Newcastle 0-1 Arsenal: The same thing, but better somehow

auba-amn

So what can we expect from Year 2 of the Unai Emery Project? Well it seems, after Arsenal’s 1-0 victory over Newcastle United, just more of the same. Of course, it would be a bit presumptuous to claim that after only the first game of the season and with many likely first team players not starting – as such, making this away victory all the more impressive – but it feels like it would require some sort of softening the manager’s make-up and mentality, if not his approach, to expect change quickly.

That’s not to say Emery is not open to change because off the pitch, he has undergone a makover – the teeth have been straightened and bleached, his hair no longer touches his collar and he has traded his old lenses, for rounder, more fashionable ones.

On the pitch, the manager has looked to build on the same tenets that he tried introduced last season of “control”, “possession”, “positioning” and “pressing”. The results, in the first match of the season, were solid if not spectacular as Arsenal to produce a professional performance to grind out a narrow 1-0 win secured by Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang after good work from Ainsley Maitland-Niles.

The goal came just at the time in the second-half where the match was becoming a little stretched. Newcastle maybe sensed that so the manager, Steve Bruce, made a change that would prove to be fateful, bringing on wing-back Jetro Willems who instantly looked short of the pace, entering the pitch initially in central midfield, and then, when a ball was played across to him, was caught flat-footed and Maitland-Niles stole in. It was a relief for Arsenal because they laboured for the most part to get into Newcastle’s box, much in the same way that they struggled to convincingly be dynamic last season. In the end, they only managed 8 shots, underlining again, the clinical efficiency of their strikers. (Last season they only average around 12 shots a game, which is mid-table standard at best).

The basic premise last season was sound – it improved Arsenal because they were better playing out – but they were often undermined by caution. Emery realises that this year there is a need for his team to be a bit more attacking, owing to the players that he has at his disposal. “Our idea is to continue being one team, mostly offensive”, he said, but adds, “we need to also take the balance defensively.” This is his challenge for the current campaign, to create a cohesive outlet that he says can “create good combinations, good situations, to create chances  and after each player has his quality to score, to do the pass, the assist and to do the job defensively.”

To achieve this he says the team will play a back four, which is a positive move as the impact of switching to three at the back during the midway point of last season was overstated. It initially brought defensive stability following the 4-2 win over Spurs, and worked better when Aaron Ramsey was reinstated to the centre of midfield towards the end of the campaign, but with the switch, he abandoned some of the core principles he tried to develop at the start of the season, of playing through pressure, and generally getting two attacking midfielders to step just inside, in the half-spaces. Of course, he needed to make the team defensively more secure, but with constantly changing the system, mainly to some variant of the back three, he became victim to is own tactical flexibility. Which is to say that tactical flexibility is not simply about changing formations from game-to-game, but rather is really about making tweaks around a larger, guiding set of principles that you develop during the season.

Emery expands on the decision to use a back four this season: “Our first objective is to play with a back four…Last year we used different systems during the season. Each moment, each match was thinking about how we were better in our positioning for defence or attack.

“We are starting in general working with a back four and trying to use two players like Ainsley and Sead, and maybe Nacho, [though] his natural habit was to play back four and sometimes like a left centre back in a back three. But we want to use two systems and we are working with two systems, but our first objective is to play with a back four. We are continuing working on that and, above all, feel that we defensively get stronger with a back four with Sead, with Ainsley, with Sead, and with Hector when he comes back.”

Against Newcastle, Emery used a 4-2-3-1 and the average pass positions of his players broadly showed the shape he wants to achieve. The two full-backs push forward to create the width, whilst Matteo Guendouzi and Granit Xhaka cover to the right and left respectively, circulating the ball and helping ensure this shape remains at all times. The execution of the tactics was initially frustrating. It was clear Arsenal were struggling to get behind Newcastle’s midfield – their opponents used a flat 3-5-2 in the middle, thus the only real outlet to link play was Joe Willock playing as a no.10. In the end, the youngster only passed the ball 14 times, but he was energetic and tended mainly to move to the left side to receive the ball.

Part of his ineffectiveness was that he was unable to get support from one of the two sitting midfielders who preferred to play behind the ball. It’s part of my criticism of Guendouzi, who whilst being supremely composed in possession, rarely bursts without the ball into spaces between the lines to either evade the attention of his markers, or to create space for the centre-backs and Xhaka if he drops to receive it, to pass the ball. Most of his movements are geared towards getting himself on the ball and facing play. Xhaka, I should add, feels the brunt of this criticism less in this match because his movement was generally more helpful, away from the congested part, and usually towards the left were Arsenal were strongest progressing the ball.

 

The other reason why Willock maybe struggled to make an impact was because often, in the halfspaces, the two wingers, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Reiss Nelson, moved into his areas. It seems the positioning of these players, plus the double-pivot, was clearly a purposeful ploy by the manager, thus it’s really hard to be critical of the players. It will lead to passages in the game where the play is stale, as the team meticulously looks the build side-to-side but the aim is to try and find an overload on one side or a switch to the other. This worked better on the left because Willock tended to drift there, as did Xhaka, whilst on the other side, Mhkitaryan tended to want to get into the no.10 position as much as possible, usually leaving Maintland-Niles with no choice but to drive forward by himself with the ball.

It will be interesting to see how the attacking balance changes with the integration of Nicolas Pepe and Alexandre Lacazette. Will Emery use all three together with Aubameyang on one flank or, as he did in pre-season, use as the secondary formation, a 4-4-2? Can Pepe, Lacazette and Aubameyang work in a 4-2-3-1? Highly Unlikely. He touched on this balance in July, before Pepe signed, saying that the profile of the wingers will dictate his approach. Here against newcastle, Nelson and Mhkitaryan are more combination players so he instructed one or both at the same time, to step inside. In pre-season, though, he used Aubameyang as a winger mainly. “Sometimes we are playing with one striker or two strikers or with one as a winger. Aubameyang can play like a striker alone, like a striker with two and can play as a winger on the right or the left. But above all with him we want to be very aggressive in the attacking third and moving forward to score with him. When we are deciding to play with another player maybe they are more of a one-to-one winger or a player like Mesut, a player who goes deep to take the ball and keep our possession with him in the pitch. It’s different in each moment and each match. But above all, with Aubameyang, we can take different options with him and he is very good and very rich for us.”

In the end, Aubameyang made the difference. Though the performance was much of the same what we are used to seeing under Emery, it also seemed a little different somehow. There seemed to be more fire in the players, a greater determination and discipline that was sometimes missing last season. Indeed, one year on, the build up has definitely improved, the players understand each other better and know exactly what Emery wants from them. It feels therefore, that so much rests on Emery getting it right, but the superior level of the players may be enough to elevate his approach to the next level.

Advertisements

In face of pressing demands, teams, players, show adaptability

Frenkie-De-Jong-3

One of the feel-good stories of the 2018/19 season was Ajax’s surprise Champions League run, and that was backed up by Netherlands excellent showing in the UEFA Nations League. Indeed, if Dutch football is on the up again, then that is embodied by midfielder, Frenkie De Jong, who was integral in both teams’ success. The 22 year-old has just signed for Barcelona, making the same move that a number of his peers have made before him, by going from Amsterdam to Catalunya, and he is expected to eventually fill the iconic number 6 position. That’s quite some backing and it should put De Jong at the forefront of how top level football is played in the next few years.

Certainly, last season, he already showed why he is the future with his style of play which is reminiscent of playing a small sided game on a larger pitch. Firstly, he takes the ball anywhere. In a 5-a-side game, you are expected to receive the ball inside your box and try to play out because the concept of “going long” doesn’t really exist. And De Jong does that, dribbling even, in his own area as the last man. In a sense, he’s Franz Beckenbauer reincarnate, though as former Ajax midfielder Arie Haan says, “he is a better version…you might laugh, but people must interpret that properly. What I really mean is that he also has speed and passes easily. That’s an enormous weapon.”

Secondly, he always seems to make the right decisions, or rather, a certain kind of decision. Because for him, it’s about finding the free-man, therefore he will rarely switch the play – something which some may count as a weakness, though, it further serves to highlight how he views the game, almost, as lots of small-sided games in one – but instead, look to zip the ball through to someone between-the-lines to find a team-mate on the turn. “His biggest quality?” explains Holland coach, Ronald Koeman. “In a lot of situations he has the ability to postpone the decision when in possession, and then to give a pass from which everyone thinks: ‘Hell yeah, excellent thinking, that’s how simple it can be’. His view of the game is exceptional.” Team-mate Georginio Wijnaldum expands by adding: “De Jong is always able to create space because he is a) always available and b) with his actions he creates a lot of situations: he forces opponents to choose, they have to come out of position, lose their marker, which can automatically make space or give us a free man.”

That hints at point number three of what makes De Jong so thoroughly modern because football, right now, is about how well you receive the ball than just being able to play it per se (because everyone knows how to play it by now). As Marc Overmars, Ajax’s Sporting Director says, “Frenkie de Jong was a small, skinny lad with spindly legs five years ago. No one paid attention to him, but something struck me about when he receives the ball – that is still his biggest quality. [editor: I would argue, maybe the most important quality now]. I knew he was the one we had to get, and I didn’t give up.”

That sense of daring that De Jong has, and the courage to give and take the ball anywhere, has been cultivated from a young age at academy level in Holland where playing out, and opening the pitch for passing lanes, is in the DNA. However, that style has been adopted by many countries now and indeed, watching this summer’s Nations League or Under-21 European Championship, you would have barely noticed any difference between how one country plays from another – it’s just that one does it better than the other, as England found out in their 3-1 defeat to the Dutch. (Faced by the man-marking of Holland, England, with a central midfield not as nimble and agile as their opponents, struggled to get their way around the trap. Holland, on the other hand, led by De Jong, always came to the ball with more time on the pitch).

Of course, it’s been a while since international football set the trends for how the game should be played, and as such, it is in club level, where you will see more variety. Still, the possession style, or building out from the back, is now the standard, the platform that forms the rest of how you play. As Stewart Robson said in commentary for AFCON 2019 recently, “practicing a pattern of play lays the groundwork for the rest of your game to work”. 10-15 years ago, in the age of the 4-2-3-1, just before, or at the cusp of when Pep Guardiola was making his mark perhaps, shape would have been the first thing that coaches built their team around. A little later on, when possession was the vogue, the real tactical battle would broadly about who had the numerical superiority in the midfield. Fast-forward a little more recently, and for a while we had a mini obsession with the 3-4-3. Teams facing that formation, – initially Antonio Conte’s Chelsea – rarely had an answer so as such felt compelled to match up, leading often to a stalemate.

These days there tends to be more of a variety in systems used and the willingness to use the back three in all its different guises, i.e. 3-5-2, 3-4-3, 3-4-1-2, is probably the best example of that.

Indeed, one of the reasons why the back three is back in vogue is because the centre-backs already form a natural line across the pitch to build from. Commonly, this has been done by asking the holding midfielder to drop in between the centre-backs in order to form a de facto back three but with teams pressing higher nowadays, it has become more of a risk to split the defence. That’s why it has become important goalkeepers to be technical because they can then take some of the responsibility of building up and opening the pitch away from the midfielder, and thus the team become more fool-proof to the press.

Centre-backs are more comfortable at passing out now, so much so that the best defenders now look to actively draw the press as David Luiz did in Chelsea’s 2-0 win over Manchester City earlier this season. This also means that coaches can take more of a gamble higher up the pitch and use their attacking players in different ways to allow them the freedom to cause damage. For example, Unai Emery has realised that the only real way he could partner Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang together, and field Mesut Ozil in the same-line up, was to use a back three. He started the season deploying a 4-2-3-1, but over-emphasis on building out from the back led to stuttering, and mostly dull football – not to mention that the team kept on leaking a high number of chances. With the back three, fortunes didn’t dramatically transform, but they did momentarily allow the team to play out with more security.

The dominating theme then, of modern elite-level football it seems, is still about possession and playing out. When Zinedine Zidane took over Real Madrid the first time round and began his mini-dynasty, he said he looked to focus first, on getting a good technical base and then building the rest of the team around that. Speaking to UEFA.com, he said: “Knowing that my players had the necessary skill set, I felt an obligation to strengthen our identity as a possession-based team – not possession for possession’s sake, but possession for the purposes of attacking our opponents. At the same time, having possession is no guarantee of victory!” His team shape, at first glance, seemed a little anarchic. He tended to favour a diamond formation which then morphed into a sort-of 4-4-2 to allow Ronaldo to get forward to devastating effect, but as former Real Betis coach, Quique Setién observed, that positional freedom was granted by the base behind – which is broadly the kind of set up that most teams use – a “1-2” in the middle with overlapping full-backs. “Real Madrid are a team who are a little anarchic,” said Setien. “They don’t have a permanent shape: although they will play with four at the back and with Casemiro, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric in the middle, the way they set up from there can change.”

The biggest match in club football, this year’s Champions League final between Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool, showed then, how possession still has a disproportionately large influence on a team’s approach. In truth, though it must be said, the game was largely a dull one with Liverpool prevailing 1-0 after a goal scored in the first two-minutes. As such, the rest of the game was about how Spurs would react and it turned out, given their semi-final heroics, in an unexpectedly calm and meticulous manner.

They were determined, in the face of the Liverpool block in front of them, not to be hurried because Mauricio Pochettino had laid-out a gameplan, and it would be foolish, to have practiced to for two weeks prior, to abandon it so early. Therefore Spurs looked to play out – painstakingly at times – and that marginalised one of their key players, Christian Eriksen, because the focus was on how they could draw Liverpool’s press deep and then spring attacks behind.

However, Liverpool were rarely ever tempted. Spurs did hold possession well – with Harry Winks in particular taking the ball in extremely tight areas – but were hamstrung as mentioned before, by (purposely it seems, as he was used deeper in the second-half) ignoring Eriksen from the build-up, and as such lacking risk takers on the ball. It turned out in the end, that Spurs’ most penetrating passer was Toby Alderwiereld, who after drawing Liverpool towards them, would try to go long – either to one of the three attackers stationed up the pitch – with freedom – or to the full-backs who pushed really high adding depth to attacks.

Indeed, going direct, it seems has become more of a viable tactic in these big games where teams are expected to press higher, as we saw actually, when Arsenal played Tottenham in a  1-1 draw in March. In that game, the pass accuracy was 64% to Arsenal whilst Spurs had 77%. In the Champions League final, it was roughly the same, with Liverpool, like Arsenal acting as the more defensive side, having 64% pass accuracy, and Spurs with 80%. Liverpool, though, did not press in their typically aggressive fashion. They instead, as Louis van Gaal touches on in this interview with the Guardian looked to “provoke space”. That is, he says “not pressing immediately but to come a little back, not parking the bus, but to the middle line and then the defenders halfway in our own half. Only with AZ did I do that before, also because of the lower level of my players, and of course I adapt to the quality of my players. You have to see it. Because I didn’t have the best quality of players, they could not perform the system to attack. For example, when Liverpool have to attack constantly, they have a problem, more a problem than, for example, Manchester City.

“I saw as Manchester United manager that the quality of the players of City, Tottenham, Chelsea, Arsenal was better. So what can I do? We were attacking. We were not defending and we were looking for tactical solutions adapted to the level of our players…I have tried [to provoke space] because of the speed of [Anthony] Martial and [Marcus] Rashford…and that was new in England. I think six months ago [Jürgen] Klopp has also seen the light because in former days he was always pressing.”

Liverpool, then, in the final dropped back a bit and looked to exploit the spaces behind. Of course, that was in many ways conditioned by the early goal although in any case, they have this season, reigned their pressing in somewhat and looked to increasingly use the skill and pace of Sadio Mane and Mohammed Salah. Even in the absence of the latter in the semi-final against Barcelona they were able to use the tactic to storm to a 4-3 aggregate comeback – just as did Tottenham in the same stage versus Ajax. Certainly, to have that counter-punching ability has been the key feature of recent knockout games because, as Van Gaal touches on, it’s so hard to “attack constantly” – that is to use possession as a means to push opponents back. As such, this is probably the most effective compromise – to use, pacy, direct players, but behind them is still the technical base that allows the team to get the ball there. Fabio Capello in the 2016/17 UEFA Technical Report: “We are certainly seeing an evolution in that the teams who opt for the Barcelona possession-based style that set the trends a few years ago, now seem to be running into difficulties. This is normal. Any successful model – the elements implemented by Arrigo Sacchi, Johan Cruyff or Pep Guardiola, for example – is analysed in depth. I would say that, now, the trend is that if you win the ball you immediately run at the opponents while they are out of balance and can be surprised. The key is to win the ball quickly and then mount direct collective attacks, entering the penalty area quickly.”

Certainly, Klopp realises that instead you have to have more rounded, but possession is still a big part of the game. He says last season that the team learnt “to control more games.” That is because “a lot of teams saw that we were good at counter-pressing and realised they were overplaying. If the team gives us the opportunity to do it we will still be there with the counter-press. But very often it is not possible.”

Liverpool have then, complemented their ability to press, with also being very good on the ball. They are probably the modern example of the complete team – the rightful heir to Arrigo Sacchi’s dominant Milan team of the early ’90s. That hints at where football is at the moment; at a high physical peak thereby exposing technique – the base that everything revolves around. As such, players, and teams, have to show they have a dab hand at everything: to pass the ball well, yes, although we have moved on from that idea simply; to be able to receive the ball in tight areas, dribble, and then to be devastating in front of goal. If players must be “universalists” as Sacchi says, then teams must be a whole galaxy.

 

Chelsea 4-1 Arsenal: Season ends in disappointment

emery europa

“Protagonists”. “Control”. “Process”. “Essplain”. There have been many buzzwords used during Unai Emery’s first season in charge of Arsenal, but ultimately it ended in “humiliation” as his team were beaten 4-1 in the Europe League final by Chelsea. It capped a terrible last two months for the manager having seen his side squander a top 4 place and the chance to play in the Champions League, at the same time, questioning his suitability for the role.

It all began with optimism; and that’s just not the Europa League final, though in a way, how that panned out, summed up the way Arsenal’s season has went. Because for 25 minutes in Baku, The Gunners were the better team, playing with an assurance and control that reminded us of the good bits of Emery’s reign, but that was also fraught with familiar weakness; the predictable attacks, the reliance on the two strikers, and the susceptibility at the back. Indeed, as the half wore on, it felt like the balance, which was already precariously on edge, would tip over. It didn’t take long; three minutes after half-time, Chelsea opened the scoring through a header from Olivier Giroud and then the floodgates opened. Pedro and Eden Hazard took the away game from Arsenal and though Alex Iwobi briefly gave them hope, Hazard replied very soon after to make it a rout.

Eden Hazard was the key man, and Arsenal never really got to grips with him. There was a plan to stop him, but that plan was all to often to leave him 1v1 against Ainsley Maintland-Niles. That’s why the game seemed like it would always tip towards Chelsea’s favour. The Gunners continued using the 3-5-2 formation that has served them well in the Europa League run, and almost hoped that, the structural deficiencies will take care of themselves, that the strikers would bail them out again. They didn’t, and Chelsea, and mainly Hazard, made them pay.

arsenal chelsea europa league

Gunners control the first 30 minutes

As mentioned before, Arsenal started off as the better team. That’s because they were able to impose their plan better in the early stages, progressing the ball from their centre-backs wide to the wing-backs, then inside again to Granit Xhaka, who was immensely composed throughout, or quickly up to the two strikers, Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Indeed, the passes that they received in that early period show that they tended to drop off and pin the two centre-backs, David Luiz and Andreas Christenson, with their back to play. This was important because it gave Arsenal a structure to get up the pitch.

 

Indeed, it worked best when Lacazette tends to do the dirty work and allow Aubameyang to make runs around him. The pair did this especially well in the matches against Valencia because it feels as if generally, Aubameyang dislikes physical confrontation, rather, preferring to move wide and into spaces whilst Lacazette’s propensity to come to the ball and fight, can be used to his advantage. “He [Aubameyang] is a player of spaces,” said Emery before the game, “who seeks to exploit the area behind defences, and who also has the gift of goal. It gives us that explosion, which is basic to our game. The match in the Mestalla, in the semifinal round, is a good example, because it was Valencia who had to carry the weight of the match and that was going to grant us safe spaces.”

Chelsea were wary of that, so the back four defended fairly narrow, though that as a result, allowed Arsenal’s wing-backs to get forward unopposed. In this opening period, Kolasinac had the best opportunity to take advantage, when he was played in by Xhaka but opted to take a touch instead of crossing first-time. Maintland-Niles too got forward on the other side as Hazard chose not to track him, as Maurizio Sarri gave the brief to cover to Mateo Kovacic.

It felt like Arsenal may eventually take advantage of these situations when Granit Xhaka hit the crossbar from a long-range effort but the chances quickly dried up from then. That’s been the problem with Emery’s tactics all season really; that the build-up becomes predictable very quickly, too frequently ending with looking to free the wing-backs for a cross (and their delivery tends to be poor) or through just sheer hard work and determination from the strikers who are are great at making something out of nothing.

As such, in many matches, Arsenal spend an inordinate of minutes doing nothing. In the league they only average around 12 shots a game, which is mid-table standard at 11th most. They haven’t really mastered how to pin teams back, although how could you if the manager insists in playing a double pivot always, and therefore, not enough players to make a numerical superiority between-the-lines? They rectified that temporarily towards the end of the season when Emery brought back Aaron Ramsey to the centre of the midfield, but that once again, just highlights, how he has really failed, or took too long, to get the measure of the squad. He also abandoned the 4-2-3-1 about midway through the season (around December), and with it some of the core principles he tried to develop at the start, of playing through pressure, and generally getting two attacking midfielders to step just inside, in the half-spaces. Of course, he needed to make the team defensively more secure, but with constantly changing the system, mainly to some variant of the back three, he became victim to is own tactical flexibility. Which is to say that tactical flexibility is not simply about changing formations from game-to-game, but rather “is really about making tweaks around a larger, guiding set of principles that you develop during the season.”

Mesut Ozil struggles to make mark on game

Arsenal’s struggles towards the middle part of the game was in part blamed on the lack of impact by Mesut Ozil. Indeed, there was a solid case that he shouldn’t have started because of his general lack of intensity defensively. As it happened, he did a decent enough job of limiting the influence of Jorginho (though it can be argued that he shouldn’t have been Arsenal’s main concern) however, going forward, he failed to really connect with his teammates.

The final capped a poor season for him, as he struggled to really fit in to Emery’s system. At the start of campaign, the manager tried to fit him in in some capacity, using him in a loose double 10 role alongside Ramsey, but mainly towards the right. However, the shift to the back three meant that usually, he was left out altogether as Emery preferred the “attacking midfielder”ish qualities of Henrikh Mhkitaryan and Iwobi, that is players who can perform a dual role, going forwards and backwards, and be aggressive. The Europa League though, is where Ozil has mainly got his chance, and that by being used in what seems his best role, behind two live-wire strikers. Against Chelsea, though, it showed that people have read Ozil wrong. He doesn’t, as commonly misconstrued, operate in typical no.10 areas, but rather, prefers to drift wide, towards wingers especially – however there are none in this system – and used them as decoys to get into space, and bounce passes off. Indeed, he stoked up a really good partnership with Alexis, and would often move towards his side when he wanted to make more of an impact on the game.

Ozil’s passes received against Chelsea show he tended to, or was forced, because the build up is eventually funneled through the wing-backs anyway, move wide for the ball. The lack of connections though, is a problem and as such, his predilection for one-touch play is negated. When Joe Willock came on, he seemed to make more of a difference as he made himself available between-the-lines, and had the power to drive through if he picked up the ball under pressure. Indeed, how and where you receive the ball is an underrated form of creativity, of helping break down defensive blocks. Emery says that his style of football is about using “the ball to create the best moments in the attacking third against the opposition. We do that with good concentration, good combination between us and the players on the pitch…That’s how we create our identity.” If that’s the case, his next step would be to develop a system that has more possibilities between-the-lines. He adds, though, to do that “some players need to leave to also take a new way.” That sounds like it might be Ozil, the player he has loved to hate this season.

Chelsea ruthlessly punish Arsenal

Indeed, by going with the 3-4-1-2, Emery decided to keep faith with what has got Arsenal this far. But that meant too, ignoring the strengths of his opponent somewhat. Everybody would have understood if he used the diamond as that worked so well in the 2-0 home win this season, stopping Jorginho from influencing, or used a 3-5-2 so that the team could cover the flanks better. As it was, the system he chose did neither, and it felt like he went into the game hoping things would just work out. Certainly, the main threat now transferred from Jorginho to Hazard and it was naive from Emery not to go with a more robust plan. He seemed to leave so much responsibility in stopping him to Maintland-Niles, whilst still getting forward, and the frequent 1v1 opportunities eventually afforded to Hazard down that side were taken.

It’s natural that Chelsea would look to target that side. In the beginning of the game, they kept both Hazard and Pedro high up the pitch, more up against the centre-backs than the wing-backs, because they knew that’s where the space would be. As such, when Chelsea had the ball, Arsenal would drop off, allowing Hazard in particular to drive at them, or even roam inside unmarked. Emerson too joined in and he had two opportunities in the first-half before his cross, three minutes after the break, found Giroud to head in. The target-man proved an effective foil for Hazard all game, looking to play knock-downs around the corner, or chasing balls down the channels. He won the penalty for the third goal, then deftly set up Hazard for the fourth.

Certainly, Sarri effectively told the front three to go one-versus-one against Arsenal’s back three. That meant Sokratis was often dragged to the left side to close Hazard if Maintland-Niles got forward, but if Arsenal were back in their defensive block, they usually asked Lucas Torreira to come across and cover. The Uruguayan mainly did that well, but that space was getting more difficult to plug as the half, the game, wore on. Indeed, Wenger once said that “it is much more difficult to pressurise up the field with three at the back”, and perhaps that told. Sarri at the end, said that Chelsea upped their intensity in the second period which allowed them to take the game away from Arsenal. “My feeling at the end of the first half was that the match was very difficult,” he said. “It was our 64th match of the season and it was hot on the pitch, very difficult to play physically. My feeling from the bench was that we were trying to manage the result. At half-time I asked my players to play with more courage, even if it meant risking to lose.

“I wanted my team to move the ball better, and the players did it very well in the second half. We played very good football against a very difficult opponent, who are dangerous in the offensive phase and from counter-attacks. We played very good football.” Pedro continued on that note, adding: “The first half was even, but we moved the ball so fast in the second half, controlling the ball, passing between the lines and creating chances. It’s an unbelievable feeling for us to win this title. We deserved it.”

Conclusions from this season

The aim of writing this blog at start of the season was, as the tagline goes, to document how Arsenal move on from an icon such as Arsene Wenger, with his universally identifiable system, to something more current. Indeed, that was one of the remits of Emery – to take the team to a 21st century style because football now is more structured, how you press yes, but also, from building from the back. I wrote last season that we are in the era of Pep still, that the prevailing influence on the modern game is on how teams play out from the back. It’s the base that most teams start with and Emery, who has maintained that his team should “play from the back, from the edge of our box”, has tried to implement that. However, the problem, as the season has wore on, is that although he has brought a certain level of coaching, you feel like it should have been the groundwork for more, but instead, has generally resulted in nothing much more than close to the ceiling.

Indeed, the early Emery-Ball fever that engulfed the fanbase transformed quickly to boredom as Arsenal spent large periods of matches with laborious possession, and doing nothing. In many matches, Arsenal were out-shot by their opponents, even mid-table ones and relegation fodder. Certainly, the impact of Lacazette and Aubameyang, and the way Emery changed games through substitutions, meant that this was overlooked by many people. But that was just papering over the cracks and it means going forward next season, Emery will need to think about how he recasts his side. There is an argument that he continues to build around the two strikers, with the intention to use the 3-4-1-2 system or some variant, and looks to sign good central players and a winger that can play up front, because it allows Arsenal to enter the market with an identity. Certainly, it makes some sense, as is it wise to completely restructure the team with wingers considering that the team hasn’t played this way all season? And indeed, do you back Emery to implement it? Will he just revert to type (i.e. functional 4-2-3-1)? “I think we used this year to be closer to the other teams and next year we need the same players, the same idea, maybe also to add some new players to give us some situations we can improve,” he said. “But it’s the same way as this year. To do one step more and I think the next year, a lot of players who played this year – the first time with us – can be better and can get more performance for us.”

For Emery, it’s clearly a process so as such, it’s harsh to completely judge him. He inherited a flawed squad, but that, with some better management, could have performed better this season – namely using Ramsey in the middle earlier. In the end, it’s his aversion to doing as he said at the start of the season and be “protagonists” that leaves certain fans with apprehension of what might happen next season. Because that word has now been replaced by being “competitive” and whilst Arsenal need some of that, failing to match even the likes of Wolves and Leicester at the end of the season raises doubts about how that will be executed. When Emery joined, he urged everyone to “trust the process”; it seems as if he’s still someway to convincing everyone that even he knows how to implement it.

Leicester City 3-0 Arsenal: Another meek away defeat

GXhaka

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.

Arsenal 2-3 Crystal Palace: Gunners stutter to home defeat

ars cry

This was supposed to be Arsenal’s most winnable fixture, the only other home game between now and till the end of the season. Victory would have taken Arsenal third and given them a cushion – a buffer – against their poor away form in their bid to reach the Champions League. Except, The Gunners stumbled at the first hurdle and now have to rely on that scratchy away form to stay in the top four.

Beating Crystal Palace was never going to be a formality, yet it felt like it was a necessity in a season where Arsenal have been ruthless at home. That probably gave Unai Emery some leeway to rotate, though he argued that it was nothing to do with complacency; simply, the tight schedule meant that changes will have to be made throughout this run. “We changed because we are going to play a lot of matches,” he said. “We have had some injuries, like with Aaron Ramsey, Granit Xhaka, and we need to protect the players and use other players….we lost today but we could also have lost with other players on the pitch.”

The issue was that those replacements haven’t played that many matches. Carl Jenkinson, Kontantin Mavropanos and Mohamed Elneny all came in, giving the line-up a distinctive, League Cup feel. Emery said that he used these players because he wanted to continue with three central defenders as he felt that “we can be more consistent with that”. However, that meant having to leave out relatively fresh attacking players like Alex Iwobi and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, in the area where he probably has more potential to rotate. In the second-half, he was forced to switch to a 4-2-3-1 as Arsenal chased the three points, but in doing so, grew more open to transitions.

In the end, they were compounded by mistakes at the back, especially from Shkodran Mustafi, and an unfamiliarity at set-pieces due to the rotated team. Indeed, initially they seemed to be scared of challenging Wilfred Zaha, possibly because they were instructed not to give away free-kicks and fouls, but that’s exactly how they conceded the first goal and then the second. When the third went in, all three goals had come from set-pieces and all had involved Mustafi in some painstaking way.

Predictably, Arsenal’s attacked suffered due to the rotated line-up. Once Arsenal fell behind, they were in need of a spark, and momentarily, Mesut Ozil stepped up. Certainly, it was fascinating to see how he assumed the role of the technical leader as that no.10 in the middle because Crystal Palace made it tough for him to get on the ball. At the end of the game, Palace manager Roy Hodgson said they did this by using the strikers, with Zaha and Christian Benteke as the reference to allow them to move as a unit to deny Arsenal space. “Wilf today, he gave such a good performance,” said Hodgson. “Not only going forward, he did a good job defensively – both did – and our compact, narrow shape was also largely or certainly in part due to the fact that they dropped in so well and made it difficult for the Arsenal midfield players to get on the ball….The midfield four and the back four were excellent at staying compact, staying narrow and we were able to reduce the clear-cut chances they were able to create.” Goalscorer James McArthur also added. “It was brilliant. Not only on the ball but off the ball they were tremendous today. They made it so hard for them [Arsenal] and it gave us a great shape all the way through the team to counter with.”

50385

With the area between Crystal Palace’s midfield and defence blocked, there were two ways tried to influence the game; first by dropping deep, or by moving really wide. The latter was less productive than the former because Arsenal started with a 3-4-1-2 with wing-backs and that meant that either Ozil got in their way, or he couldn’t use their positioning effectively to overload the sides. Indeed, that’s one of the misunderstandings of Ozil’s games because it is expected that his main areas of influence is in the traditional number 10 position, when in fact, he likes to move away from the centre – because like here, it is often blocked – to the spaces just inside of the touchline, and use it to double-up and bounce passes off teammates. In this game, the first-half system didn’t help because the wing-backs, by nature or functionality, were quite static and one-dimensional. Once Iwobi came on,and Arsenal shifted to 4-2-3-1, he was more effective at using Kolasinac’s runs to free up space for himself with his dribbling in a way perhaps Ozil is not able to.

Ozil was more effective, instead, when he dropped deep, looking to draw out Palace’s defenders. Indeed, it was quite intriguing to watch him rather deliberately hold onto the ball for just a bit longer, looking to tempt the defenders towards before sidestepping away. It was clear too, he was getting frustrated at the lack of support he was getting from his teammates, and seemed to be most effective when either Alexandre Lacazette dropped off slightly, or Matteo Guendouzi pushed up into the number 10 space to get close to him.

At the start of the second-half, the formation change seemed to have the desired effect, with Ozil just playing ahead and to the right of Elneny and Guendouzi. Here, he started the move for the first goal, picking up the ball in the right-centre position, then driving across the pitch and then following his pass into the box where he was superbly found by Lacazette.

After that, it seemed as if he would take the game by the scruff of the neck, but he like the team, faded. Crystal Palace scored two more goals, and despite Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang pulling one goal back, Arsenal only attempted one other shot in the last twenty minutes. That’s a pretty poor return for a team chasing the game, but it’s come to be expected from a team who are actually quite deliberate, often conscious of the process when they try to dominate a game. In fact, they spend so much of games trying to feel themselves into the match, to assert a foothold that they often actually, end up doing nothing for most parts of the match.  “I usually take two moments in the 90 minutes,” Emery said after Arsenal’s 2-0 win over Newcastle. “When I need to push and ask the players to take my energy to push a lot. Then in other moments, it’s about being calm to take the moments with the ball and have good combinations like we want. That’s how we create our identity.”

“I want to take the balance for when we need to push and when we need each player to have my energy to do more in the 90 minutes. Also sometimes, we need to show them or give them that calmness. Above all, we want to use the ball to create the best moments in the attacking third against the opposition.”

Arsenal only averages just less than nine shots a game this season in the Premier League – here against Crystal Palace, they improved that number by attempting 12. Still, it’s clear this figure is unsatisfactory for a team that is aiming to reach the top four, and may come to haunt them. Thankfully, they have two absolutely clinical strikers in Aubameyang and Lacazette, but it’s strange that Emery has been unable to better the team in this respects. It’s clear he’s done a great job in getting Arsenal up to this technical level where they can “play from the back, from the edge of our box” as Lacazette says, however, it will be interesting to see if he can get Arsenal to the next level, especially as he is not considered an attacking coach per se. Darren Burgess, Arsenal’s Director of High Performance, recently compated Emery’s approach compared to Arsene Wenger, saying that “Arsene would look at the totality whereas Unai breaks down a lot of different movements and aspects of the game. Arsene’s training sessions were more possession and game based.

“Unai has that but also breaks down different aspects, be they set plays, throws ins, moving the ball from this area to that, there’s a more defined outcome in the training sessions.”

As such, with this hands-on approach, perhaps it’s natural that when the team creates chances, they tend to be quite textbook, structured, and usually coming from the flanks. Perhaps, Emery believes this approach is necessary for this team who is quite idiosyncratic, who needs possession to protect the defence, and overall lacks the balance within the squad to create a really cohesive attacking outlet. The manager has set the foundations, now hopefully they can add a final flourish to end the season.

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

Arsenal 2-0 Newcastle: Ramsey, Ozil protagonists in win

laca

It is perhaps understandable that Unai Emery doesn’t want to talk much about the transfer of Aaron Ramsey. There is a kind of madness that can be elicited from trying to understand how Arsenal could let a player of his caliber go.“I think it’s clear. It’s not more for me to speak about that,” said Emery, revealing nothing more than his frustrations at the outcome, of the process perhaps. “The most important thing is he is happy and he is working to help us….. I only can say to Aaron: continue, and continue helping us because we need for this season to do something important. He can be the protagonist to do that.”

Against Newcastle, Ramsey was the protagonist, the instigator for Arsenal’s 2-0 win. It was his goal that allowed the team to breathe, and which, suddenly spark them into life and play the kind of football we saw under Arsène Wenger, interspersed with that typical Emery brutalism. Indeed, that’s one of the less heralded reasons why Ramsey’s such a big loss to Arsenal; his energy, the running from deep from his best position in central midfield, cannot easily be replaced, but he also grew up at the club playing the Arsenal Way, or WengerBall as it is informally known. Thus, it wasn’t just his finish that seemed to galvanise his teammates, but his touch before it, a flick  with the outside of his boot to speed up the attack. It seemed to remind the players that they are the superior team, that there is a way of playing that they are used to that can prise open teams.

Of course, Unai Emery hasn’t forgotten that. In his notes before the game, he said that he wants to give “the club my idea. This process needs time, but above all it’s about respecting the history here of Arsenal, of Arsène Wenger, of the players. Then I can share my ideas to create a new history, a new career, a new way here by being together.”

He adds that he approached the start of his tenure by paying detailed attention the strengths and weaknesses of his “squad and the players”. It’s fair to say that the management of Ramsey and Mesut Ozil hasn’t worked out as planned (though I’d argue the rotation of the latter was needed to some degree), but those players are need to bridge the gap between the new ideas and the old.

Against Newcastle, Arsenal started tentatively in the face what Emery anticipated would be a strong defensive performance from their opponents, and said before the game, the “focus would be on how we can break their defensive positions”. The solution came in the form of Ramsey and Ozil. First, it was the playmaker who decided to take it upon himself to make something happen by aggressively drifting over to the left-side. Here, he’d hope he’d be closer to his teammates – indeed, he is wont to do that many of times, and has affected games this season when he roams laterally – and create overloads to the side of Newcastle’s 5-4-1 system. When the goal came, it started with Ozil dropping deep, and that for a moment, allowed Ramsey to move unopposed between the lines. The pass from Matteo Guendouzi was good, hit with pace so that all Ramsey had to do it lay it off round the corner to Alexandre Lacazette. The touch, however, was superb, setting Lacazette off behind the defence before the ball eventually fell for Ramsey himself to strike home.

After that, Arsenal played some of their best football they have played this season, exchanging lots of quick, one-touch passing. Emery so far has shown that he is committed to a certain way of playing, “to play from the back, from the edge of our box”, says Lacazette, though it tends to be more structured than the free-flowing nature reminiscent of Wenger teams that we saw towards the end of the first-half, and during the first 20 minutes of the second-half (before Lacazette put the game to bed with a clever finish).

Indeed, reading Emery’s notes before the game, it suggests those periods where Arsenal are more considered, at the start of this game, and just before the second goal, are almost planned by Emery. He wants his team to take stock of the game, to try and get a foothold in the match through possession and then use it to impose themselves. “I usually take two moments in the 90 minutes,” he says. “When I need to push and ask the players to take my energy to push a lot. Then in other moments, it’s about being calm to take the moments with the ball and have good combinations like we want. That’s how we create our identity.”

 “I want to take the balance for when we need to push and when we need each player to have my energy to do more in the 90 minutes. Also sometimes, we need to show them or give them that calmness. Above all, we want to use the ball to create the best moments in the attacking third against the opposition.”

Arsenal 2-0 Manchester United: Top-heavy approach pays off

arsenal united 3-1

Unai Emery knew something had to change from the last time Arsenal met Manchester United. In that encounter, a 3-1 defeat in the FA Cup in January, the manager conceded that his team had played well, but were hit by a counter-punch they were prepared for, yet were unable to stop. “We worked to stop their counter-attack,” he said after the game. “They have very big players to do the transitions and they gave us problems with that.” Romelu Lukaku expanded on that notion too, saying how United looked to exploit the space behind Arsenal’s backline to ensure their victory. “We knew they would leave space for me and Alexis with the full-backs pushing on so it would end up being 3 v 3 or 3 v 2.”

Indeed, this time round, it seemed that with that same approach, and with Manchester United riding high on an improbable Champions League win, they would once again have the measure of Arsenal. Emery’s reaction was not, however, to double-down and go defensive, but to deploy a surprise attacking line-up – at least in personnel terms.

He chose to start with a 3-4-1-2 using Mesut Ozil behind Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette whilst Aaron Ramsey got a central midfield berth – and he also opted to play with two natural wing-backs in Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Sead Kolasinac.

Instantly, Arsenal started on the front foot and their goal after 12 minutes was reward for their dominance. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer admitted afterwards that “for the first 15-20 minutes, Manchester United were too slow to get up to Arsenal. We never really put them under pressure, they had time to get that goal.” 

It forced United to change their system, moving to match Arsenal, to a 3-4-1-2. Initially, they began with a 4-4-2 but had problems firstly, getting to Arsenal’s two central midfielders because if they pushed up, they left room behind their midfield for Ozil et al. to drop in between-the-lines. The Gunners, in their best moves, tended to play the ball fairly comfortably to Lacazette’s to lay the ball off – as he did for the opener – or drive with it as he did when he won the penalty.

The other issue was that Kolasinac kept on bombing forward, aided by Nacho Monreal’s aggressiveness at left centre-back, therefore Solskjaer asked Ashley Young to drop back into a right-sided centre-back role, and Diego Dalot to wing-back. “We didn’t really change that much, just slight tweaks,” said Solskjaer but it made all the difference as suddenly, United began to dominate. It exposed Arsenal’s top-heavy approach, with the ball being able to get through Arsenal’s first line of press fairly easy. Once it got into midfield, it was almost as if The Gunners were defending with 8 men – therefore to their credit, they did a lot of intense running, as typified by Ramsey who won 8 tackles and covered the most distance in the game at 12.7km.

The front three did eventually attempt funnel back, but in the main, they always looked to get into good counter-attacking positions. In that sense, Emery flipped the script on his Man United because, knowing that they would come to counter-attack, he wanted them to have second thoughts about how they could do it without being left themselves on the break. He wanted to counter the counter-attack. As such, the stretched, end-to-end nature of the game was almost predicted – or wanted – by Emery because he knew Arsenal this time, would have the players back to guard against the counter, and possibly wouldn’t need to attack with so many players. Even if they did, by having the likes of Ramsey and Maitland Niles in the team, it meant that there was enough recovery speed and fitness to win the ball back.

In the end, Arsenal were indebted to saves from Bernd Leno though the real takeaway from the game from the manager’s perspective would be how Arsenal adapted – and have adapted for most of the season – to the change in system, demands. The line-up seemed atypically Emery initially, but in a sense, it was all him. People expect him to be conservative – and certainly, it has come back to bite him in games when he respects the opposition too much – but this XI had all the hallmarks of his normal meticulous approach. The line-up was catered to adjusting to the strengths of his opponents, though, this time he left more on the pitch in terms of exploiting the weakness of Manchester United. It seems as if in the big games, he’s happy to eschew possession too where once at the start of the season, he would attempt to go toe-to-toe with his opponents. As Ramsey said after, “it’s been a season of trying to adapt to certain things Emery wants from us. Sometimes it hasn’t come off, sometimes it has, but it’s a work in process.” 

Emery added: “I think we’re improving and also I think we’re being competitive in different matches, away from home and against different teams. We responded and sometimes you’ve seen different systems and different players… We were positive when we were struggling in the table and we took balance in our mind when we were worse – and now after these victories we can be positive, but it won’t change our idea. We need to continue and it will be difficult, and our style and way and thinking will be game by game.”