After a scratchy few weeks trying to find their form, Arsenal reverted to what felt like their early season type again by playing a good(ish) first-half against Southampton, followed by an underwhelming second-half.
Of course, in the first few months of Unai Emery’s reign, it was the other way round, with changes from the manager after the break tending to tilt the balance of matches in Arsenal’s favour. Here, though, The Gunners scored their two goals early, however, it could have been a different story were it not for Bernd Leno. He saved from point blank range to deny Nathan Redmond and then Arsenal went down the other end and scored. Indeed, it was in not too dissimilar circumstance that Arsenal scored their second goal, Leno again saving moments Henrikh Mkhitaryan put the ball into the back of the net after Southampton dallied at the back. It just goes to show you how fortunes can be decided on fine margins because Arsenal then proceeded to produce a solid first-half but could conceivably been put under more trouble by Southampton’s gameplan. In the end, that’s what happened in the second-half but by then, Arsenal could afford to see them game out.
“We had a great first half,” said Henrikh Mkhitaryan. “I think if it wasn’t for Bernd Leno’s save, we wouldn’t have scored the first goal so that’s thanks to him. He did half of the job. In the second half, it was a bit different because they came into the game more, but we had a bit more spaces for counter-attacking and could have scored more goals. Unfortunately we didn’t.”
Ralph Hasenhüttl, the Southampton boss, also added: “(Redmond’s chance) was a key moment. We knew exactly what we wanted to do at the start of the game and get in behind on the first long ball. It was a good chance and then we gave the ball away on the counter-attack too easily. Against a team like Arsenal when you go 2-0 down after 20 minutes, their confidence is up and it is very difficult.”
For Arsenal, it – the first-half – felt like a step towards some sort of purpose again, especially once Arsenal got going and began playing one-twos and building from the back. Oriol Romeu mentioned this in his break down of the game at the end: “It was tough, especially in the first half,” the midfielder said. “We were not getting near enough to their players, who were playing quick football between the lines with one or two touches. We were trying to react, but we were not close enough to them.
“In the second half, we tried to go higher. We put four at the back and more players up front so we could get closer to them and make sure their midfielders were not playing those balls between the lines. That helped us – we had more chances in their half and put more pressure on them. That reaction was good, but probably not enough.”
build-up not perfect – a little bit jerky – but a feeling of moving towards some sort of purpose again. pic.twitter.com/cquNq35CA2
— Arsenal Column (@ArsenalColumn) February 24, 2019
For two games running, after much tinkering of system, Emery seems to have settled once more on the 4-2-3-1. It might change again for the next game – indeed, Emery hinted as much due to the knock suffered by Stephan Lichsteiner – however, this traditionally tends to be his favourite formation. With Arsenal, there has generally been a slight variation to the system as he prefers to use one or two no.10s in the wide positions. Those players, usually Alex Iwobi and Mkhitaryan, step inside slightly during the build-up, towards the halfspaces, which allows then the full-backs to bomb forward. In a sense, this has been the philosophy Emery has been trying to implement from the start – to build from the back using the positioning of these players.
Emery stated after the game that he realises the consequences this style poses and that’s why in part, he keeps on changing the formation from game-to-game – because he still wants to attack in this way with the full-backs, but is forced at times to tweak the system so that the team is protected better from the space left behind. He says he can do this by using a back three, or by deploying a more conservative full-back on one side (in this case, Lichtsteiner).
Indeed, Redmond initially posed that problem to Arsenal, and it’s not inconceivable that Southampton wanted to exploit it more had they not gone behind so quickly as both Manchester United and Cardiff so publicly declared they tried to exploit as well when they faced The Gunners.
Emery expanded on this after the game when questioned about the chances the full-backs conceded to Southampton: “Yes, they have players in attacking moments who are very fast like Redmond. In the first action they get at our space in defensive and created some good chances, but you need your goalkeeper for good saves sometimes and I think today Leno played very well and helped us a lot.
“After we can play with different systems and different players, it depends. Sometimes you want to attack a lot with our left and right back, but maybe it’s better to play with three centre backs to protect his backline, like sometimes [we do] with Kolasinac. It depends on if they’re playing with one attacking player or two and the situation tactically in each match. After today I think Licht played his best first half in the season – and Kolasinac also was keeping his consistency up. He played well today and played well offensively and defensively.”
It will be interesting to see how the system evolves once Emery gets the winger he so courted in the January transfer window, and indeed, perhaps even full-backs that are more suited to a back four. Will he switch to the 4-1-4-1 which he used at PSG? Certainly, he started pre-season using that formation with Arsenal but ditched it once the campaign proper started. It’s likely that he wanted to get Arsenal to a base level of understanding of his ideas and demands but then probably felt that, to be “more competitive”, the 4-2-3-1 (or 4-4-2 in the defensive phase) was the best formation to use in this “transition period” so to speak. “The 4-4-2 is designed more and more for zonal positioning,” Emery said in an interview with Marti Perarnau. “It’s less aggressive, but is more difficult to get past….We sometimes used it in Sevilla. I would put Banega in a playmaker position, and have him move to the second striker position without the ball. With two strong, physical players behind him, it provided me with the necessary cohesion to press.”
It sounds a lot like Arsenal’s system, which perhaps explains why we haven’t really seen the team fulfill Emery’s promise of pressing aggressively high up the pitch. He said after the game that it’s “difficult to keep the intensity for 90 minutes” of which led to an “under-performance” in the second-half. However, there was plenty of encouragement for the fans to take away from the first-half performance and a sign perhaps that Arsenal are moving back towards the style which Emery tried to implement in the first few months of the season. “The most important is the three points at home with our supporters,” said Emery. “We are thinking it’s a good step and it’s game by game. Now we are happy, we are at the moment in this position and we carry on.”