“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.
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.
Also, what people don’t realise about Ozil is that he doesn’t operate in typical no.10 areas, he likes to go wide, likes to use wingers and bounce passes off them. Here, he can’t do that. See difference Willock made in where he received the ball pic.twitter.com/DegI4aQ95p
— Arsenal Column (@ArsenalColumn) May 29, 2019
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.