The tackles came flying in one after another – not so much with the muscular grace of a shark propelling itself at its victim, but of penguins colliding into each other on ice. Lucas Torreira was the latest to hobble away in pain; not long after, Shkodran Mustafi. To Unai Emery’s relief both players soldiered on. Emery had already shown all his hand and just had to hope that, in a scrappy game where both teams’ failure to properly control possession resulted in a lot of loose balls – and loose tackles – no more foul luck would befall his side.
In the first-half, he had already lost Rob Holding and Aaron Ramsey to injury and as a result, Emery’s chief weapon – the substitute – was considerably weakened. He still had one roll of the dice left, and he used it midway through the second-half by bringing on Alexandre Lacazette. The rewards were instant; Lacazette forced a second goal for Arsenal only after three minutes of coming on. However, in even less time than that, United equalised. The game then petered out despite a brief flurry at United’s goal from Arsenal, but after a demanding weekend, Emery just ran out of answers – and substitutes.
Indeed, that has been one of the key strengths of Emery’s reign so far in charge of Arsenal; that he has been able to change the dynamic of games through substitutions. It’s as if each change allows him to reassess Arsenal’s standing in the match, like moves on a chess board, because he’s obssessed with details, with the subtle arrangement of players. He has an initial plan, and he believes with a slight tweak here and there, it can make all the difference. That’s why, after every game, he talks about Arsenal improving their “control, possession, positioning, and movement” – his four favourite words after “good afternoon“. “He prepares us all and we have a plan,” says Xhaka. ”We know how to do it with the ball and without the ball. We know how and when to stand where.”
With each game, Emery learns more about how his team plays, how they react with each other, and then goes about looking to implement them in the next game slowly. Each substitution therefore is like a correctional measure.
For example, against United, Emery chose to start with Aaron Ramsey instead of Henrikh Mhkitaryan after his impact against Tottenham, but opted not to take out Iwobi as he did at half-time vs Spurs because he wanted to retain an element of two players dropping between-the-lines, but add a dynamic threat going-in behind. With the two enforced injuries, however, it was difficult for him to react to the balance of the game, and therefore played it safe by not moving to a front two when he brought on Lacazette. He said after the game: “After the two injuries, every player played with good commitment and mentality to keep the performance [going] in a difficult moment. We could not control the game like we wanted for the 90 minutes, but for the second half it give us confidence, this draw. It is not the best, but it is not the worst.”
It’s clear, and it’s not just the injuries, that the game didn’t go entirely the way Emery planned. The manager stuck with the same 3-4-3 formation that he used against Spurs and Bournemouth, and Jose Mourinho matched him – well almost. Mourinho instead deployed a 3-4-1-2 to mark Arsenal across the pitch better and that initially caused The Gunners problems building out.
Jesse Lingard, playing as a no.10, dropped off to mark Torreira, whilst the two strikers ahead, split to stop the centre-backs playing out. Andre Herrera and Nemanja Matic then took turns to push up if the ball was played into midfield, and were really aggressve in closing down the space.
It took a while for Arsenal to grapple with the best way with this schematic – and it’s not clear, by the end of the game, if they really figured it out because United let them back into it by inexplicably dropping off. Indeed, below I separated the number of passed made by each team per 15-minute period to reflect how the game changed.
No. of passes per 15 minutes shows you pattern of game. Arsenal started slow in each half as United closed down high, but as soon as they relented their press, became the more dominant team.
— Arsenal Column (@ArsenalColumn) December 6, 2018
Arsenal started both halves slowly as United pressed from the off, and then got back into it each time because Mourinho teams at not geared to press aggressively for long periods. It’s as if a reflex kicks in to tell them to play more cautiously – as if it’s not natural to their game.
Arsenal grew into the game in the first-half, and with the extra space, moved the ball really well side-to-side, before eventually releasing Kolasinac behind. Indeed, in the 10-minute period that led to Arsenal’s opener, from 15 minutes to 26 minutes, The Gunners completed 104 passes to United’s 13. However, Arsenal too, inexplicably lost their concentration after they scored – both times – to let United back into the game instantly.
— Arsenal Column (@ArsenalColumn) December 5, 2018
Arsenal’s chief attacking movements almost always ended with them springing Sead Kolasinac in behind. As such it was a bit surprising that Emery took Iwobi off as their combination play was always dangerous (but that would have meant a larger throw of the dice than Emery was afforded). Nevertheless, United dropped deep and denied Aubameyand space to run into behind. There was a large disconnect between their defence and attack, as they generally left their two forwards up the pitch, and that initially allowed Arsenal to play, before the game descended into a scrappier affair in the end.
For Arsenal’s opener, the corner-kick was won by the link-up between Iwobi and Kolasinac. Indeed, most of Arsenal’s attacks were funnelled to that side and indeed, I speculated before the game whether that would be a purposeful ploy, because in recent games, Arsenal have been vulnerable down the right-flank. Emery mentioned after the 2-1 win against Bournemouth that one of the reasons he moved to a 3-4-3 was that “we need some players for balance when we are pushing Hector Bellerin wide” (whilst addingKolasinac and Alex Iwobi was “very interesting combination”). On the other hand, United are strongest down that side especially when attacking with Martial, whilst both Rashford and Lingard tend to drift there.
By the end of the game, 52% of Arsenal’s attack came down the left, as opposed to 23% down the right. That in itself is not that strange; The Gunners have tended to favour that side in most of the matches they have played this season though here there seemed to be a more pronounced intention of doing so, starting from the back, as Bernd Leno rarely passed the ball to the right. In the whole game, he only found Bellerin once, whilst he didn’t pass the ball at all to Mustafi. In the second-half, Leno did find Stephan Lichsteiner 3 times as United’s pressed relaxed a bit, but that’s because his positioning as a right-sided centre-back was more aggressive than Mustafi’s. As such, when Lichsteiner got the ball and played it to Bellerin, 6 times, all but one of the passes was in United’s half.
It started the back; Leno didn’t pass at all to Mustafi, and only once to Bellerin. Lichsteiner when he came on, only passed it to Bellerin in his own half once. Of course, Arsenal tend to have a lopsided attack anyway. The left-sided attacker is more fixed, the right sider roams pic.twitter.com/AuGnjqJLb4
— Arsenal Column (@ArsenalColumn) December 6, 2018
The other reason why Arsenal’s play is generally slanted to the left is that Emery’s structure has that left-sided attacker playing a bit more fixed, whilst the right-sided one tends to roam more. Here, Ramsey, as Mhkitaryan did also v Bournemouth (and Ozil before then) assumed that role and he often, in Arsenal’s best spell in the first-half, moved all the way across to the left flank to contribute to attacks. There was one more spell where Arsenal could say they had a sustained attack on United’s goal and they should have scored another, either from Aubameyang or Mhkitaryan, both from Kolasinac’s crosses. “I think we could’ve done better today,” said Mustafi. “And we had a lot of opportunities when we were going forward and we were quite dangerous. We put in a lot of crosses, especially down our left side. If we were a little bit luckier, we could’ve got all three points.” At the end of the game, Emery revealed that Kolasinac entered the dressing room distraught; he was the game’s key player due to his perpetual threat down the left-flank, but it was his error, his lapse of concentration, which led to United’s equaliser.