There was something all too familiar about Arsenal’s tame collapse against Watford. Some had maybe thought they had seen the worst of it under Arsene Wenger with Per Mertesacker saying before the game that in the past, “when we lost one game, we often lost a few in a row. We didn’t have the ability to shift quickly and keep our faith after a disappointment.” The 2-2 draw against Watford carried the same hallmarks even if it is too early to say if this setback will prove to be just as terminal.
The Gunners didn’t lose, but already, there are question marks about whether Unai Emery has the leadership to reverse Arsenal’s reputation as being mentally fragile. Granit Xhaka’s words at the end of the game were the most damning, saying: “We were scared in the second half….You have to say we are happy to take a point. At half‑time we went to the dressing room and everything was good. Everyone was happy but we came out and played such a bad second half. We knew they would come at us and push us hard but we have to show more character and not be scared. We have spoken about it. We cannot give a performance like this in the second half.”
Indeed, if there is one improvement that Emery has made to Arsenal’s playing style is that he’s added a certain technical base to the team that, when they are under pressure, or playing badly, they can fall back on. It was one of the reasons why Wenger consistently struggled to arrest a downturn of results following a bad performance. But here, it proved to be part of Arsenal’s downfall as Sokratis, attempting to play out from the back from a goal-kick, passed the ball straight to an opponent to start Watford’s comeback. When it was complete, it was another error, this time from David Luiz as he brought down Roberto Pereyra in the box, that saw Arsenal only come away with a single point.
In truth, Arsenal were lucky to leave Vicarage Road with anything. They were, bar a 15-minute spell in the first-half where Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang scored two goals, under the cosh from the first whistle as the team struggled to impose themselves using a diamond formation that frequently left them bare at the back. Emery presumably began with the system as he expected Watford to use a 4-2-2-2 formation themselves and as such, he was wary of being overrun in the centre. (Or maybe it was because he thought that this was the best way to use Nicholas Pepe, Aubameyang, and Mesut Ozil in the same line-up?).
Certainly, he chops and changes formation because he believes this is the only way you can be truly competitive, by “adapting yourself to the reality of your opponent. Sometimes, you win because you use the ball better, and sometimes you have to adapt and give in to the idea that you don’t have it.” Here, against Watford, the plan was to have the ball at the back and to use it to draw the opponents on and break their pressing with good passing. If there is an identity, an idea that Emery has tried to instill, then this is it, beginning with meticulous building from the back.
It worked for Arsenal’s second-goal, a twenty pass move that drew Watford from right to left, before coming back again to the player in space – here it was Mesut Ozil – before he fed the run to the advancing full-back – the other key weapon in his plan – to cross home for Aubameyang. “My idea is the same,” says Emery. “I want a team with good positioning, good combinations between the players and also good experience in all situations, being able to attack and play with a big intensity. I like the energy, I like to be the protagonists. I think we can take some matches last year where we can see this is our philosophy, our match, the intensity we want to create 100 per cent. At other times we could not do that.”
However, those types of attacks are few and far between. When it works, Emery might feel as if it’s a justification for his methods, but often, the implementation is flawed, undone by a cautiousness in matches. His default system of choice is anything that features the double-pivot. So far, in the 43 league games that he has overseen as coach, he has deviated from the 4-2-3-1 or 3-4-1-2 just 7 times – and in those instances, as like here, he has used a diamond formation. For some reason, he has little faith in using a 4-3-3 – indeed, the 2-2 draw with Tottenham last gameweek was the first time he ever used it as Arsenal boss – this despite saying, it’s the best system for “pressing, for provoking the opponent.” But he adds “it’s a more aggressive idea, which exposes you more. Bielsa’s style, Guardiola’s style.” This is maybe why he is reluctant to use it with Arsenal as “with worse players, it is easier to control” (he said this in reference to the Spain national team).
This quest then for control, balance plagues Emery. It is also feasible that he’s trying to make his own stylistic statement, knowing that he has taken over a respected attacking coach and therefore would like to leave his own legacy. Yet, his methods are filled with contradictions. It is difficult to attack fluently with only four attacking players plus the full-backs, if you insist on leaving the double-pivot back at all times. Therefore, with one less body stepping into the final third, it’s no surprise that most of your attacks are funneled out wide – although, you can argue, that he wants this – and the number 10 (ahem, Ozil) is marginalised. When the ball is deep, Arsenal are actually pretty good at evading pressure, but as Watford eventually cottoned on to, they can also be quite predictable. The two holders tend to play in a flat line, therefore they don’t really offer the type of rotation needed if an opponent man-marks.
Against Watford, it was defensively that Emery left the team painfully exposed. Expecting Watford to use a 4-2-2-2, their opponents instead began with a 4-2-3-1 and constantly attacked down the left-hand side. Ainsley Maintland-Niles had a torrid game, always exposed 1v1 against Gerard Deulofeu and never able to get tight to him due to the lack of protection in front. It was strange that Emery tasked minimal defensive responsibilities to the front three apart from creating a block in the centre. Instead, Matteo Guendouzi and then later, Lucas Torreira were asked to press wide, usually with great intensity (indeed, that was why Emery was forced to replace Dani Ceballos) which was almost impossible if this was done on the edge of your own box.
Emery said he kept the front three high because he wanted to exploit the moments when Watford were drawn towards pressing Arsenal, and then break their lines them through good passing. There was a period in the first-half where you could argue they did this comfortably – or rather, they did so because Watford dropped their intensity (and Arsenal upped theirs, especially for the first goal, where good work from Ceballos and Sead Kolasinac won the ball back for Arsenal to score. Quique Sanchez Flores: “We played well in the first 20- 25 minutes. It was difficult to recover after the first goal. It was in our brain that we were playing well so the players were a little bit down. We had to recuperate the memory of what happened before the goal and I was happy with the reaction in the second-half.). Yet, there was a feeling the team was a mistake away from conceding. They should have done so twice actually before the break, when Guendouzi relinquished possession on the edge of his own box. Watford gained confidence from that and very soon after the interval, they scored when Sokratis gave the ball away straight from a goal kick to Tom Cleverley. “I feel like we were well organised from their goal kicks,” said the Watford midfielder. “It is something we worked on all week. We weren’t surprised they tried to play like that. It was just more of a surprise they didn’t adapt during the game and they were pretty stubborn with it.”
Emery: “Our game plan was the same, like at the beginning, to break their pressing – if they decided to do that – and if we break that pressing we can connect with our midfielders, with our team’s players and after have space to continue imposing our game plan. But [it’s] really frustrating, because second half we couldn’t do that. We couldn’t control the match and we couldn’t break their pressing, first because they are a good team, they played last year here with that spirit, that capacity and they are physically strong. They pushed and they controlled the match with their pressing, taking confidence and giving us some mistakes and scoring the first goal gave them confidence for continuing that. That moment is when we needed to have calm and again control like in the first half, but we couldn’t do [that].
Under concerted pressure in the second-half, Arsenal even resorted to a Plan B of sorts, using David Luiz’s long-passing from goal-kicks, asking him to go short – in fact, really close to Bend Leno – in an attempt to call their opponents bluff, and then launch it over the top for Pepe and Aubameyang to run onto. “In the second half we continued trying [to play out] because we need to do that work and that is my responsibility. Also when we can change and have a second plan – it’s doing long balls and the second action – they were very strong and we didn’t earn balls in that planning also.”
Eventually, for the last 10 minutes, Emery switched to a 4-2-3-1 but at that point, the team had relinquished all control of the match such that any counter attacks they had mustered, were tired attempts. In the end, the hornets stung, and it hurt pretty badly.