When a manager joins a new club, he quickly needs results to win his players’ support and get the fans and journalists off his back. A manager can be a smart tactician and have a stellar resume, but if his team can’t win games, his words will ring hollow in the dressing room. Somehow, Emery managed to buy a bit of time with Arsenal’s 3-1 victory over West Ham on Saturday.
Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com
Wenger was the consummate man-manager, always protecting his players, almost cajoling their ego. You would never see him make a substitution before the 60th minute unless there was an injury. There is no such diplomatic consideration with Emery, who doesn’t mind making early changes if a player is underperforming. The Spanish manager replaced Ramsey in the 54th minute against Manchester City and yanked Xhaka off at halftime against Chelsea.
On Saturday, Emery replaced Iwobi at halftime and Guendouzi in the 56th before pulling Aubameyang out in the 75th. Those moves paid off as two of the substitutes had a major impact on the game: Lacazette initiated the second goal in the 70th while Welbeck put the result beyond doubt in stoppage time.
The Gunners are not yet playing the way Emery wants them to. They still struggle to implement Emery’s pressing game and no longer put a strong emphasis on playing the ball out from the back. Although Arsenal enjoyed more ball possession on Saturday than in their first two games, Cech made only 24 passes against the Hammers compared to 36 against Chelsea and 42 against City.
However, one obvious break from the Wenger era has been the way the Gunners reach the final third. Slow build-ups with a lot of back passes were common under Wenger. Now the team moves the ball forward more quickly under Emery. The aim is to prevent the opponents from parking the bus. That means making more first-time passes, even in midfield. If you see players making a lot of stray passes, it’s because they’re taking more risks.
What kind of front three?
My main impression from the first three games is that Emery still hasn’t found his best starting lineup and is still experimenting. Emery won’t change his back four until Koscielny is back in contention for a starting spot. By contrast, the front three is a mystery, especially Emery’s choice of wide players. So far, Emery has always started with 2 attacking midfielders (Ozil and Mkhitaryan against City, then Iwobi and Mkhitaryan against Chelsea and West Ham), which is strange because he used to play with 3 forwards at Paris Saint-Germain with Neymar, Cavani and Mbappe.
I definitely think that playing with 2 attacking midfielders in the wide positions is the worst option because they tend to drift inside and make the play too narrow. Another problem is the absence of a natural finisher on the wings and the over-reliance on the pass to beat a defense. Arsenal only had 9 successful dribbles to 17 for West Ham, according to whoscored.com. The Gunners need more aggression in the final third. They could play with 3 forwards like Liverpool under Klopp (Mane, Firmino, Salah) or under Rodgers (Suarez, Sturridge, Sterling). There’s also the hybrid solution with an attacking midfielder on one wing and a forward on the other like when Arsenal played with Pires and Ljungberg more than a decade ago.
The midfield is a work in progress, too. Emery made just one change to the side that lost 3-2 at Chelsea with Ramsey replacing Ozil in the starting lineup. Ozil was not even in the squad because of illness. For the third game in a row, Emery kept his faith in the flawed partnership formed by Xhaka and Guendouzi to protect the back four and it completely failed. The Arsenal defense was so open in the first half that the Hammers could have scored 3 or 4 goals.
A soft midfield
West Ham had numerous counterattacking opportunities and found plenty of space in midfield because Arsenal oscillated between a high defensive line and a medium one. The Chelsea game showed that the Gunners were vulnerable to balls over the top. Mustafi and Sokratis therefore played in a slightly deeper position against West Ham. The problem is that it left more space in midfield for the Hammers to run into while Xhaka and Guendouzi drowned because the team was not compact enough.
Emery will face that kind of dilemma for the rest of the season because he has the wrong personnel for his tactics: Sokratis is sluggish, Mustafi poorly reads the game, Monreal has lost a step, Bellerin’s positional play is dodgy, and Xhaka lacks mobility. Either the Gunners press high up the pitch and have to squeeze play by playing a high defensive line, which makes them vulnerable to balls over the top. Or they play a medium defensive line and therefore leave too much space in midfield, forcing Xhaka and Guendouzi to chase shadows.
Playing between the lines, Anderson did a lot of damage in midfield because neither Xhaka nor Guendouzi could catch him. Unchallenged by Xhaka and Bellerin, the Brazilian midfielder ran 50 yards in the 25th to set up Arnautovic, who opened the scoring with a strike into the bottom corner. Then Xhaka failed to close down Anderson, who fed Antonio for a tame effort in the 32nd. The Arsenal midfield looked soft again in the 37th when a West Ham fast break led to a 2v2 situation. Arnautovic beat Cech but the goal was disallowed for a marginal offside.
Anderson also made an interception in the 55th and ran 60 yards before picking out Arnautovic, who shot straight at Cech. Emery didn’t find the tactical answer because Anderson kept creating chances after Torreira had replaced Guendouzi in the 56th. Anderson cut inside Mkhitaryan and Torreira in the 68th to fire a low drive that Cech spilled. The Brazilian midfielder showed no sign of exhaustion as he ran again 50 yards in the 84th to find Perez, who overhit his cross.
4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1?
Xhaka can’t flourish as a holding midfielder because he lacks the pace to stop counterattacks. That’s why he plays alongside Behrami in the Switzerland team. Xhaka led all players with 5 fouls and was lucky to escape a booking in the 44th for stamping on Snodgrass’ ankle. He tried to stop Anderson in the 51st but ended up giving away a free kick with a late challenge.
Guendouzi didn’t perform at the same level as against Chelsea, but his work-rate on Saturday was decent. He won 2 of 2 tackles and made 1 interception and 6 ball recoveries in 56 minutes, according to the club’s website. In fact, those stats are better than those of Xhaka and Ramsey, who played the full 90 minutes. Ramsey won 2 of 2 tackles and made 1 interception and 7 recoveries while Xhaka won 1 of 3 tackles and made 0 interception and 9 recoveries. The French teenager will still need to cut some basic mistakes out of his game. Guendouzi gave the ball away in the 20th and his risky pass in the 55th led to a scoring chance for West Ham.
In the role of a free-roaming midfielder, Ramsey tested Fabianski in the 37th and 83rd and was involved in Arsenal’s second goal by heading a loose ball toward Lacazette. He also created a chance for Aubameyang by rounding a defender in the 72nd. Ramsey has already played in that position with the Wales team but I still think that it negates some of his strengths, especially his late runs in the box. I’d prefer to see Ramsey play on the right side of a three-man midfield, but that would require a switch to a 4-3-3 formation. Emery has preferred to rely on a 4-2-3-1 system so far.
Up front, Aubameyang had an off day with just 1 of 3 shots on target, but he worked hard for his teammates, leading all players with 4 key passes, according to whoscored.com. Somehow, Aubameyang survived a nasty tackle from Diop in the 41st. Diop was lucky to get only a yellow card because TV replays showed his studs on Aubameyang’s shin. You can bet that Diop would have been sent off if the Premier League had adopted VAR technology. Welbeck came off the bench to replace Aubameyang in the 75th. The England international sealed the win in stoppage time by controlling a cross from Bellerin to shoot past Fabianski from close range.
The poor performance from the wide players also helps explain why Aubameyang got very little service. Iwobi remained on the periphery of the game with 0 shot, 1 key pass and only 12 passes in the first half. He made one crucial tackle to stop a counterattack in the 17th, but one of his turnovers also led to the Hammers’ goal. Decision-making in the final third is still an issue for Iwobi, who decided to run into traffic in the 25th, taking on 3 players. A few seconds later, Arnautovic opened the scoring for the visitors.
Emery sent on Lacazette for Iwobi at halftime. The France international showed his hunger in the 53rd with a long-range strike straight at Fabianski. Four minutes later, Lacazette took a pass from Torreira and forced a fine save from the Polish goalkeeper with a low shot on the turn. The West Ham defense finally cracked in the 70th when Lacazette chested down a header from Ramsey and attempted a high pass toward Aubameyang. The ball bounced off Diop to beat Fabianski. In his 45-minute cameo, Lacazette had 2 of 2 shots on target as well as 2 key passes. Emery saw Lacazette play for Lyon and is therefore aware of the striker’s versatility. I hope the Spanish manager will also consider playing Lacazette as a false winger or as a second striker to optimize the potential of his squad.
A static Sokratis
On the right wing, Mkhitaryan had a poor game like Iwobi. The Armenia midfielder led all players with 7 turnovers and made 0 key pass, according to whoscored.com. His only positive contribution was a snapshot from 16 yards that Fabianski parried in the 11th and the pass for Bellerin in the build-up to the equalizer in the 30th.
At the back, Mustafi produced a decent performance. He intercepted Arnautovic’s cross for Sanchez to kill a counterattack in the third minute. The truth is that Mustafi looks average when he plays alongside Koscielny. But when he teams up with Sokratis, the Germany international can almost look good.
Sokratis is the main reason why playing a high defensive line will always be a problem. His lack of pace is a too big liability in any foot race. Saturday’s game also exposed his lack of agility. Sokratis failed to intercept Snodgrass’ through ball for Arnautovic in the 12th. Then he missed his clearance in the 21st but Arnautovic couldn’t connect with Snodgrass’ cross. Sokratis also failed to block Arnautovic’s low drive on the opening goal in the 25th. I believe Koscielny would have made the block in his position. On the stroke of halftime, Sokratis failed again to intercept Antonio’s through ball for Snodgrass. Like Lichtsteiner for City’s second goal, Sokratis looked incredibly static when Arnautovic escaped his marking in the 55th to take a pass from Anderson and test Cech. To cap his mediocre performance, Sokratis earned a yellow card in the 90th for time-wasting.
3 weeks to find a fix
Bellerin’s performance on Saturday divided the fans. No one can deny his huge offensive contribution. Bellerin set up Mkhitaryan in the 11th before making the crosses for Arsenal’s first and third goals. But his defensive contribution is questionable. Bellerin can definitely improve his positional play. He played Arnautovic onside in the 12th, was flagged offside in the 23rd, and let Antonio ghost past him in the 32nd. Antonio also cut inside Bellerin to curl a shot wide in the 39th. If Emery wants Bellerin to play like a wingback, then he needs someone to cover him down the right flank. It can’t be Mkhitaryan because he plays in a too high position. So it has to be one of the midfielders.
On the left flank, Monreal played in a more conservative way than Bellerin but still managed to net the equalizer. The Hammers exposed Monreal’s declining pace twice on the stroke of halftime. First, Arnautovic made a run in behind Monreal to chase a ball over the top from Masuaku. Then, Snodgrass ghosted past Monreal to collect a through ball from Antonio only to shoot straight at Cech.
The Gunners have plenty of work to do on the training ground. They can’t afford to be so open against better sides than West Ham. Emery has three weeks to fix the defensive issues. Once the Europa League starts, Emery won’t have time anymore because Arsenal will play two games per week and the focus will then be on recovering.