal, Torreira winning the loose ball back with a header, is the area in Emery’s philosophy which he has yet to even come close to implementing. Still, Arsenal are running more, and harder than ever before, and it’s perhaps, therefore no coincidence they keep on turning it around in the second half.