If there was ever a honeymoon period for the new Arsenal manager, Unai Emery, then that’s well and truly over now. At the halfway point in the season, questions are being asked of Emery’s philosophy, his style, and after the 1-1 draw with Brighton, complaints of another insipid display by The Gunners.
Indeed, up until this point, the manager had been the star turn of Arsenal’s season for the way he has been able to reverse an often average or below-par display into a match-winning (or saving) one. Now, however, the changes are starting to seem of a manager who is unclear on how to deliver his gameplan, over-complicating matters to some degree, to the detriment of the team.
Of course, those accusations would be a little harsh on Emery because it can be said he is only now entering his first real downturn of results – and unfortunately, those teams in the top positions haven’t yet experienced a semblance of bad form yet. In any case, before then, his proactiveness during games seemed necessary for a team who in all honesty, are a mishmash of talents that, on a match day, you could arrange in an infinite number of ways, without ever finding the right balance. In that sense, then, a lot of burden has been placed on the coach to get it right and he’s grabbed that with gleeful hands. The problem is, however, that despite wrestling results through positive changes during games, it’s papered over the cracks of what have generally been low quality performances from Arsenal.
Indeed, against Brighton, Arsenal only mustered 7 shots during the whole game, and one of them after half-time where Emery made his first change. But that’s in keeping really with the whole season so far as The Gunners only average 12.7 shots per game, 10th in the league. Therefore, when Arsenal took the lead against Brighton, it was unsurprising to many that they couldn’t build on it.
They had started so well, taking the lead on ‘7 minutes when Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang slotted home, but any hopes that Arsenal would assert their dominance on the game further, would rest on them being as clinical as they have been for this season. (Arsenal have over-performed xG by 13 goals). Aubameyang had two further opportunities through the only way Arsenal were able to get through Brighton’s defence; from balls over the top. Indeed, the home side had approached the game looking to drop-off and keep Arsenal at arm’s length really. Going behind didn’t change their game-plan much – they were still very passive in the first-half – and as midfielder Dale Stephens reveals, it was all about staying in the game, looking for the opportunities on the break – which is how they got their equaliser.
“We were aware of the quality in their team and we knew we’d have to surrender a bit of possession early on,” said Stephens. “We did that, but they didn’t create many clear-cut chances overall and I thought we stepped up in the second half and could’ve won it. We were disappointed with the way we let him [Aubameyang] in with one pass in the first half (a one-on-one which was tipped wide), but Maty [Ryan] has bailed us out several times this season.”
As against Burnley in the last game, Emery chose to go with the diamond formation which, as I wrote, is the ideal fix for now simply because it allows him to use his best players in their best positions. The sticking point, however, is that it requires a compromise of the type of playing style which he is trying to implement, and it was clear, with his change at half-time, that it didn’t rest easy with him the space Arsenal could potentially afford Brighton when they pushed forward. As it happened, Brigjton really only punished Arsenal once, late in the first-half, and that from their (Arsenal’s) own corner-kick. Nevertheless, after the break, Emery reverted to his tried-and-tested format of using two holding midfielders (and two attacking midfielders broadly in front) – which some have labelled the “2-2” shape. The result, Emery said, was that “we had control with possession but not with creating chances against them. It wasn’t enough to win the game today.”
By moving to the 4-4-2 at half-time (then changing the formation twice more during the game by first bringing on Aaron Ramsey to go to a 4-2-3-1, then Ainsley Maitland-Niles and switching to a 3-5-2 which he said was to “give Ainsley more chances to go forward in more attacking moments, because his quality is more for that”) it meant there was no space for Ozil in the system. Quite why Emery doesn’t trust Ozil in the wide midfield roles can be put down to his penchant for using “attacking midfielders” in these positions, players who can fulfil a variety of demands, especially in Ozil’s case, defensively. (I’ve already expanded on this before so read my previous reports for a breakdown).
The change in formation, though, as we explained before, was also to allow the team to free up the full-backs and attack with this “2-2” shape. For Emery, this is the best way to exert control on the game – indeed, if there has been a philosophy, a playing style, which he has tried to implement so far this season, this has been it. With the two players in front of the defence, and two wide midfielders who can step in, it allows, in his eyes, a subconsciously even distribution of players across the pitch, and to help move the ball side-to-side and guard counter-attacks better. “Tactically, some matches I did that and I wanted to control it better with the positioning on the pitch. But in the second half we couldn’t do our ideas on the pitch for imposing ourselves and this imposing positioning can give us more options in attacking moments to score. We created less chances in the second half and not clear [chances].”
Of course, switching formations wasn’t really the problem but the change in personnel, which means for once, Emery got his subs wrong. He removed Ozil and replaced directly in his position on the right – because in the first-half he tended to drift there mainly – Lucas Torreira. Initially there was some confusion about who was playing where, but Torreira did move to the right-flank, and Alex Iwobi came on to the left.
The dynamic didn’t change badly – in fact, Brighton started the second-half stronger and broke more freely as Arsenal’s build-up became more functional. Indeed, that’s another criticism of Emery; that his handling of Ozil (and Ramsey) means that he has stripped the team of the spontaneity that Wenger had, and that’s one reason the team creates so few chances. He’s put Lacazette and Aubameyang together up front now, and while the two are working as a tandem well, they are being relied on recently to be clinical. Guendouzi was actually the chief creator in the first-half but without the freedom of movement granted to him in the second, he, and Torreira too, was unable to pick out the runs.
Emery subbed on a player without telling him what formation they are playing in lmfaooo pic.twitter.com/KKr6mnPl24
— A (@__AJ72) December 26, 2018
Brighton, on the other hand, were less worked now. They chose to start with the match a 4-3-3, dropping Pascal Gross into the midfield whereas usually he plays behind the striker in a 4-2-3-1. “We have played that system here a few times and against a few of the top teams away from home,” said Dale Stephens “I think it works when you want to keep hold of the ball a bit more and it works away from home, and you look at the Burnley and Huddersfield games, where we’ve put in good performances. If the manager wants to play me sitting in a three, then I am happy to do that and help the team.”
Initially, however, Brighton were too stand-offish and Arsenal – and Guendouzi in particularly – could pick passes over the top. Granit Xhaka too, was comfortably able to receive the ball from just in front of the two centre-backs as Arsenal formed a de facto three at the back with possession. That didn’t seem to wash easy with Emery, however, as I called it during the game, thus the change of system – if not personnel – was predictable. Arsenal were getting forward a lot with the full-backs – Lichsteiner especially (even if his impact was lacking therefore Emery was forced to bring Maintland-Niles in later in the game) – and whilst Brighton rarely looked threatening, the set-up seemed to have a look of Wengerish gung-ho about it. That in part, tells you a bit about Emery’s philosophy, which, whilst since he has taken over, been trying to impart a possession/positional orientated play, is grounded in pragmatism and safety-first.
Can’t see it sitting easy with Emery after half-time, having essentially just the centre-backs (+ Xhaka) back when the full-backs push forward.
— Arsenal Column (@ArsenalColumn) December 26, 2018
At the end of the game, Emery said the changes were tactical, to take advantage of the different skilsets individual players bring. “It is one decision tactically, and also because we have [done] it before….when it tactically changes something, not for the player but for the team. A lot of the matches when we play in the second half, for example Iwobi, it helps us with a different situation tactically and helps us to win the matches. In other matches, when we changed for the second half we took the performance to go to win. Yesterday, my intention was the same.”
Emery also addressed the issue in his pre-match conference, of having the right balance during transitions, and the need to improve that. But judging his comments, it seems as if there will be more tinkering abound.
“We need more,” Emery said. “But we need more from everybody and we need more also in our demanding ideas, and we need to continue working on things. But it’s not for receiving (conceding) the goal in the transition, because also, when we receive (score) one goal we are having mistakes. The mistakes are not only one player, or two players or three players, but maybe also in the ideas.
“Also, in the last matches we are having a lot of injuries in the defensive positions. We need to change some players and play in different positions, like they are usually playing, like with Xhaka and Lichtsteiner. The behaviour and the commitment of the players is good to help us in different positions, but we need also to take more balance in these situations above all, in defensive moments. It is one thing: collective. It’s not just for the defence or for the attacking player, it is for all. With this balance, I am happy but also knowing that it isn’t enough at the moment for us.”