West Ham United 1-0 Arsenal: Gunners’ attack just too blunt

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In leaving out one number 10, Unai Emery was punished by another as Arsenal lost 1-0 to West Ham United. Samir Nasri, returning from a doping ban to play against his former club, set up the game’s only goal, whilst Arsenal fans were left scratching their head at the decision to completely omit Ozil from the squad.

At the end of the game, Emery cited “tactical” reasons from dropping Ozil. Quite what they are is revealed, in some ways, by his comments afterwards, adding that “no one player makes the difference between winning and losing the game.”

Of course, this brings to mind his reign in charge of PSG and his difficulties in managing star players like Neymar and Edinson Cavani. In the end, it is said that he caved into the demands of the players. However, Emery insists that that wasn’t the case and instead, he quickly realised that his first job was to make Neymar happy, telling the Brazilian early on that “my work is limited to your strokes of genius.”

Indeed, Emery’s account of his time at PSG is actually more accommodating of his star players – the ones he says that can decide games by “imagining situations by themselves.” But he also talks a lot about the presence of disruptive individuals, and the need to get rid of them sometimes to move forward. “Nobody is perfect, and it is not always necessary to look forward to advance,” he said in an interview with Marti Perarnau. “Sometimes, you can advance while looking back, learning and correcting. Sometimes, you need to do what Guardiola did when he got rid of Deco, Ronaldinho, and Ibrahimovic. Afterwards, Zlatan and his agent got into an argument with Pep? Ok, but they got rid of him, and they got rid of the obstacle preventing them from completing their masterpiece. Pep is a coach who makes masterpieces. What am I missing? Making my masterpieces, real masterpieces. And making them my own.”

Is Ozil the obstacle getting in the way of Emery completing his plans? It’s still not quite clear, though his omission entirely from the match day squad is an error that even he (half) admitted. “Maybe for the bench, some attacking players could have helped,” he said after the defeat. “But I think we had enough with these players,” he added, referring to the decision to have three full-backs on the bench, and youngster Eddie Nketiah.

Indeed, the issue that occupies Emery’s mind greatest at the moment seems to be correcting Arsenal’s defensive stability, and the answer it seems is to throw more defenders into the team. Which is shame because that cautiousness has hampered the progress he was making in that albeit flawed unbeaten run.

For one, moving to the back three means the team has been forced to play through the full-backs more, making attacks predictable when once they were more there to facilitate the build- up style Emery is trying to implement. “Wing-backs for us, and I think for football generally, give us the opportunity to get wide, and sometimes also the surprise of getting deep,” Emery told Arsenal Player. “They give control with the ball when you have players inside.”

The players inside have generally been configured in a “2-2” shape – two holding midfielders (a double pivot) and two attacking midfielders broadly ahead – but more recently, there have been tweaks that have somewhat unsettled the identity; a diamond was used in the 3-1 win over Burnley, then a standard 4-2-3-1 in the 5-1 defeat to Liverpool, and now a 3-4-3 with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang playing loosely towards the right. This final configuration, whilst working very well vs Fulham (4-1), looked very disjointed against West Ham as Arsenal failed to find their connections.

Emery said that the team failed to “control the match like we wanted to….and impose our game plan, our tactical quality.” The Gunners attempted 11 shots in the game, the 5th lowest from any team in the Premier League this season. As such, it is not just an issue with the defensive department, but a shortcoming of the attack – which in some games, is stifled Emery’s philosophy. Of course, the manager has added value to the team with his outlook and approach, but on a match day seems exorbitantly obsessed with showing “respect” to his opponents before eventually making the positive changes that are required.

This, in some way, probably explains why Ozil doesn’t quite fit in because at the moment, the system is king, and if anything, the only one who is allowed to be spontaneous, inventive in the team is Emery. Unlike at PSG, the manager is unwilling to accommodate a free-styler like Ozil (and Ramsey) which suggests even, that he just doesn’t rate the German as much. If he does, he probably deems Ozil incompatible for the high style of pressing that he eventually wants to implement. Indeed, there is probably no space for a classical no.10 in Emery’s system – they have to come from other sectors, hence for him, they tend to start wide and come inside, like Iwobi and Mkhitaryan. When that happens, the full-backs can then push up and Arsenal achieve the optimal structure and positioning that Emery wants.

 

Against West Ham, Arsenal weren’t really able to achieve this shape. In the first-half, for the few chances they created, it was notable that the moves went through Iwobi first, dropping off into the left halfspace, or even when Aubameyang did it in the other other wing. But Arsenal were just too ponderous – too careful even – in getting the ball forward.

Here, whilst Laurent Koslcielny was competent enough to play the zipped pass between-the-lines, he was less comfortable moving wide to the left-flank and offering an angle and bringing out the ball as Rob Holding did. On the other side, Ainsley Maitland-Niles wasn’t as perpetually available as Hector Bellerin, whilst ahead of him, Aubameyang was more suited to getting onto the end of attacks than initiating them.

The lack of a number 10 was obvious – or even a player to move into that space though Mattel Guendouzi tried to do that when he could and flashed two long-range efforts wide. As such, in the first-half, Arsenal relied a lot on Iwobi to provide the impetus, initially starting wide, then moving into the no.10 position and opening up the space for Sead Kolasinac to move forward. This was almost Arsenal’s default tactic. When the formation changed in the second-half to a 4-2-3-1, The Gunners created a couple of chances straight after due to the renewed zest of Aaron Ramsey, but for 23 minutes up to the final whistle, they created none in the face of a claret wall.

“We tried to play, we did well in the first half but didn’t have a lot of chances in the final third,” said Koscielny. “We need to keep calmer in the final third and find the final ball, but in the second half we didn’t start well and conceded early. After that we tried to push for the rest of the game, we had some chances and we didn’t score.”

The goal Arsenal conceded was from a corner-kick, and indeed, Emery wasn’t happy about the number of crossing opportunities Arsenal allowed – 7 in the whole game, with 20 crosses overall. He said that whilst Arsenal didn’t concede many chances, “we conceded metres on the pitch and these metres gave them a lot of corners. From one corner, they scored, and then the match changed. We needed to attack more and better but today, defensively we needed to work well. We created chances but it wasn’t enough to win. Maybe in the first 20 minutes when we created some chances, that was the moment where we thought we could win the match, but then after it was difficult because we didn’t impose all the things we wanted.“

Conceding this much space might have been a consequence of using a back three as Arsenal had one less player to help close down up the pitch, therefore, because the team didn’t want to be overrun in midfield, they were forced to drop back a little bit. With the tweaks, it’s clear Emery is trying to find the system that allows Arsenal to build up with the shape he likes, but still offer defensive security. In the main this season, it’s clear he has veered along the side of caution. Certainly, whilst the main theme of this campaign has been about building from the back and trying to control the game, we haven’t seen the type of high-intensity pressing that he promised when he joined. Of course, it can’t be denied that he has added value to the team by getting them to run more, but his focus – his preoccupation and obsession – thus far has been about positioning and control. He says that actually, this is the purpose of his pressing, that “the idea is not to win the ball back and counter as quickly as possible, but rather to equip ourselves once we have the ball. What Guardiola’s Barcelona did magnificently. We win the ball off of them, but those bastards always won it back. And Pep is doing it with City now. High pressure and win the ball back to start again once in position.”

In the end, it’s not the philosophy or idea that is considered wrong, but perhaps the implementation of it; the insistence in always using two holding midfielders, and having a little bit more trust in his skilful players.

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