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.”
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.”
The boos rang out across Wembley every time Bernd Leno went to take a goal-kick. Tottenham Hotspur were 1-0 down and the fans felt that Leno was simply eating up the seconds, taking his time with goal-kicks that would inevitably go long. Which of course most of them did, though, not because he wanted to.
Leno was deliberating at goal-kicks because he was looking for the short pass out. But that wasn’t readily available therefore he would wait until his teammates open up the pitch to see if he can chip the ball up to a player in a bit of space. Processing all of this takes a bit of time therefore it is normal that Leno didn’t wanted to be hurried. Now, however, he was being rushed on two parts; by the crowd, and by the Tottenham team who were deploying a high press.
Certainly, the demands on goalkeepers has increased. They are expected (obviously) to be the last line of defence (and Leno did this superbly, with an excellent double save), but also, to be the one that begins attacks. That emphasis has shifted even more greatly towards the goalkeeper in recent years as more teams choose to press from the front. What we see in these games as a result, is that the holding midfielder, the one who in the past was expected to start the majority of attacks (by usually dropping in between the centre-backs) is eschewed to some degree because they’re marked. Here, for example, Christian Eriksen stuck tight on Granit Xhaka. Instead, the safe pass – to the player with a bit of time on the pitch – is to the goalkeeper. As such, they need to be good technically and calm under pressure to select the right pass.
Against Spurs, Leno didn’t just want to blindly kick the ball up the pitch – because he knew that it would just come straight back – but to, if he can, drop the ball on the chest of a teammate, or to loop it so that the targeted player can the ball flick it on to an onrushing teammate. He attempted 32 passes in the match, better than 5 of Arsenal’s outfield players (Matteo Guendouzi was subbed at half-time but combined, he and Lucas Torreira attempted 31), whilst Hugo Lloris for Tottenham attempted 40.
Overall, though, this North London Derby was a bit on the low side for accurate passes. The Gunners ended with a pass accuracy of 64% whilst Spurs had 77%. Not that it affected the spectacle, however, as both teams clearly entered the game looking to press high and attempt to spoil each others’ play. Arsenal were the ones who initially started on the front foot, using a 4-4-2 formation to press high on Tottenham’s goal-kicks, although when they did open the scoring, on 16 minutes, they were forced all the way back onto the edge of their own box. For Unai Emery, that’s not unexpected. He said after the 5-1 Bournemouth win that “the big intensity is difficult to keep for 90 minutes….When you are high pressing and with a very big intensity, you can lose some organisation in moments on the pitch and also, when you can be organised, you can lose some intensity in the pressing. The balance is very important. When you are organised, you can be strong in the position, when you want to work against that with the pressing, you need to go ahead individually and find the ball with the pressing, and sometimes you can lose the organisation in these moments. But both are very important. To do this in 90 minutes in different moments you have to do one or another.”
Therefore, although, he entered the match looking to press high on Spurs’ goal-kicks, he would ask his team to retreat into a compact block in their own half if they were forced back. Emery used the 4-4-2 against Tottenham’s 3-5-2 because he said, in an interview with Marti Perarnau, that [compared to the 4-1-4-1] “it’s less aggressive, but it is more difficult to get past. The 4-4-2 is designed more and more for zonal positioning….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.”
Against Spurs, it’s notable that he began again with Aaron Ramsey in the “playmaker position”, Arsenal’s goalscorer, whilst using Alexandre Lacazette ahead of him. It seems as if the pair are his preferred partnership when Arsenal attempt to press intensely and indeed, he likes them because as he says, he can use their aggressiveness to take risks “individually [to try] and find the ball” – though “sometimes you can lose the organisation in these moments.”
In the second-half, Arsenal began to drop off considerably therefore the pair were quickly replaced and the team instead, increasingly looked to play on the counter with Ozil and Aubameyang on the pitch. Nevertheless, the game still to continued in a frantic fashion, with lots of direct passes over the top to try and beat each other’s defensive shape. Certainly, the trend in recent big games this season seems to be about restricting the other team from passing the ball out by pressing high. As a result, much like in this encounter, you will see a fair share of direct passes.
This seems like a shift away from about 5-10 years ago in the Premier League where teams influenced by Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, would try to out-do each other possession-wise, and 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 seems more variety in systems used and that’s facilitated by a) teams being more comfortable at playing out, so composed in fact that they actively draw the press as David Luiz did in Chelsea’s 2-0 win over Manchester City earlier this season; and b) the viability of using the back 3 now. As Roberto Martinez explained when he first implemented the 3-4-3 system in the Premier League, the back 3 gives cover at the back for the wing-backs to push forward. That’s key because for a while 4-2-3-1 v 4-2-3-1 had been the common match up. That meant that the free players on the pitch – the ones with the most time on the ball – were the full-backs. The 3-4-3 can be seen as a way of granting them more license as wing-backs to get up the pitch.
Certainly, fitness and stamina has improved such that it’s not unrealistic to expect them to keep get up and down the pitch. Indeed, in using the back 3 as Spurs did, it allowed them to commit those wing-backs really high up the pitch to evade Arsenal’s press and suddenly they had more players in the attacking third. (And that’s also another reason why Emery tends to play through his full-backs, because they can force opponents back. He said after Arsenal’s 2-1 victory over Huddersfield that he’s always figuring out “how we can do better playing against teams who press high against us.”). Roberto Martinez expands on this concept further: “When you play a 4-3-3, you rely a lot on the full-backs to get high up the pitch,” he says. “You shouldn’t look at a system as away to win a football match, it is the players that play the system. Maynor [Figueroa], Gary [Caldwell] and Antolin [Alcaraz] have been so solid with a back three, and it allows [other] players to be high up the pitch, like the wing-backs. They aren’t full-backs that need to get deep and then forward to give us an extra man, they are in positions where they can do both a little bit better, and we can be a little bit more solid.
“The difference is the width that we get; before, we had to compromise a little bit, when you want to be very attack-minded, the full-backs have to push on, so you leave two players at the back. Now you’re still pushing the wing-backs on, but you’ve still got three players at the back, plus probably a midfielder. In the West Brom game, as Paul Scharner will tell you, we were attacking with seven, eight, nine players and they were surprised it, and that’s what the system gives you, without being weak at the back.”
It seems for Emery too, adaptability will be key to how Arsenal end the season: “Each match is different, we are playing with a back four and also with three centre backs sometimes, and I think the team is improving and is learning to play different systems. But with the same ideas.
“It’s not the same to play with one player or another player, because maybe he has bigger qualities or better qualities more like a winger or like a full back or like a right back.
“For example, it’s different to play with Nacho Monreal or Sead Kolasinac. They are two very big and important players for us with their qualities. But one is more offensive than the other. Nacho is more defensive with a big performance defensively, more than Sead.
“But we need to use two players and sometimes with three or four at the back. Above all, to improve and grow up like a player, improving tactical issues and we are doing that. The reason why we are making changes to the system is adaptation to the opposition and also in our best combinations with the players.”
Artur Boruc was left groping for thin air when he realised he had been done by the Mesut Ozil Bounce. To be fair, he got a few fingers to it but by then it was futile; the trajectory of the ball had been deviously altered, and he was left clasping for the ball above him as if he was being strangled.
We all know the skill by now; an absurdly impossible shot perfected by the German to loop the ball over the goalkeeper by kicking it against the floor. Yet, to leave no one in doubt, Ozil celebrated by motioning as if to kick the ground. We didn’t expect him to score like that bearing down on goal on the 4th minute – how could you?, it’s so unorthodox – but once he did, a pang of recognition went around the Emirates at what just happened.
It ensured that the narrative would be all about him no matter what happened and he duly obliged, setting up Arsenal’s second goal with an impudent lay-off to Henrikh Mkhitaryan. The Gunners ending up scoring three more, though, none of them involved him making the last pass or shot. In that respect, he was outdone by Mkhitaryan who ended up with three assists and a goal, yet, Ozil took all the limelight and much deserved too. He was perpetual, always influential in every Gunners move.
However, you can’t help but feel it was Unai Emery who played this one perfect; a straightforward home game it seemed for Ozil to wreak havoc in against a team who has not won away in 8 matches and with a severely depleted squad. Ozil, as Emery has said, has not always been “available for training, for the matches. Without the injuries, without being sick”. Yet, at the same time, Emery does not really know how to use him without upsetting the balance of the side.
At the start of the season, Emery played Ozil in a sort of dual no.10 role, sharing it with Aaron Ramsey though mainly to the right – but that’s if he played at all. He averaged at that point, just under 40 passes a game. The only outright central roles came in the 3-1 win over Leicester and the 1-1 draws to Crystal Palace and Wolves. Since then, Ozil has slowly been reintegrated back into the side but only in what seem winnable fixtures. This has allowed Ozil to rediscover his form but crucially, for Emery to loosen the strings on his philosophy somewhat and learn how best to use Ozil.
Against Bournemouth, Emery started Ozil to the right of a 3-4-2-1 knowing that potentially he had the structure to deal with Ozil’s roaming and relaxed defensive attitude. Indeed, that’s what Emery revealed at the end of the game, saying: “I am proud of every player’s work, and it is important that the players take confidence and take good combinations between them because I think we can play in an area being competitive with the ball and without the ball, be organised after with the possibility that individuals can be protagonists like today different players. But above all this is the team together the feeling together, and individually together they can all help us be stronger as a team.”
The result was instant, with Ozil moving all the way out to the left-flank to open the scoring. Indeed, for the rest of the game, he never really stayed in one position instead, lurking on the fringes of the structure, looking mainly to bounce off others and use them to find space.
Certainly, that’s what makes Ozil so good because, contrary to certain perceptions of him (i.e. laziness), he is overwhelmingly a team player. As Michael Cox writes for ESPN, there are two ways no.10s interpret this responsibility of being the fulcrum for the team. The first, is by shining through their individuality, like Diego Maradona who would inspire the team with mazy dribbles and goalscoring – this is often the player Ozil is accused of not being – and the second is less fussy, more concerned with using the confines of their creative freedom to make the team tick, and not with personal glory.
Ozil is much more the latter although Arsene Wenger always implored the German to add a ruthless streak to his game, and Emery took him out the side initially because he hasn’t learned it yet. Whilst being aggressive might go against his character, it’s in keeping with the modern game where the best players are consistent in making their mark on the game directly. Ozil does that with assists, but his overall game is gossamer-like – about darting into spaces behind midfields. He tends not to really waste his time coming deep for possession. “I run a lot and if I see a path where I can really counterattack, I go quickly and read the game,” he says. Indeed, that’s how he got his goal, ghosting unopposed down the centre of Bournemouth’s backline, whilst for the one he assisted, for Mhkitaryan, he showed a sudden hint of acceleration to take him beyond the last defender.
In that sense, Ozil is also thoroughly modern even if he seems quite classical too. Because, as Cox writes too, the best creative midfielders need to be able to roam laterally, and he does that well also. Ozil’s main areas of operation are actually closer to the touchline than at the central edge of the box, using his team-mates runs to double-up and create the overloads that has been so crucial to Arsenal’s game. Against Bournemouth, Henrkik Mkhitaryan was the perfect foil for him, the like-minded soul that Ozil always tends to gravitate towards on a match day. Under Wenger, that player was Alexis or Ramsey, this season it has sometimes been Alex Iwobi.
As a partnership, we haven’t really seen Ozil and Mkhitaryan click that obviously yet. There were glimpses last season in the Europa League run, but Mkhitaryan was always third, fourth or fifth fiddle. This season, he has stepped up to the mark and now averages a goal and an assist every 106 minutes.
He’s not always beautiful to watch; he does some very good things, like be aggressive and can turn in tight spaces, but he is also unfathomably ungainly at times, misplacing passes or touches. That may be something to do with the way he protects (or doesn’t protect) the ball, not using his arms to fend off defenders behind him, and as a result, can be easily imbalanced.
In any case, Mkhitaryan has found his place now more in Emery’s system; the type of no.10 that the manager likes, somebody who is capable of playing wide and defends like a central midfielder. Indeed, watch him press, and you will often see him move aggressively inside, trying to anticipate the chance to intercept; and then, if the ball bypasses him, sprint to the flanks to try and close up the space.
Like Ozil, he thrives on the freedom of movement granted to him to get into pockets when Arsenal build-up. The pair frequently traded positions on Wednesday night, though in the end, Ozil mainly chose the left side because there, not only can he open up his body and see the pitch better, but he also found a like-minded spirit in Matteo Guendouzi. With players like him in close proximity, Ozil was able to do what he does best, forcing Emery to admit how crucial he is to the side in this form. “His combination in the attacking third is important for us,” he said. The question now is whether Emery will keep the same sort of XI vs Spurs, namely Ozil and Mkhitaryan, or will he bring in the high pressing style of Ramsey, Lacazette, and the dual threat Iwobi provides on the flanks? Emery, of course was non-commital, saying it is a process still, of getting “our identity first, be competitive – how? First is being organised with our quality and skills, our combinations with different players in different systems and it depends in each match. After is the intensity with the ball and without the ball.” But tellingly, he ends with saying:“the idea is that every player can play with this idea.”
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,” saidHenrikh 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
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.”
The talk before the game was how the Anfield crowd would whip up a frenzy such that it would inspire their team to replicate it on the pitch. Bayern Munich though, remained unflustered. Each time Liverpool came at them, they simply seemed to grow more composed. In fact the most composed player on the pitch was the one who was the most vulnerable to Liverpool’s pressure: Manuel Neuer. But the goalkeeper seemed to thrive off it, and his defenders sensed it too. Each time they were pushed back, and were unable to pass it through, they simply played it back to Neuer who had the confidence – and just that little bit of extra time to take stock and potentially find a free man.
In reality, weren’t at their fluent best in this 0-0 first leg draw versus Liverpool, but away from home, against such potent opponents, they dominated and that was in large part due to Neuer. His role was both stopper, which surprisingly was less relied upon, and playmaker in one.
Indeed, that’s why goalkeepers have exploded in price in recent years; you’re essentially signing two positions. Liverpool would concur with that thought having broken the transfer record to sign Allison and indeed, the goalkeeper fulfilled a similar role from them last night. However, he was less certain than Neuer, in one case wanting too much time to dribble past his opponent, but instead opting to flick it to a defender in the last minute. They both know the risks their style poses but by creating the conditions to allow them to pick the passes, the goalkeeper turns to such an effective outlet.
That’s how Bayern used Neuer against Liverpool because, knowing that they would be pressed in midfield, they essentially flipped the playmaker from the base of midfield, to the goalkeeper. Thus, Javi Martinez, nominally assuming that deep-lying role, rarely came deep for the ball, and instead moved up the pitch to drag the markers with him so that it would create that extra space for Neuer to pick out the pass.
Indeed, in the past you would probably expect that midfielder to drop in between the centre-backs to open to pitch to play through the press, but here with goalkeepers that are just as good technically, the emphasis has switched somewhat. As such, the two centre-backs Sule and Hummels, didn’t split that wide. This had the added benefit thus, of guarding Bayern from the counter-attack should they lose it trying to play out. In the end, The Germans were not as threatened by Liverpool’s dynamic trio.
In the second-half, to try and implant a bit more fluency to their play, the manager Niko Kovac, did ask Thiago Alcantara, to drop in between the centre-backs when he could. It was telling though, that Thiago was not traditionally playing as the holder in the match; he was just the most technically proficient of the three midfielders and tended to drop in starting from a leftish midfield position. Martinez continued to act as a decoy whilst Neuer was still taking responsibility to beat the press. He ended with 62 passes attempted, a number which you’d expect from a midfielder, and not a goalkeeper.
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.”
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.
This is what our shape looks like when we play out from the back. It’s so, so deep and nobody shows for the ball. There’s a reason why Xhaka, who usually plays more balls from our third into the final third than anybody else, has been reduced to passing sideways pic.twitter.com/7zCKOZRnU2
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.
Before Arsenal scored their second goal in this not-entirely-comfortable 4-1 win over Fulham, there was a quite salient point made by the commentator on Bein Sport saying that “Arsenal need a free-stryler right about now.” It was a comment made on the state of the match, but it could have been about the whole season, for The Gunners, under Unai Emery, have played their football stutteringly at the best of times, which, whilst it wasn’t plain sailing under Arsène Wenger, is a contrast to what it was before.
Certainly, one of the reasons suggested for Arsenal’s cautious playing style this season is that Emery, by choosing to bench Mesut Ozil and Aaron Ramsey – and to some degree Alexandre Lacazette – has denied the team of some of their spontaneity, their “free-stylers.” The other argument too against Emery is that his obsession with “control” and “positioning” means that the football is generally stale, and that beyond the odd well-worked goal, can be easy to defend against once you figure out the patterns. Indeed, it’s either by sheer overall quality (namely great finishing ) that Arsenal tend to get over the line, or through changes by the manager – which suggests he might be the only true artist in this team, the only one really, who is allowed to be inventive.
With that being said, it’s through the players’ interpretation on the pitch that Arsenal beat Fulham.
In this game, Fulham chose to man-mark Arsenal all over the pitch by deploying, like their opponents, a 3-4-3 formation. To navigate this challenge facing Arsenal, they did what they usually do; to try to play their way out of trouble and as per usual, it was down the flanks where they found their most joy.
Indeed, when the two sides met earlier this season, a 5-1 win, it was, by Alex Iwobi and Henrikh Mkhitaryan stepping in off their respective flanks and opening room for the full-backs to bomb forward, that Arsenal found space. This time, however, it was the other way round – although mainly down the left – as Alex Iwobi looked to move wider to free himself of his marker (and allow Sead Kolasinac to get forward, often on the inside).
It wasn’t just Iwobi who had to be inventive to evade the attentions of his marker; Granit Xhaka too was being tightly watched in central midfield by Tom Cairney so whenever he dropped to collect the ball, he would follow him. As such, in the first-half, Xhaka tended to move up the pitch to collect the ball, behind the midfielder. That’s how he got his goal, the opener for Arsenal, first by collecting the ball off the centre-backs, but aware not to drop too deep as Cairney was right behind him, and then getting beyond him to get onto the end of the cross.
Indeed, in a neat symmetry of fate, it was Iwobi who found him with the cross, he too having to move away from his marker to get space. In this case, Iwobi moved wide and Odoi, the right centre-back who tried to stick tight to him all game even when Arsenal switched to a 4-3-3, was caught marking space and trying to square up to the onrushing Kolasinac, leaving Iwobi unmarked. Kolasinac, driving inside, played the ball instead to the free Iwobi, and with just a bit of time to get his head up, found Xhaka to prod home.
Overall, Iwobi had a good game, despite the bouts of hesitancy that are no doubt brought on to some degree, by the groans of the home crowd. It’s clear that his game would be better appreciated by improved decision-making but for now he remains one of Arsenal’s most dynamic players. Which, writing it, feels like a contradiction because he’s very much an incomplete player, consisting of so many raw edges that he literally seems to be imbalanced by it. This season, Emery has tried to shape him into a high-end 1v1 player, urged “to be positive, be direct and prove it in the game.”
Also seemingly significant:
Iwobi attempted 7/12 passes (excluding crosses) into the box.
Next highest in league this season:
Iwobi 6/11 v Bournemouth.
Iwobi 4/9 v Fulham away, Laca 5/9 v Cardiff, Kolasinac 6/9 v Man Utd.
The result is a player who seems anxious to impress, sometimes misplacing what seem like easy passes, or important passes, but consistently puts himself into dangerous positions to do so. Against Fulham, Iwobi attempted 12 passes into the penalty area (7 of which found their player), the highest number that any Arsenal has achieved this season (which doesn’t include crosses). The next three in the list are also him showing just how direct he can be. In fact, he’s the fourth best in the top-5 leagues overall, averaging 2.86 (successful) passes per game. It’s not just his willingness to be aggressive, but to be in the right places. Wenger used to talk about the quality of “receptions” (where players received the ball) and it seems, Iwobi is becoming that player. The second and third goal both came from his side, and for both, he didn’t have try to evade his marker, but instead, pinned Odoi back and layed the ball off (both times too!) for the (in)rushing Kolasinac.
Slight difference in the way we’re attacking down the left today. Usually it’s all about finding Iwobi inside and then slotting it through to Kolašinac; today it’s been about Iwobi pinning their WB back and allowing Kolašinac to drive inside.
Coming in second against Fulham for passes attempted into the penalty area was Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, and he seemed to enjoy his role on the right of the front-three. Given freedom to move inside he was involved in both goals two and three by drifting all the way across to the other side. On the right of the front three, he was afforded the luxury of not being marked as tightly, and it seemed to suit him, to attack balls into the box with an open body, especially since most of the play was coming from the left side. (In a way not too dissimilar to Theo Walcott perhaps, or when same man used to cross at the near post for Olivier Giroud).
By the time the fourth goal went in, Emery switched the formation to a 4-3-3, conscious he said that Jean Michel Seri was getting a lot of the ball, and “we needed to get a player close to him, to not let him play with the ball very easily. When Aaron Ramsey came onto the pitch, he could do that and can also help us in attacking moments and he scored. The reason for the decision was this and I need to do my work.” At that moment, Arsenal were in a bit of bother, having just conceded, and looked a bit suspect defensively on the counter. But two quick goals soon ended that nuisance as Arsenal got back to winning ways.
For a while it looked like there might be a tactical battle developing. Liverpool had committed left-back Andy Robertson, high up the pitch, forcing Arsenal’s wildcard selection, Ainsley Maitland-Niles – chosen in part to track the Scotsman’s runs – back with him.
Liverpool had already created a couple of low value openings stemming from that side in the first ten minutes, and it looked like it’d be a matter of time till they punished Arsenal. However, Arsenal adjusted. They saw that they couldn’t press Liverpool so far up the pitch, so instead, they let the centre-backs have the ball. This meant that now Virgil van Dijk and Dejan Lovren had to work a bit harder to find the space. Initially all they had to do was draw Arsenal towards them – towards the right side of the pitch – before switching it to the other side to Robertson (or Sadio Mane). However, on the first time that Arsenal really dropped off a bit, The Reds committed an error. The ball was given away by Lovren, Arsenal broke, and with Robertson so far up the pitch, Maintland-Niles stole free unmarked at the back-post.
“Arsenal…had the high formation,”Jürgen Klopp said of the match at the beginning. “And they knew where they have to defend us because we didn’t move that good in between the lines so we had not a lot of options. Dejan Lovren, ball right, everybody shouts him [but] nobody is moving anymore. Also he tries to play the ball in behind and we follow that ball, run a lot, lose it there, run a lot – it was not necessary. It was not Dejan’s fault, nobody moved. He has the ball but nobody wants it.”
After that, however, the match descended into farce; into the tactical battle we hoped wouldn’t develop but expected to develop: that of Liverpool attacking Arsenal’s (naive) backline at speed. Arsenal couldn’t cope* and fell behind 4-1 at half-time.
“I think we started well,” said Emery. “But after our goal, they pushed, and when they push here, they play with great determination and with players who can make a difference all over the pitch. They scored three quick goals and it was a difficult moment for us….Defensively we need to be stronger, to work. Our defensive moments in our box, it’s my responsibility and then we need the balance. We need to keep the balance in the middle. We lost today 5-1, we need to keep the balance in the middle, be serious and continue on Tuesday with a big match at the Emirates.”
Because Arsenal conceded so quickly, there was no question asked of what could have been if Arsenal had been able to hold on for longer. It felt like the floodgates were there to be burst open, and it was only a matter of time. True, some of the goals Arsenal allowed were through mistakes, but the biggest error was probably Emery believing Arsenal could go toe-to-toe with Liverpool up the pitch. Indeed, he seemed to suggest a more pragmatic approach was probably needed with his (almost throwaway) comments after the game: “Maybe we can do one balance, one mix between our draw (the 1-1 v Liverpool in November) and this result today,” and the reiteration of needing “to keep the balance in the middle.”
Emery chose to press up the pitch, using a 4-2-3-1 with Aaron Ramsey behind Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. The likely compromise, the one which he was hinting at to shore up the centre of the pitch, would have been to drop Ramsey into a 4-3-3 and play 10-yards deeper.** Certainly, the personnel he selected seemed to have the counter-attacking ability to spring forward from deep positions, especially since Liverpool, as Klopp bemoaned slightly, “were a bit too open, a bit too wide in the formation.” Alex Iwobi, in particular, was Arsenal’s most dangerous player, especially when he attacked the outside of the right full-back, and Emery was quick to praise how “after some matches not playing very well, today he played 90 minutes with a good performance.” Ramsey also received some appreciation, this time from Klopp, for his movement and by forcing Liverpool to readjust after the break because he “was constantly in the half-spaces. [That] makes life a little bit uncomfortable with only two central midfielders, so we put in a third one and controlled that.”
With Emery proving he has the clear-headedness to reassess Arsenal’s style, he will be given some leeway in terms of getting the blame this humiliating result. It’s clear that he’s trying to build a different type of Arsenal and along the way, there will be bumps in the road. The issue is that the same shortcomings that afflicted the last five years of Arsene Wenger’s reign still prevail here. The playing style has marginally improved on last season if that, because the majority of Arsenal matches, even against teams lower down, are mainly dour affairs. It’s clear in those games, the team is trying to grapple with the demands of the system, which Emery in all honesty, seems to be amending on the fly.
Still, it’s been the saving grace of the season so far because these are necessary steps to get Arsenal into the modern age in terms of playing. All the top teams in the league have adopted some sort of positional play, and Emery, with his insistence of building out with a “2-2” shape, it is his way of implementing this approach. However, his ideas are not fully formed and that’s why you are seeing these jerky, half-performances. He admitted, at the end of last season in charge of PSG still, that he is still “learning and maturing. I am very fond of self-criticism. I still have a long way to go. Doing my best to manage the bad moments and defeats…[…]… I have to develop my ideas on the game a bit more. I love studying tactics. Looking for ways to get the team to play better. For us to play with less fear, and without the handbrake.”
It’s clear that he’s taken that experience with him to Arsenal. The goal now would be, as he says, is to make Arsenal more secure defensively, and that may now mean we get to see more of the high-pressing philosophy he is renown for. And also, to improve on the attack, which while over-performing xG, is relied on mainly to be clinical to get its goals. That suggests that his ideas are still not being transmitted as clearly; that while there have been flashes of good combination play, some good goals, it hasn’t permeated through the whole of the pitch. Indeed, as much as you need to defend better and have good defenders, being able to attack well is a form of that and perhaps that might have been the best, and easiest way, to defend against Liverpool.
“As a centre half, we’re a little bit bigger and not as quick as the strikers, and when the opponent is playing with a striker that likes to play a lot of short passes and run quickly down the channels, that’s a thing which for me is really difficult to defend against. It’s no longer one against one, it’s more and you’ve got to be comfortable in the back four and give quick information to your team-mate playing next you.
“When it goes through passes and there are quick one-twos, you can’t defend against it on your own. Until you give your team-mate that information, there’s always one or two seconds where you might lose your opponent and he goes through. That’s the most difficult style you have to play against as a defender.”
**Indeed, as Klopp reveals, many teams have chosen to counter-attack against Liverpool resulting partly in this 4-2-3-1 formation he used against Arsenal. Similarly, he says “a lot of teams saw that we were good at counter-pressing and realised they were overplaying.” Initially Arsernal also realised that, so were not scared to go long. Klopp says they forced Arsenal to do that, and interestingly, when they pressed, they used a 4-3-3 shape because they knew Arsenal would try to play. At the end of the game, The Gunners were forced to, and the second-goal came as a result of the Liverpool counter-pressing. “The second goal was just brilliant defending,” said Klopp. “Sadio comes inside, puts the defender under pressure, wins the ball back then bam – Bobby (Firminho) goes more or less through the wall and scores that fantastic goal.”
If there was ever a honeymoon period for the new Arsenal manager, Unai Emery, then that’s well and truly over now. At the halfway point in the season, questions are being asked of Emery’s philosophy, his style, and after the 1-1 draw with Brighton, complaints of another insipid display by The Gunners.
Indeed, up until this point, the manager had been the star turn of Arsenal’s season for the way he has been able to reverse an often average or below-par display into a match-winning (or saving) one. Now, however, the changes are starting to seem of a manager who is unclear on how to deliver his gameplan, over-complicating matters to some degree, to the detriment of the team.
Of course, those accusations would be a little harsh on Emery because it can be said he is only now entering his first real downturn of results – and unfortunately, those teams in the top positions haven’t yet experienced a semblance of bad form yet. In any case, before then, his proactiveness during games seemed necessary for a team who in all honesty, are a mishmash of talents that, on a match day, you could arrange in an infinite number of ways, without ever finding the right balance. In that sense, then, a lot of burden has been placed on the coach to get it right and he’s grabbed that with gleeful hands. The problem is, however, that despite wrestling results through positive changes during games, it’s papered over the cracks of what have generally been low quality performances from Arsenal.
Indeed, against Brighton, Arsenal only mustered 7 shots during the whole game, and one of them after half-time where Emery made his first change. But that’s in keeping really with the whole season so far as The Gunners only average 12.7 shots per game, 10th in the league. Therefore, when Arsenal took the lead against Brighton, it was unsurprising to many that they couldn’t build on it.
They had started so well, taking the lead on ‘7 minutes when Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang slotted home, but any hopes that Arsenal would assert their dominance on the game further, would rest on them being as clinical as they have been for this season. (Arsenal have over-performed xG by 13 goals). Aubameyang had two further opportunities through the only way Arsenal were able to get through Brighton’s defence; from balls over the top. Indeed, the home side had approached the game looking to drop-off and keep Arsenal at arm’s length really. Going behind didn’t change their game-plan much – they were still very passive in the first-half – and as midfielder Dale Stephens reveals, it was all about staying in the game, looking for the opportunities on the break – which is how they got their equaliser.
“We were aware of the quality in their team and we knew we’d have to surrender a bit of possession early on,” said Stephens. “We did that, but they didn’t create many clear-cut chances overall and I thought we stepped up in the second half and could’ve won it. We were disappointed with the way we let him [Aubameyang] in with one pass in the first half (a one-on-one which was tipped wide), but Maty [Ryan] has bailed us out several times this season.”
As against Burnley in the last game, Emery chose to go with the diamond formation which, as I wrote, is the ideal fix for now simply because it allows him to use his best players in their best positions. The sticking point, however, is that it requires a compromise of the type of playing style which he is trying to implement, and it was clear, with his change at half-time, that it didn’t rest easy with him the space Arsenal could potentially afford Brighton when they pushed forward. As it happened, Brigjton really only punished Arsenal once, late in the first-half, and that from their (Arsenal’s) own corner-kick. Nevertheless, after the break, Emery reverted to his tried-and-tested format of using two holding midfielders (and two attacking midfielders broadly in front) – which some have labelled the “2-2” shape. The result, Emery said, was that “we had control with possession but not with creating chances against them. It wasn’t enough to win the game today.”
By moving to the 4-4-2 at half-time (then changing the formation twice more during the game by first bringing on Aaron Ramsey to go to a 4-2-3-1, then Ainsley Maitland-Niles and switching to a 3-5-2 which he said was to “give Ainsley more chances to go forward in more attacking moments, because his quality is more for that”) it meant there was no space for Ozil in the system. Quite why Emery doesn’t trust Ozil in the wide midfield roles can be put down to his penchant for using “attacking midfielders” in these positions, players who can fulfil a variety of demands, especially in Ozil’s case, defensively. (I’ve already expanded on this before so read my previous reports for a breakdown).
The change in formation, though, as we explained before, was also to allow the team to free up the full-backs and attack with this “2-2” shape. For Emery, this is the best way to exert control on the game – indeed, if there has been a philosophy, a playing style, which he has tried to implement so far this season, this has been it. With the two players in front of the defence, and two wide midfielders who can step in, it allows, in his eyes, a subconsciously even distribution of players across the pitch, and to help move the ball side-to-side and guard counter-attacks better. “Tactically, some matches I did that and I wanted to control it better with the positioning on the pitch. But in the second half we couldn’t do our ideas on the pitch for imposing ourselves and this imposing positioning can give us more options in attacking moments to score. We created less chances in the second half and not clear [chances].”
Of course, switching formations wasn’t really the problem but the change in personnel, which means for once, Emery got his subs wrong. He removed Ozil and replaced directly in his position on the right – because in the first-half he tended to drift there mainly – Lucas Torreira. Initially there was some confusion about who was playing where, but Torreira did move to the right-flank, and Alex Iwobi came on to the left.
The dynamic didn’t change badly – in fact, Brighton started the second-half stronger and broke more freely as Arsenal’s build-up became more functional. Indeed, that’s another criticism of Emery; that his handling of Ozil (and Ramsey) means that he has stripped the team of the spontaneity that Wenger had, and that’s one reason the team creates so few chances. He’s put Lacazette and Aubameyang together up front now, and while the two are working as a tandem well, they are being relied on recently to be clinical. Guendouzi was actually the chief creator in the first-half but without the freedom of movement granted to him in the second, he, and Torreira too, was unable to pick out the runs.
Brighton, on the other hand, were less worked now. They chose to start with the match a 4-3-3, dropping Pascal Gross into the midfield whereas usually he plays behind the striker in a 4-2-3-1. “We have played that system here a few times and against a few of the top teams away from home,” said Dale Stephens “I think it works when you want to keep hold of the ball a bit more and it works away from home, and you look at the Burnley and Huddersfield games, where we’ve put in good performances. If the manager wants to play me sitting in a three, then I am happy to do that and help the team.”
Initially, however, Brighton were too stand-offish and Arsenal – and Guendouzi in particularly – could pick passes over the top. Granit Xhaka too, was comfortably able to receive the ball from just in front of the two centre-backs as Arsenal formed a de facto three at the back with possession. That didn’t seem to wash easy with Emery, however, as I called it during the game, thus the change of system – if not personnel – was predictable. Arsenal were getting forward a lot with the full-backs – Lichsteiner especially (even if his impact was lacking therefore Emery was forced to bring Maintland-Niles in later in the game) – and whilst Brighton rarely looked threatening, the set-up seemed to have a look of Wengerish gung-ho about it. That in part, tells you a bit about Emery’s philosophy, which, whilst since he has taken over, been trying to impart a possession/positional orientated play, is grounded in pragmatism and safety-first.
Can’t see it sitting easy with Emery after half-time, having essentially just the centre-backs (+ Xhaka) back when the full-backs push forward.
At the end of the game, Emery said the changes were tactical, to take advantage of the different skilsets individual players bring. “It is one decision tactically, and also because we have [done] it before….when it tactically changes something, not for the player but for the team. A lot of the matches when we play in the second half, for example Iwobi, it helps us with a different situation tactically and helps us to win the matches. In other matches, when we changed for the second half we took the performance to go to win. Yesterday, my intention was the same.”
Emery also addressed the issue in his pre-match conference, of having the right balance during transitions, and the need to improve that. But judging his comments, it seems as if there will be more tinkering abound.
“We need more,” Emery said. “But we need more from everybody and we need more also in our demanding ideas, and we need to continue working on things. But it’s not for receiving (conceding) the goal in the transition, because also, when we receive (score) one goal we are having mistakes. The mistakes are not only one player, or two players or three players, but maybe also in the ideas.
“Also, in the last matches we are having a lot of injuries in the defensive positions. We need to change some players and play in different positions, like they are usually playing, like with Xhaka and Lichtsteiner. The behaviour and the commitment of the players is good to help us in different positions, but we need also to take more balance in these situations above all, in defensive moments. It is one thing: collective. It’s not just for the defence or for the attacking player, it is for all. With this balance, I am happy but also knowing that it isn’t enough at the moment for us.”