Qualifying for the Champions League was never going to be easy, but my God, have Arsenal make a right mess of that one. Actually, let’s take it back a bit, it was meant to be easy – at least that’s what everyone else said – and now Arsenal need to rely on winning the Europa League to get into football’s premier club competition.
If others were confident that Arsenal would be favourites to get into the top 4, Gooners were quietly apprehensive. It’s true, they didn’t have to face any of the Big Six in their run-in, but neither were their fixtures against relegation fodder – as it happens, they lost their only match against relegation fodder 3-2 – whilst the hardest games were all away. Yet, you wouldn’t have predicted that Arsenal would succumb so meekly, however, they were outplayed in all of their last five matches – and that includes the one they won.
Defeat to Leicester was probably more galling than the rest because Arsenal seemed to adopt the small club mentality that the team, certainly under Arsène Wenger, seemed to decry. Against Leicester, Unai Emery asked his team sit back and soak up pressure, before hitting their opponents on the break. Of course, it’s not as if Wenger didn’t try this approach as well when things were not going so well – heck, even Maurizio Sarri has adopted the same compromise this season with Chelsea – but here, it was at the complete abandonment of the process that Arsenal are going through, and what Emery is supposedly trying to implement.
To break it down, this was the lowest amount of possession that Arsenal have ever recorded in the Premier League. The red card didn’t help, but at that moment The Gunners only had 20% of the ball. By the end of the game, they actually had more, at 32%.
It’s actually not counter-attacking per se that was the problem, but the abject implementation of it. To start with, Emery chose to go with a 4-4-2 with Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang up front, acting as the reference point for the rest of the team to move as a unit. They would, when Leicester had the ball at the back, look to screen the deepest midfielder, Wilfred Ndidi, so that when the pass was played through, hope to be in the position to swarm around the man who receives the ball.
However, Leicester adapted superbly, first by drawing the play to the right, and then dropping Hamza Choudhury to the other side of Ndidi so that they could make the switch to the other flank. By this point, James Maddison would have already have drifted inside, transforming the system from a 4-1-4-1 into a sort of “2-2” box-shape in the middle, overloading both Lucas Torreira and Granit Xhaka, and leaving Ben Chilwell free on the left touchline. Indeed, that’s how Ainsley Maintland-Niles picked up his two bookings, first being forced to close down Chilwell with acres of space behind him, and then, later dragged inside and committing the foul on Maddison. It’s telling that he was always exposed because Arsenal could never get their compactness right, leaving so much space down his side. “It was very enjoyable seeing the team play in that manner, I think we had a lot of young players playing against some very good players,” said Brendan Rodgers. “We showed a really good level today, our defensive organisation, our pressing was good.We brought young Hamza [Choudhury] into the team because that’s what he’s good at, and then had young James Maddison playing in off the side.”
Before the game, Emery said that he chose to use this cautious approach because he wanted to make Arsenal more “competitive”. That is he told Sky Sports, winning (or drawing) “without necessarily playing well. Sometimes the other team will impose their idea on you. Being competitive means that when you can’t find a way to win by outplaying your opponent, you are able to adapt and find another way to win or draw the game. That is another area in which I want this team to make progress.”
Certainly, it made sense to double-down slightly on Arsenal’s usual approach as Laurent Koscielny said that “confidence is a little bit down so it’s tough to come back” therefore defensive stability needed to be the main priority. Yet, this idea of winning ugly should not be seen as a compromise of philosophy, but rather, it’s a sort of in-game resource that all (good) teams call upon when things are not going their way. It was obvious that Arsenal were ill-equipped to play that sort of way from the start, and were instantly put on the backfoot by that approach.
Indeed, it can be said that Emery fell victim somewhat to his own tactical flexibility. Which is to say that tactical flexibility is not simply changing formations from game-to-game, but rather, as @BeltransMole23 writes, is “really making tweaks around a larger, guiding set of principles that you develop during the season.” Emery went the other way against Leicester, too far against his philosophy, and it backfired.
Indeed, at the start of the season Emery understood that, and his tweaks were generally subtle in an attempt to fine-tune and perfect a way of playing which was, yes, mainly dull and painfully wrought-out times, but was also able to produce moments of intricacy later known as EmeryBall. His chosen formation was the 4-2-3-1 and only twice before December in the league, in the wins over Fulham and Bournemouth, did he deviate against that. However, that meant keeping Lacazette and Aubameyang separate (the Gabonese striker mainly played towards the left) and both, or either one of (or sometimes, neither) Mesut Ozil and Ramsey, in the no.10 position. Later, he would realise that the latter would be best suited in central midfield and the Welshman would briefly spark Arsenal’s campaign back to life, whilst the manager spent too much of the season fighting the former. It was in the 4-2 win over Tottenham Hotspur that Emery also realised that he could play both Aubameyang and Lacazette together, using the pair to devastating effect in the second-half, although the real reason why he moved to a back three he said was to bring more defensive stability.
Since then, he has mainly favoured different variants of the three at the back yet could never solve Arsenal’s vulnerability at the back. The four defeats in the last five games bring the team to a new low and it can be argued that Emery has simply failed to organise the side in these games, to make them competitive in games where not being up to the races shouldn’t be an excuse. The galling thing really is, that Emery has brought a level of coaching – the pressing, the building out from the back – which you feel should be the groundwork for more, but often, has ended up nothing more than close to the ceiling. Here, they fell embarrassingly short of even that.