Before Arsenal scored their second goal in this not-entirely-comfortable 4-1 win over Fulham, there was a quite salient point made by the commentator on Bein Sport saying that “Arsenal need a free-stryler right about now.” It was a comment made on the state of the match, but it could have been about the whole season, for The Gunners, under Unai Emery, have played their football stutteringly at the best of times, which, whilst it wasn’t plain sailing under Arsène Wenger, is a contrast to what it was before.
Certainly, one of the reasons suggested for Arsenal’s cautious playing style this season is that Emery, by choosing to bench Mesut Ozil and Aaron Ramsey – and to some degree Alexandre Lacazette – has denied the team of some of their spontaneity, their “free-stylers.” The other argument too against Emery is that his obsession with “control” and “positioning” means that the football is generally stale, and that beyond the odd well-worked goal, can be easy to defend against once you figure out the patterns. Indeed, it’s either by sheer overall quality (namely great finishing ) that Arsenal tend to get over the line, or through changes by the manager – which suggests he might be the only true artist in this team, the only one really, who is allowed to be inventive.
With that being said, it’s through the players’ interpretation on the pitch that Arsenal beat Fulham.
In this game, Fulham chose to man-mark Arsenal all over the pitch by deploying, like their opponents, a 3-4-3 formation. To navigate this challenge facing Arsenal, they did what they usually do; to try to play their way out of trouble and as per usual, it was down the flanks where they found their most joy.
Indeed, when the two sides met earlier this season, a 5-1 win, it was, by Alex Iwobi and Henrikh Mkhitaryan stepping in off their respective flanks and opening room for the full-backs to bomb forward, that Arsenal found space. This time, however, it was the other way round – although mainly down the left – as Alex Iwobi looked to move wider to free himself of his marker (and allow Sead Kolasinac to get forward, often on the inside).
It wasn’t just Iwobi who had to be inventive to evade the attentions of his marker; Granit Xhaka too was being tightly watched in central midfield by Tom Cairney so whenever he dropped to collect the ball, he would follow him. As such, in the first-half, Xhaka tended to move up the pitch to collect the ball, behind the midfielder. That’s how he got his goal, the opener for Arsenal, first by collecting the ball off the centre-backs, but aware not to drop too deep as Cairney was right behind him, and then getting beyond him to get onto the end of the cross.
Indeed, in a neat symmetry of fate, it was Iwobi who found him with the cross, he too having to move away from his marker to get space. In this case, Iwobi moved wide and Odoi, the right centre-back who tried to stick tight to him all game even when Arsenal switched to a 4-3-3, was caught marking space and trying to square up to the onrushing Kolasinac, leaving Iwobi unmarked. Kolasinac, driving inside, played the ball instead to the free Iwobi, and with just a bit of time to get his head up, found Xhaka to prod home.
Overall, Iwobi had a good game, despite the bouts of hesitancy that are no doubt brought on to some degree, by the groans of the home crowd. It’s clear that his game would be better appreciated by improved decision-making but for now he remains one of Arsenal’s most dynamic players. Which, writing it, feels like a contradiction because he’s very much an incomplete player, consisting of so many raw edges that he literally seems to be imbalanced by it. This season, Emery has tried to shape him into a high-end 1v1 player, urged “to be positive, be direct and prove it in the game.”
Also seemingly significant:
Iwobi attempted 7/12 passes (excluding crosses) into the box.
Next highest in league this season:
Iwobi 6/11 v Bournemouth.
Iwobi 4/9 v Fulham away, Laca 5/9 v Cardiff, Kolasinac 6/9 v Man Utd.
Iwobi 5/8 Leicester, Auba 4/8 Fulham home
— Arsenal Column (@ArsenalColumn) January 1, 2019
The result is a player who seems anxious to impress, sometimes misplacing what seem like easy passes, or important passes, but consistently puts himself into dangerous positions to do so. Against Fulham, Iwobi attempted 12 passes into the penalty area (7 of which found their player), the highest number that any Arsenal has achieved this season (which doesn’t include crosses). The next three in the list are also him showing just how direct he can be. In fact, he’s the fourth best in the top-5 leagues overall, averaging 2.86 (successful) passes per game. It’s not just his willingness to be aggressive, but to be in the right places. Wenger used to talk about the quality of “receptions” (where players received the ball) and it seems, Iwobi is becoming that player. The second and third goal both came from his side, and for both, he didn’t have try to evade his marker, but instead, pinned Odoi back and layed the ball off (both times too!) for the (in)rushing Kolasinac.
Slight difference in the way we’re attacking down the left today. Usually it’s all about finding Iwobi inside and then slotting it through to Kolašinac; today it’s been about Iwobi pinning their WB back and allowing Kolašinac to drive inside.
— PM (@ThatGooner) January 1, 2019
Coming in second against Fulham for passes attempted into the penalty area was Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, and he seemed to enjoy his role on the right of the front-three. Given freedom to move inside he was involved in both goals two and three by drifting all the way across to the other side. On the right of the front three, he was afforded the luxury of not being marked as tightly, and it seemed to suit him, to attack balls into the box with an open body, especially since most of the play was coming from the left side. (In a way not too dissimilar to Theo Walcott perhaps, or when same man used to cross at the near post for Olivier Giroud).
By the time the fourth goal went in, Emery switched the formation to a 4-3-3, conscious he said that Jean Michel Seri was getting a lot of the ball, and “we needed to get a player close to him, to not let him play with the ball very easily. When Aaron Ramsey came onto the pitch, he could do that and can also help us in attacking moments and he scored. The reason for the decision was this and I need to do my work.” At that moment, Arsenal were in a bit of bother, having just conceded, and looked a bit suspect defensively on the counter. But two quick goals soon ended that nuisance as Arsenal got back to winning ways.