So finally, Arsenal’s laborious 22-game unbeaten run has come to an end. There was no flurry at the opposition goal, no desperate salvo to save it; instead, inevitability, despite it being broken by the Premier League’s 19th placed team.
That’s because conditions were not the greatest to begin with. The Gunners only had one fit senior centre-back to choose from against Southampton, therefore they had to drop Granit Xhaka into the defence. When the winner came, it was the third headed goal Arsenal conceded, which in a sense, encapsulated their run; that failure to learn from their lessons will eventually come back to bite them.
Indeed, Arsenal fell behind again in the first-half in this match – stretching that other league record of not leading at half-time to 17-games. This time there was no comeback. Of course, we all knew that winning (or not losing) this way was never going to be sustainable but the hope was that Arsenal – or Unai Emery rather – would eventually learn from it.
There is an argument that Arsenal’s defence is simply not good enough and that’s the reason for the team consistently falling behind or losing their lead. It’s harsh to come to such conclusions against Southampton, who simply took advantage of the unfamiliarity of the backline. Their three goals were startling for their similarity as each was scored with the head. As goalscorer Danny Ings reveals, they targeted Arsenal’s makeshift defence with crosses. With the striker peeling off the blindside of the middle centre-back, Laurent Koscielny, he, and then later, Charlie Austin, was able to target the weaker, inexperienced defender in the air. “We knew that those crosses will be dangerous, we’ve been working on them all week,” said Ings. “The crosses were just unbelievable, and I was there to tuck them away.”
Super Sunday analysis on Sky Sports Premier League NOW! pic.twitter.com/OgBBI5IS6X
— Sky Sports Premier League (@SkySportsPL) December 16, 2018
Whilst the defence, even with the first choice available, is a concern, after the game Emery seemed not unduly worried about the team going forward. He said: “One reality is we need to improve and concede less. We are scoring a lot, we are second in the table for goals scored, but we have also conceded a lot – at least more than we want for our objective.”
As we know, the team is over-performing xG (by 12 goals), and with the expert finishing skills of Lacazette and Aubameyang, perhaps Emery feels Arsenal will continue converting at a high rate. What’s more revealing, however, is Emery’s quotes before the defeat to Southampton on the need to forge an identity, and how each game is a learning process – which inevitably brings with it growing pains. “Every match gives us a struggle in terms of work and continuing in our way,” he said. “Against Southampton on Sunday, it’s about preparing for a different match. We need to create a stronger identity and our personality is getting better in each game. We are playing games our way.”
Indeed, the need to play “our own way” is important to Emery as he looks to follow in Arsene Wenger’s footsteps and show that he is committed to Arsenal’s “style of play”. In a sense, he’s trying to establish a new type of Arsenal Way and this constant tweaking perhaps, is him trying to make his own stylistic statement. Certainly, previously he may have been seen almost exclusively as a 4-2-3-1 man (as Guardiola said) but realises that to play aggressive, possession football, it’s not really possible to play it with a fixed no.10. Thus, that player has evolved and moved into other sectors; currently, it seems Emery is fixated on two wide midfielders who move into no.10 positions in the build up – the right-sided player aggressively more so.
We saw that against Southampton as Arsenal continuously tried to get Iwobi and Mhkitaryan between-the-lines. Of course, they struggled, as Southampton marked them tightly, using a back three to allow them to stick tightly to those creators. Iwobi in particular failed to get into the game as the right-sided centre back, Bednarek, chose to follow him every time he dropped off to receive the ball. Indeed, using a back three, seems the best option now to counter-act Arsenal, especially since they’ve moved to a 3-4-3, because it gives the team coverage across the pitch as they know The Gunners will try to play the ball wide. That’s what Southampton forced Arsenal to do and as manager Ralph Hasenhuttl reveals, his team “set some traps and Arsenal with very good individual players have problems to create chances.”
60% of Arsenal’s passes v Southampton in first-half in the middle third as opponents look to drop back and counter. By contrast, against Huddersfield, who tried to press, that proportion for the whole game was 48%
— Arsenal Column (@ArsenalColumn) December 16, 2018
Still, Arsenal played with patience, refusing to get bogged down, and instead, used it to their advantage for the first goal, moving the ball from right to left, and then springing Nacho Monreal behind. Iwobi, by this point, was forced to get wider to receive the ball, and he combined nicely to free Monreal. His cross found Mhkitaryan and when the midfielder fired home, it was feasible to imagine then, that this was Emery’s perfect type of goal.
SOU 1-1 ARS (via @StatsZone): Arsenal have really been only able to build wide. For the goal, Iwobi had to pick the ball up wider, whilst Mkhitaryan has always been looking to make the aggressive move inside. pic.twitter.com/28u3CL7LFk
— Arsenal Column (@ArsenalColumn) December 16, 2018
To begin with, the finisher. A lot has been made of Emery trying to fit Mesut Ozil in, but at this moment, it doesn’t seem as if the playmaker fits the profile of what he is looking for in his no.10, an “attacking midfielder” as he called Mhkitaryan and Ramsey after the 1-1 draw with Wolves, a player who is aggressive, who takes on a lot of demands, and as Jose Mourinho says, anyone who plays in this position must take 3 shots a game. Mhkitaryan fits this remit, despite probably not having the possession-balancing qualities and creative abilities of Ozil. Emery gave him the freedom to aggressively move inside, as Ozil is wont to play, and it’s clear he had a little more freedom than Iwobi, tending to move into the no.10 position to pick up the ball, or deeper, off the full-back. Mkhitaryan got his second by playing a bit narrower in the second-half as Emery switched to a 4-4-2, picking the ball up outside the box as Matteo Guendouzi and Lacazette combined to steal the ball off Oriel Romeu, then seeing his shot deflected in.
The second aspect of Emery’s ideal goal was fulfilled by the role of full-backs. He wants his team to open the pitch of course, and that means committing the full-backs forward. At the start of the season, against West Ham, they scored with both Bellerin and Monreal combining but since then, Emery has had to reign that in somewhat because it was leaving The Gunners exposed. It’s notable then that both full-backs were involved for the first goal, because for a while, he was unwilling to commit both of them forward at the same time. That has led to the team focusing more on one flank – usually the left-side – but with the goal, perhaps it can convince Emery he can find the right balance to achieve this more regularly. He always wants a “2-2” shape, and with the full-backs going on the outside, it allows the attacking midfielders to step inside, and create a sort of subconscious symmetry. Perhaps in that sense, Emery has become a bit risk-averse. His first-half selections are thus about controlling, about feeling their way into games in the hope that the ideas will come together, and then their superiority will win it in the end. What’s happened instead, is that first-halves tend to be soporific, and the adjustments are not so much to correct the errors, but because of that inability to marry possession with risk.
In the second-half, Emery adjusted his formation and used a narrow 4-4-2, but still retained this “2-2” set-up in the middle. He said this led to “better control in the game and creating more chances than them, controlling the transitions….Our game today was very similar to how we have played before, but the result is different. We also had chances to score more than the two goals but we didn’t score. Maybe the difference is this. The control in the game over 90 minutes is more for us than them. We need to continue improving details, because three times we conceded chances.”