The Gunners made up ground in the Top 4 race with an ugly 2-1 win at Bournemouth on Sunday. They snapped a 3-game winless streak in the Premier League to move within a point of Chelsea in the standings. Emery had a tactical surprise for the Cherries as he switched from his favorite 4-2-3-1 formation to a 3-4-3 system. The Spanish manager had already used a back three against Qarabag in the Europa League, mostly to give some playing time to Kolasinac and Lichtsteiner. But it was the first time that Emery relied on such a system in the Premier League.
Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com
The tactical shift made sense because it provided cover to Bellerin and Kolasinac down the flanks, where Fraser and Brooks could cause a lot of damage and feed Wilson and King. The downside of that shift is that Emery basically replaced an attacking player, Ozil, with a centerback, Sokratis, in his starting lineup. Unsurprisingly, the Gunners struggled to create clear-cut chances: they never really found any rhythm in their passing game and made no through ball attempt. By contrast, Manchester City and Liverpool made 5 and 3 through ball attempts on Saturday, respectively.
The 3-4-3 formation played to Kolasinac’s strengths because he’s more a wingback than a proper fullback. In fact, Kolasinac turned out to be Arsenal’s main attacking threat at the Vitality stadium. He created the opening goal in the 30th minute with a cross that Lerma catapulted into his own net. Kolasinac then set up the winning goal by squaring the ball back to Aubameyang in the 67th. While the Cherries managed to keep Bellerin quiet, they seemed to underestimate Kolasinac, who also had 2 scoring chances. Kolasinac tested Begovic with a cross-shot in the 22nd. A minute later, Kolasinac met a cross from Aubameyang, only to head the ball wide.
Kolasinac played a key role for both goals but his passing accuracy of 63.2%, which is low compared to Bellerin’s 93.8%, betrayed his technical limitations. Likewise, Kolasinac’s stats showed some decent work-rate with 3 tackles won, 2 interceptions and 3 ball recoveries, according to the club’s website, but he was pulled out of position for Bournemouth’s equalizer on the stroke of halftime. I expect Monreal to remain the first choice at leftback when he recovers from his hamstring injury.
Despite netting the winning goal, Aubameyang struggled in the final third with just 1 of 4 shots on target. Aubameyang fired over the bar from 10 yards after Bournemouth failed to clear a corner in the 23rd. To his credit, Aubameyang made numerous runs to stretch the Bournemouth defense. He was also involved in his team’s passing game with 2 shot assists, tied with Kolasinac and Mkhitaryan for the most by an Arsenal player.
Will that performance change Emery’s opinion about what is Aubameyang’s best position? Lacazette was not in the squad because of a groin injury. Emery seems to like using Lacazette as a false nine even though he doesn’t have Aubameyang’s electric pace. On the other hand, Ozil was fit but Emery decided to leave him on the bench, preferring to start Iwobi and Mkhitaryan as inside forwards. It’s easy to understand Emery’s rationale here. The Cherries work their socks off and Ozil tends to struggle in away games. So Mkhitaryan got the nod over Ozil.
Mkhitaryan short on confidence
Mkhitaryan had a poor game with only 1 of 7 shots on target. He also led all players with 9 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. And his 2 key passes somehow hid his lack of creativity as he simply set up Torreira and Aubameyang for long-range efforts in the 10th and 64th. Mkhitaryan definitely has Emery’s backing, otherwise he wouldn’t be in the starting lineup. Yet, he performed like a player short on confidence. One play in the 69th summed up his struggles. Aubameyang led a counterattack by running 50 yards with the ball before slipping the ball to Mkhitaryan. The Armenia international was in a perfect position for a first-time effort but he opted to control the ball. His first touch was so poor that the ball got away from Mkhitaryan, who ended up kicking the ball out of play.
Iwobi has improved under Emery but there are still parts of his game that remain quite frustrating. Let’s start with the positives. Pulling the strings in midfield, Iwobi made the penultimate pass for both goals and had 2 of 3 shots on target. His low drive in the 21st didn’t trouble Begovic while his curling shot in the 34th forced the Bournemouth goalkeeper to palm the ball away.
Let’s talk now about the negatives. We know about Iwobi’s great potential since Wenger played him in the No. 10 role. However, his work-rate and his end product have often been questionable. Iwobi didn’t work hard enough against Bournemouth, making no tackle, no block, no interception and just 3 recoveries. That’s why Emery replaced him with Ramsey in the 82nd to protect Arsenal’s lead. Iwobi only won 16.7% of his duels, the lowest percentage for any player according to the club’s website. That reputation of softie won’t go away until if he puts in a shift like Welbeck does.
Throwing away the lead with 16 seconds left
Another flaw that Iwobi needs to fix is decision-making in the final third. Last season, Iwobi had that tendency to run into traffic even though he doesn’t have the dribbling skills of a Neymar or Hazard. It’s true that Iwobi can occasionally nutmeg a defender along the touchline but he needs a lot of room to beat an opponent.
In stoppage time of the first half, the Gunners had an opportunity to double the lead. But Iwobi showed poor decision-making and his turnover led to Bournemouth’s equalizer. If you look at the screen capture below, you can see that Iwobi had two very good passing options: he could have teed up Bellerin for a mid-range shot or played Torreira in with a reverse pass.
Iwobi has 2 good passing options with Torreira and Bellerin. (Photo credit: Sky)
With his back to goal and surrounded by 3 Cherries, Iwobi attempted a dribbling trick. As you can see on the screen capture below, Daniels dispossessed Iwobi and the ball fell to Fraser who initiated a fast break.
Surrounded by 3 defenders, Iwobi loses possession to Daniels. (Photo credit: Sky)
In hindsight, Arsenal would have been better off if Iwobi had fired into the stands. There were only 16 seconds left to play before the end of the first half. Without Iwobi’s error of judgment, the Gunners would have reached halftime with the lead for the first time in the league this season.
Torreira as a box-to-box player
Fraser released Wilson down our right flank, and the Bournemouth striker bought a bit of time before picking out Brooks on the edge of the Arsenal box. Brooks slipped the ball to King, who curled into the far corner to level the game. If you look at the screen capture below, it wasn’t a disastrous situation yet when Fraser fed Wilson.
Arsenal in a ‘favorable’ 4v3 situation. (Photo credit: Sky)
However, the Gunners wasted their numerical superiority with some poor positional play. Fraser sped past Xhaka in midfield after releasing the ball. Xhaka decided to track Fraser instead of passing him on to Sokratis. When Xhaka realized Fraser made a dummy run, it was already too late. As you can see on the screen capture below, there was a huge gap between Holding on the left side of the pitch and Sokratis, Xhaka and Mustafi on the right side.
Fraser’s dummy run creates a huge gap between Holding and Xhaka. (Photo credit: Sky)
The Cherries exploited that disequilibrium by overloading the left side of the Arsenal defense with late runs from Brooks and King. On the screen capture below, you can see that Holding was in an unfavorable 1v2 situation because Kolasinac didn’t track back while Sokratis and Xhaka were too far to help Holding. Xhaka made the key mistake on that play by failing to plug the gap between Sokratis and Holding.
Holding in a 1v2 situation with Brooks and King. (Photo credit: Sky)
You might wonder why Xhaka was the holding midfielder in that game. The Gunners are an attacking player short in a 3-4-3 formation compared to the 4-2-3-1 system. Emery therefore used Torreira as a box-to-box player to provide support to Iwobi, Mkhitaryan and Aubameyang. A more natural team selection would have been to play Torreira as the holding midfielder and Ramsey as the box-to-box player.
Still feeling like a Wenger team
Torreira played in a more advanced position than Xhaka mainly because he’s more mobile than the Switzerland international. Emery’s tactical gamble nearly paid off in the ninth minute when Torreira won the ball in midfield and hit the post with a 22-yard drive. Torreira led all midfielders by winning 75% of his duels, according to the club’s website. He was also reliable technically with a passing accuracy of 90.8% compared to 85.1% for Xhaka. Emery yanked Torreira off in the 79th because the Uruguay international felt a bout of fatigue.
As a holding midfielder, Xhaka had decent stats with 2 tackles, 1 block, 2 interceptions and 11 recoveries. But there are always moments in a game when his lack of defensive awareness will let him down. His positional play on the equalizer was poor. Xhaka also put his team in trouble with a poor clearance in the 85th. The ball fell to Lerma, who rattled the post with a 30-yard strike.
Last season, Wenger also relied on a 3-4-3 formation in an effort to stop conceding goals before switching back to a more traditional 4-3-3 system in December. Out of intellectual curiosity, it would have been interesting to know who Wenger would have played in central midfield. Torreira and Ramsey? Or Ramsey and Xhaka just like last season? Or Torreira and Xhaka like Emery did on Sunday?
Emery is the new Arsenal manager but it still feels very much like a Wenger team. Bournemouth exposed the Gunners’ vulnerability on counterattacks, a typical trait of Arsenal under Wenger. In other games, the Gunners also struggled to defend crosses. There have been defensive improvements under Emery, but they have been incremental.
The Spanish manager definitely has a positive influence on Holding and Bellerin. While Holding had lapses of concentration and showed poor decision-making under Wenger, he now looks close to fulfilling his potential. Holding won 62.5% of his duels on Sunday, more than Sokratis (60%) and Mustafi (47.1%) according to the club’s website. Likewise, Bellerin has refound the balance in his game between attack and defense.
Of course, Emery can’t perform miracles. Kolasinac and Mustafi still look as dodgy defensively as they were under Wenger. Mustafi was very active with 3 tackles, 1 block, 3 interceptions and 6 recoveries. The German centerback covered Bellerin in the third minute to kill a counterattack with a timely challenge on Fraser. He also recovered the ball in the 48th after Lerma intercepted Holding’s pass.
But you know that Mustafi will always have an error in him. He completely missed his tackle on King in the eighth minute. The Bournemouth forward fed Brooks, who beat Leno from close range. However, the goal was disallowed for a marginal offside. Looking at TV replays several times, I couldn’t even tell with certainty whether Brooks was offside. Mustafi also showed poor judgment in the 54th by diving in near the Bournemouth area as the Cherries launched a counterattack. The threat came to an end when Brooks overhit his cross. In the last minute of injury time, Mustafi gave away a silly free kick with a reckless challenge on Wilson. Fortunately, Stanislas missed the target with the subsequent free kick.
I’m not sure what was the idea behind signing Sokratis. His decision-making is sound but he lacks the pace to play a high defensive line. Sokratis clearly struggled to cope with King’s movement. King toyed with Sokratis in the 65th before cutting the ball back for Brooks, who shot straight at Leno. To contain King’s speed, Sokratis often tried to put his body between the ball and King -some kind of legal obstruction. But in the 25th King got the better of Sokratis, who received a yellow card for holding the Bournemouth forward.
Emery’s 1st North London derby
Sokratis’ ball-playing abilities are also limited. He’s an old-fashioned centerback and doesn’t help build up play from the back like Stones or Alderweireld. The Greek defender missed his clearance in the 18th and was lucky to see the ball bounce off Wilson and roll out of play. Sokratis nearly scored an own goal with another poor clearance in the 89th but Leno reacted quickly enough to palm the ball away. Is Sokratis the replacement for an aging Koscielny? In his prime, Koscielny was a much better defender than Sokratis. There’s no way Koscielny could have missed his interception like Sokratis did in the 80th when Daniels made a cross for Stanislas, whose toe poke was saved by Leno.
Leno has consolidated his starting spot with another decent performance. The German goalkeeper made 5 routine saves but his passing accuracy dipped to 42.9%, in part because the Cherries pressed high up the pitch to prevent Arsenal from playing out from the back.
The Gunners next visit Vorskla in the Europa League on Thursday before hosting Tottenham in the Premier League on Sunday. The North London derby is obviously the most important game of the two because it could decide the Top 4 race whereas Arsenal would still lead Group E with a defeat in Ukraine. Spurs have a slight edge after their impressive performance against Chelsea last Saturday.