The Gunners are making baby steps under Emery. They reached halftime without conceding a goal for the first time this season against Newcastle in mid-September. On Sunday, they finally kept their first clean sheet in a 2-0 win over Everton to move 2 points clear of Manchester United in the Premier League.
Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com
Sunday’s game was an interesting contest because on paper the Toffees are supposed to be direct rivals for European spots. It was an even game and Everton could have split the points if they had converted their big chances. But they didn’t because they had Calvert-Lewin and Walcott in their front three instead of more clinical finishers like Lacazette and Aubameyang. Arsenal had just 5 shots on target compared to 6 for the visitors.
The Gunners’ attacking play was poor in the first half even though Emery made 7 changes to the side that defeated Vorskla on Thursday with only Sokratis, Monreal, Torreira and Aubameyang retaining their starting spots. There was more movement in the second half but Arsenal didn’t really look more threatening. To a certain extent, it felt like the Wenger team of last season: struggling to create chances before a brief scoring spell saved their day.
At the start of the season, Emery tried to impose his brand of football: playing the ball out from the back and pressing high up the pitch. After 6 Premier League games, it is safe to say that Emery will have to wait another season because right now he doesn’t have the personnel to implement it. Cech’s limited ball-playing abilities and Xhaka’s lack of mobility are liabilities when the Gunners try to break the press. Likewise, the Gunners struggle to press like a unit because only a couple of their midfielders have the work-rate and mobility to close down the ball holder. When you press, you must also squeeze play to prevent your opponents from finding space. That implies a high defensive line which exposes Sokratis’ lack of recovery pace. So my guess is that Emery can only make small adjustments in his first season at the club.
Cech’s outstanding saves
The Toffees had 2 golden opportunities to open the scoring in the first half. Calvert-Lewin beat the offside trap to collect a through ball from Davies in the second minute but he was denied by a tackle from Cech. Calvert-Lewin’s decision-making was poor on that play. If the Everton striker had squared the ball back, it would have been a simple tap-in for an unmarked Richarlison. See the screen capture below.
Calvert-Lewin should have passed the ball to Richarlison. (Photo credit: NBC)
On that play, there was no pressure on Davies. Was it up to Ramsey to drop off and close Davies down? Or was it Xhaka’s responsibility to charge forward even if it meant leaving a big gap in midfield? It will be Emery’s job to sort out that kind of tactical uncertainty in his post-match analysis. The lack of pressure from Xhaka and Ramsey made Arsenal’s high defensive line completely suicidal. Calvert-Lewin made a run in behind Sokratis and no one could catch him.
Everton’s second big chance in the 38th was quite similar. It all started with a 2v2 situation on the left flank with Sokratis and Monreal dealing with Walcott and Sigurdsson. From the moment Sigurdsson dribbled past Monreal, Sokratis was in deep trouble. Walcott made a run in behind Sokratis to take Sigurdsson’s pass and bear down on goal. Cech somehow stopped Walcott’s low effort with his leg. The difference between this play and Calvert-Lewin’s chance is that Walcott had no decent passing option because Mustafi and Bellerin were tightly marking Calvert-Lewin and Richarlison.
Cech definitely produced a Man of the Match performance. The Gunners could have been trailing 2-0 at halftime without his outstanding saves. The Czech goalkeeper also tipped Digne’s free kick over the bar in the 31st, scooped Keane’s header around the post in the 71st, and parried long-range efforts from Richarlison in the 21st and Tosun in the 85th.
Bellerin’s hard time
Mustafi and Bellerin performed poorly at the back. The German centerback made a sloppy pass in the fourth minute, overran the ball and lost possession on the edge of the Arsenal box in the 29th, and gave away a dangerous free kick with a poor challenge on Richarlison in the 89th. There’s no way Mustafi could be the leader of the back four when Koscielny leaves the club. Let’s be honest, Mustafi wouldn’t even start for Manchester City, Liverpool or Tottenham.
Sokratis had to bail Mustafi out with a cynical foul on Walcott in the 29th. The Greek defender also picked up a knee injury and had to be replaced by Holding in the 38th. Holding’s stats were not impressive. He made 0 tackle, 0 block, 0 interception and just 4 recoveries, according to the club’s website. You kind of wonder whether it was because Holding was too passive or because the midfielders did a good job to shield the defense. Last season, Holding was let down by some poor decision-making as well as lapses of concentration. Those issues re-emerged on Sunday when Holding went on a dribbling run on the edge of the Arsenal box in the 54th.
On the flanks, Bellerin had a harder time than Monreal. Obviously, marking Richarlison is a more difficult task than dealing with Walcott. Digne’s forays down our right wing also left Bellerin in 1v2 situations quite a few times. Bellerin was the culprit for playing Calvert-Lewin onside in the second minute. He then made the mistake of letting Richarlison turn in the 10th. Richarlison also got the better of Bellerin in the 21st, the 44th and the 50th. In the closing minutes, Sigurdsson ghosted past Bellerin to hit the post with a cross-shot. To his credit, Bellerin provided some width down the right flank whenever Ozil drifted inside. The Spaniard created Arsenal’s first chance with a teasing cross in the 12th. Bellerin also tested Pickford with a drive in the 65th.
A complementary partnership
Emery is slowly putting together the pieces of the Arsenal puzzle. Torreira finally made his first Premier League start on Sunday. It’s easy to understand why Emery has been so cautious with Torreira. Because the pace of the game is faster in England than in Italy, Torreira might lose some of the 50-50 challenges that he would normally win in Serie A. Remember how Xhaka got sent off in his first season at the club because of mistimed tackles.
The first league games showed that the partnership formed by Xhaka and Guendouzi was flawed. Neither Xhaka nor Guendouzi is a natural ballwinner. Both are deep-lying playmakers. That’s why Torreira gives more balance to the team: his partnership with Xhaka is more complementary. In fact, that duo is very similar to the midfield combination in the other top clubs.
On Sunday, Arsenal finally played with a ballwinner (Torreira) and a deep-lying playmaker (Xhaka) like the Blues do with Kante and Jorginho, like Spurs do with Dier and Dembele and like the Citizens do with Fernandinho and Silva. The Reds are the exception here as they prefer to play with a holding midfielder (Henderson) in front of two all-rounders (Milner and Wijnaldum) who can both defend and attack.
A partnership between Torreira and Guendouzi might work too. Guendouzi may have more potential than Xhaka as a deep-lying playmaker, but Xhaka is in his prime while Guendouzi is still learning the ropes. In the big games, experience will help you have more composure in the final third. It will also help you recognize certain plays.
Some fans will point out that Arsenal still had a ballwinner a few months ago with Coquelin. However, Coquelin’s technique is more limited and he doesn’t read the game as well as Torreira. I mean there’s a reason why Coquelin never played for the France team while Torreira was a starter for Uruguay at the last World Cup.
Ramsey’s first assists
Torreira won 66.7% of his duels against Everton, the highest percentage for any Gunner according to the club’s website. His stats (1 tackle, 1 block, 1 interception and 7 ball recoveries) may not look impressive, but Torreira’s tactical awareness and his underrated role in Arsenal’s attacking play really made a difference. He received a yellow card for a rash challenge on Sigurdsson in the 15th and Everton tried to get Torreira sent off when he inadvertently stepped on Digne’s hand with his trailing leg on the stroke of halftime.
The Uruguay midfielder created the opening goal by intercepting Davies’ clearance in the 56th. He also helped protect Arsenal’s two-goal lead by deflecting Sigurdsson’s shot in the 83rd and blocking Digne’s cross in the 84th. His only blemish was the ball he gave away in the 73rd but he somehow managed to recover the ball and draw a foul from Davies.
The Gunners maybe lacked a bit of creativity in midfield. They’ve lost Rosicky, Cazorla and Wilshere in the past couple of seasons and haven’t replaced them. While Torreira is an upgrade on Coquelin, Xhaka can’t really reach the level of a Cazorla. Ramsey and Ozil led Arsenal players with 2 key passes each, which is a low figure. By contrast, Sigurdsson led all players with 4 key passes.
At least, Ramsey finally got his first assists this season. He set up Lacazette for the opener in the 56th before teeing up Aubameyang for the second goal with a backheel flick in the 59th. The Wales midfielder also attempted a through ball that was intercepted by Pickford in the 45th and made a cross for Aubameyang that led to a penalty shout in the 55th. Emery yanked Ramsey off to send on Welbeck in the 80th.
Ozil’s work-rate in the 2nd half
Ozil has definitely been one of the players struggling to adapt to Emery’s style of football. While Wenger cajoled Ozil by giving him plenty of freedom first in a 4-2-3-1 formation and then in a 3-4-3 system, Ozil has become an ordinary cog under Emery. Ozil made only 38 passes on Sunday compared to 101 for Xhaka. His influence was limited by Gueye’s crazy work-rate. One of the best ballwinners in the league, Gueye made 10 tackles, 3 interceptions and 7 ball recoveries. That explains why Ozil had 5 turnovers, an unusually high number for him.
The former Germany international was a peripheral figure in the first half. His performance significantly improved after the break. He set up Ramsey for a low volley in the 49th before leading the counterattack for the second goal in the 59th. Ozil had so much time that he missed his pass for Ramsey, who kept the play alive with a backheel flick.
His critics will probably notice Ozil’s improved work-rate in the second half. Ozil won 2 of 4 tackles after the break. Is it the price Ozil must pay to stay in the starting lineup? To a certain extent, that made me think of Arshavin. The Russian forward barely contributed defensively when he arrived at Arsenal. But in his last seasons at the club, Arshavin earned the crowd’s appreciation by tracking back and even making tackles.
Until Koscielny’s return from injury, Emery will stick with Bellerin, Mustafi, Sokratis and Monreal at the back. In midfield, Torreira has made himself indispensable in the No. 6 role. Emery still has to figure out whether the team is more balanced with a three-man midfield a la Liverpool or with a midfield pyramid. The bigger concern is the attack which lacks fluency despite the goals scored. The Gunners also lack natural width because Ramsey, Ozil, Aubameyang and Lacazette prefer to play through the middle.
Lacazette’s top-class finish
On Sunday, Ramsey occasionally moved to the left wing when Ozil drifted inside and Aubameyang made diagonal runs. One solution would be to play Lacazette on the right wing like Salah at Liverpool while moving Aubameyang to his favorite centerforward position. That still leaves open the question of who plays on the left wing as Aubameyang doesn’t have the all-around game for that.
Lacazette showed good work-rate by winning 2 of 3 tackles, and making 1 interception and 3 recoveries. He also led all players with 4 aerial duels won, according to whoscored.com. The France international wasted a good situation in the 40th by attempting to shift the ball from his left foot to his right one instead of taking a first-time shot from 10 yards. The extra touch allowed Gueye to dispossess Lacazette and the chance was gone. Lacazette made amends in the 56th with a top-class finish, curling a powerful strike into the top corner. He also had a hand in the second goal by releasing Ozil down the right flank.
Boosted by his 2 goals against Vorskla, Aubameyang found again the net against Everton. Aubameyang was in an offside position when he took Ramsey’s pass in the 59th, but the referee let the goal stand because the Premier League is not using VAR technology. The Gabon striker also cut the ball back to Monreal for a close-range effort in the 12th before hitting the bar with a cross-shot in the 42nd. Emery gave Aubameyang some rest by replacing him with Iwobi in the 68th.
I expect some heavy rotation for the League Cup game against Brentford on Wednesday for the simple reason that the Gunners play Watford on Saturday. The Hornets have enjoyed a great start to the season as they are 1 point clear of Arsenal in the standings and could be a direct rival for European spots this season.