Arsenal were indebted to goalkeeper Bernd Leno for saving them from the jaws of defeat against Wolves. Once again, it was not a particularly convincing display from The Gunners, who performed their now familiar routine of not-playing-well-yet-somehow-securing-the-three-points-through-a-stronger-second-half. Here, however, even once Henrikh Mkhitaryan equalised, Arsenal were more in danger of losing the game were it not for Leno. The German stopped two one-on-ones whilst, with the last chance of the game, Wolves hit the post.
Indeed, in this match, Arsenal were more susceptible to the counter-attack than they have been in any of their previous matches – mainly because they faced a side who were better organised than the others to stop Arsenal’s predictable attacks, and then, when they won the ball back, had the speed to stretch The Gunners defence.
Arsenal were not effective enough with the ball despite accruing 71% possession, their highest in the league this season. Keeping the ball has almost been a way of keeping their opponents at arms length, a way of protecting the defence from counter-attacks. Unai Emery has had a large hand in this, as Shkodran Mustafi explains, positioning his players so that they are in the right place to be able to win the ball back quickly.
“I think that we are very good [when] attacking,” said Mustafi. “And that makes the defensive work a bit easier. When you attack well, and even when we lose the ball, we press straight away to win the ball back high up the pitch. That makes it easier for us to defend because you don’t always have to go back 60 or 70 yards back to win it in your own box. We are very good at attacking but with that, we still prepare being in the right position to recover when we lose the ball as quickly as possible.”
“Emery tells you exactly what he wants you to do, but gives you freedom to expose your talent. When we don’t have the ball, he tells you where to stand and how to get it back, when we have it, he gives you options you can use. You can decide which option you choose. For me it’s a good mix between freedom and discipline, and having the same plan in the whole team.”
The upshot of this, however, is that Arsenal , whilst seemingly more defensively secure, have been pretty lucky going forward. They have overperformed xG by 9 goals this season, creating not too many clear-cut chances but being clinical with what they have had. Indeed, against Wolves, they scored through fortunate circumstance, a cross aimed to the far post by Henrikh Mkhitaryan that crept in. Before then Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang had Arsenal’s best chance, hitting the post from Bellerin’s low cross.
Overall, Arsenal attempted only 13 shots – that again might be due to the meticulous, and sometimes, laborious build-up structure that Emery employs. “Each game we know what we do,” says Granit Xhaka. “We know well the opposition, where they are good and where they are not. He [Emery] is important. He helps us, not only me but all the players, with the small things. The tactical things. You can see that on the pitch.”
This typically involves deploying a specific “2-2” shape of two playmakers ahead of two holding midfielders. Their roles and positions are very defined; the pivot builds whilst the playmakers move with some freedom across and beyond the forward line to find space. Rarely however, do the playmakers tend to drop deep as it’s not necessary – their job is to find pockets. Emery it seems is quite specific about that, whilst the two holding midfielders have an important duty to not only circulate possession, but prevent counter-attacks. This was probably Arsenal’s worst game in that respects as Wolves constantly posed a threat on the break with their pace.
Still, there were moments against Wolves where Arsenal did defend the counter-attack well, particularly down the right-hand side where Lucas Torreira was defending. However, The Gunners were less secure down the left – although that’s primarily because they preferred to attack from that side with Ozil tending to drift there, so space was left behind when moves broke down. In particular, Sead Kolasinac’s touch and distribution was poor, and Wolves’ goal came from his giveaway – although Granit Xhaka was more culpable for that as he inexplicably let the ball run to a teammate he thought was behind him. Wolves were in any case stronger from that side with wing-back Matt Doherty taking advantage of Aubameyang’s (weakness) tracking back to often burst beyond him centrally, whilst Helder Costa playing in front, tended to stay wide and then drive inside 1v1 against Kolasinac.
The space that Wolves getting in behind on that side forced Unai Emery to change the system at half-time. The switch, however, was a slightly unexpected one as Matteo Guendouzi replaced Alex Iwobi, who had an uncomfortable game on the right flank – not for the first time and his body shape, I argue possibly lends himself less well to that flank as he’s not able to turn and drive forward – and Arsenal went from a 4-2-3-1 to a diamond.
“It was a tactical change,” said Emery. “We wanted to play our right and left backs deeper and win back more possession inside with Sead and Hector. Sometimes we did this situation well and we created chances to score. Their work was good defensively because their block was very high.”
Wenger has already touched on what I was referring about regarding Iwobi in the past, talking about players having ‘preferential vision’ (screenshot 1 – Welbeck, screenshot 2 – pires) pic.twitter.com/6QSCwrh2D2
— Arsenal Column (@ArsenalColumn) April 23, 2018
With the switch, there was an attempt from Emery to correct – or build on – the themes from the first-half. From a build up point of view, the move to a diamond made sense because in the first-half, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was already committing himself high up the pitch, looking to get closer to Alexandre Lacazette so that he didn’t get isolated, and to help engage the three Wolves centre-backs. Ozil, on the other hand, got a lot of the ball but was fairly restricted to playing in a left-sided attacking midfield role. Iwobi too tended to step inside from the right flank, and together the two formed that “2-2” shape that we talked about before, but never really had the connections to find each other. By the end of the first-period, Iwobi was sloppy, whilst Ozil seemed to lack options. By switching the formation in the second-half, the thinking was that it would allow Ozil to pick up the ball behind the opposition midfield and roam laterally to find combinations.
However, the move wasn’t as effective as Emery would have hoped because with Iwobi now off, Ozil lacked that like-minded soul that he could bounce passes off. There was a period in the first-half, around 30 minutes where he looked better when moving across to the right flank and combining with Iwobi. Indeed, he tends to thrive with this kind of player yet in the second-half he was used in a purely creative role. Arsenal often only used the right flank for switches of play whilst Guendouzi, and Kolasinac’s sometimes narrow positioning, crowded his space.
It was notable then that Emery took Ozil off in search of a goal, stating that the reason for this was that he wanted “two attacking midfielders. I decided that we had two players on the bench like Mkhitaryan and Aaron Ramsey, attacking players…so I made the change for this reason.” It suggests then his view on Ozil is that he’s probably not as dynamic as the other two, and perhaps even not as suited anymore to the wideish midfield role he used earlier this season. When Ramsey came on he provided the threat behind that was missing from the whole team, whilst Mkhitaryan earned his goal with a dangerous cross into the far post to Aubameyang.
The other reason for the change in formation, as stated before, was to shore up the left flank. When Guendouzi came on, he played a very wide-left central midfield role, often picking up the ball deeper, in the spaces where Kolasinac usually would. The left-back would still advance past him when possible but it put him, in the second half, more on the periphery.
Arsenal were more defensively solid as they didn’t allow a shot from Wolves until the 80th minute, yet their offensive impact only improved minimally. Indeed, it was when Xhaka naturally moved to that left sided position that Arsenal created their first real chance of the second-half, a cut-back to Bellerin, and then eventually, when he went to left-back, was involved in build-up to the shot that Aubameyang hit the post from. Similarly, Guendouzi provided a bit more impetus from a central role, and when Ramsey came on, the team finally had an outlet – or rather someone with more nous to break Wolves’ back three – to play penetrative passes. His clipped pass found the run for Ramsey which eventually won Arsenal the corner for the equaliser. In the end, though, it was The Gunners who were made to hold on and keep their unbeaten run going.