The Gunners rode their luck in a 2-0 victory over Watford on Saturday to stay level on points with fourth-place Spurs in the Premier League. That seventh straight win in all competitions is giving Emery more time to figure out what his best starting lineup is.
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Saturday’s performance was similar to the Everton game a week ago. Nobody would have been shocked if Watford had come away with a draw. In fact, the Hornets outperformed Arsenal in the key stats: 14 goal attempts to 9, 6 big chances to 3, 5 shots on target to 2, 15 interceptions to 7 and 23 tackles to 10, according to the club’s website. The Gunners’ attacking play looked poor but a brief scoring spell in the last 10 minutes and some dreadful finishing from Watford made the difference.
Emery needed 5 league games to understand that the midfield pairing of Xhaka and Guendouzi was a flawed partnership. It’s only since Torreira has started alongside Xhaka that the midfield seems more balanced and that the Gunners have kept clean sheets. Now the question is: how many games Emery needs to realize that the attacking setup is dysfunctional? Here’s how the team looked like at kickoff:
On paper, it’s a 4-2-3-1 formation, but on the field, it often morphed into a narrow 4-4-2 or 4-2-4 system. The problem with the starting lineup is that Lacazette, Aubameyang, Ozil and Ramsey all prefer to play through the middle. So there’s an obvious lack of width when Ozil drifts inside and when Aubameyang makes diagonal runs to be in scoring positions. Ramsey occasionally moved to the left to make some space for Ozil and fill in the void vacated by Aubameyang, but that positional change impacted Ramsey’s main strength, which is to make penetrative runs.
Another issue with that starting lineup is the poor wing play. Ozil and Aubameyang barely combined with the fullbacks and also often left Monreal and Bellerin in 1v2 situations, allowing Holebas and Navarro to make dangerous crosses.
Can Ozil & Ramsey play together?
The front four is not clicking because Aubameyang, Lacazette, Ramsey and Ozil can’t play together without at least 2 of them sacrificing their qualities. The main loser in that configuration has been Aubameyang because he doesn’t have the all-around game to play on the left wing. Instead of leading the line like in his former club Borussia Dortmund, Aubameyang suddenly becomes a bit player. Can Aubameyang and Lacazette play together? Of course, they can. A 4-4-2 formation would be the most obvious solution:
In that 4-4-2 formation, Iwobi or Welbeck would play on the left wing while Ozil or Mkhitaryan would play in the half-space between the right flank and the central area. Emery would also optimize Lacazette’s potential with that system because the France international is more a second striker than a pure centerforward.
Aubameyang and Lacazette could also play together in a traditional 4-3-3 formation:
Lacazette has the all-around game to play on the right wing like Salah does at Liverpool. His technique is good enough to make accurate crosses. That positional change shouldn’t affect Lacazette’s scoring record since he gets most of his chances on the right side of the area. To balance the attacking setup, a creative player would have to roam down the left wing. Iwobi seems more comfortable on that side of the pitch than Ozil or Mkhitaryan.
A more risky option would be Emery’s favorite 4-2-3-1 formation:
Aubameyang and Lacazette could rely on service from Ozil and Iwobi in that system, but it would also make the Arsenal midfield more vulnerable because of Ozil’s poor work-rate and Xhaka’s lack of mobility.
Can Ozil and Ramsey play together? Under Wenger, it wasn’t an issue because Ramsey played alongside Xhaka in central midfield. As a result, the back four got very little protection. The partnership formed by Torreira and Xhaka this season is a bit more solid than the Ramsey-Xhaka duo. Emery might be tempted to pair Ramsey with Torreira, but Ramsey is not a pacesetter like Xhaka and has a higher turnover rate.
The only formation in which Ramsey and Ozil could play together without hurting the balance of the team would be a 4-3-3 system:
It would mean that Aubameyang or Lacazette would have to be sacrificed. Lacazette might be willing to play on the left wing, but he would have to drift inside to be in scoring positions and the team would look narrow again.
Emery’s tactical rigidity
Emery doesn’t know what his best team is. He also doesn’t know how to optimally use some of his key players. In the second half, Emery tinkered tactically by asking Aubameyang and Ozil to swap positions. It didn’t really work. So he made two substitutions that finally provided the width his team needed, sending on Iwobi for Ramsey in the 63rd minute and Welbeck for Aubameyang in the 76th.
Maybe the most surprising part of Emery’s tenure at the club so far has been his tactical rigidity. The Spanish manager has used the same 4-2-3-1 formation for all his Premier League games. He could have tried a different formation more suitable for his best players. Managers like Guardiola, Pochettino and Mourinho are more flexible tactically.
At least, Emery is aware of the intensity of the game in England as he made 8 changes to the side that knocked Brentford out of the League Cup on Wednesday with only Monreal, Mustafi and Holding retaining their starting spots.
Although Lacazette finished the game with 0 of 4 shots on target, he was still involved in Arsenal’s best chances. Lacazette should have been awarded a penalty when Kabasele tripped him in the fifth minute, but Lacazette was too honest and stayed on his feet. Ten minutes later, Lacazette created his own chance by robbing Cathcart to be clean through on goal. With just Foster to beat, Lacazette sent his chip wide. He then managed to connect with a cross from Aubameyang in the 54th only to head the ball wide.
Lacazette’s efforts were finally rewarded in the 81st when he got ahead of Cathcart to meet a cross from Iwobi. The Watford defender could not sort out his feet and diverted the cross into his own net. Two minutes later, Lacazette swapped passes with Iwobi before setting up Ozil for the second goal. Besides the assist, Lacazette showed good work-rate, winning 2 of 2 tackles and making 1 interception and 2 ball recoveries, according to the club’s website.
The understanding between Iwobi & Lacazette
By contrast, Aubameyang had a miserable afternoon with 0 shot, 0 tackle, 0 interception and 0 recovery. Two plays summed up his performance: he produced an air shot while attempting to volley Bellerin’s cross in the 39th and his ball over the top for Ozil bounced out of play in the 58th.
At 22, Iwobi could be starting to make the kind of impact that his breakthrough season suggested in 2016. He made the cross that led to the opening goal and it would have counted as an assist if Lacazette, and not Cathcart, had touched the ball. The Nigeria international also made the right decision on the second goal by slipping the ball to Lacazette instead of taking on a defender. The main positive from Saturday’s game is that Iwobi showed some good understanding with Lacazette whereas their connection on the pitch was poor last season.
Ozil was again a peripheral figure for most of the game. On paper, it wasn’t a game for him because of the Hornets’ physical approach. Until the 83rd minute, Ozil had 0 shot and 0 key pass. His best move in the first half was a lobbed pass for Monreal, who tried to find Lacazette with a header in the 21st. Surprisingly, Ozil’s technique let him down in the 24th. Aubameyang made a run in behind the Watford defense to be clean through on goal but Ozil overhit his long ball for the Gabon striker. Playing in a more central role after Emery’s substitutions, Ozil scored with his first goal attempt, side-footing Lacazette’s cross into the bottom corner. In stoppage time, Ozil made his first key pass of the game by heading the ball into Lacazette’s path.
Ramsey struggling under Emery
Despite his 2 assists against Everton, Ramsey is clearly struggling in Emery’s 4-2-3-1 system where he’s playing in a more advanced position than under Wenger. It’s true that Ramsey also plays as a free-roaming midfielder for the Wales team, but it’s because they lack quality up front to support Bale. The situation is completely different at Arsenal where Emery has many attacking options. Wenger preferred to play Ramsey in a deeper position because his late runs and his work-rate were more valuable in central midfield.
Ramsey had a poor game, leading all players with 5 turnovers, according to whoscored.com, and winning only 30% of his duels, the lowest percentage for any midfielder according to the club’s website. His work-rate was average with 1 of 2 tackles won, 0 interception and 0 recovery, compared to 1 of 3 tackles won, 1 interception and 8 recoveries for Torreira and 1 of 2 tackles won, 0 interception and 5 recoveries for Xhaka.
Has Ramsey been affected by the breakdown of the contract talks with the club a few days ago? Whatever the outcome, it doesn’t reflect well on the Arsenal board because it creates an atmosphere of uncertainty around the squad. It’s also bad business because both Ramsey and Welbeck could leave for free next summer. It will be very difficult to find 2 players of the same quality with a transfer kitty of £60 million. Some fans want Emery to bench Ramsey because he has not committed to the club. But I have no problem with starting Ramsey if he can make a significant contribution on the pitch. I mean, the club’s priority is to finish in the Top 4. It would make no sense to weaken the team and hurt Arsenal’s bid for a Champions League spot.
Holding’s solid performance
In central midfield, Torreira’s performance was a mixed bag. He led all midfielders by winning 61.5% of duels, but he also had 4 turnovers, compared to just 2 for Xhaka. Torreira got a taste of the physicality of the Premier League when Hugues bullied him off the ball in the 18th. Ozil and Bellerin were also outmuscled by the Hornets. Out of frustration, Torreira tried to reply with a late challenge on Deeney in the 45th only to receive a yellow card. Torreira was credited with an error for giving the ball away in the 88th when Pereyra fired a speculative shot over the bar. However, I thought Torreira’s worst mistake was when he misread a play in the 75th and dived in, allowing Deeney to turn and play Success clean through.
Alongside Torreira, Xhaka had a low-key performance in midfield. Offensively, Xhaka tested Foster with a low drive in the 39th and sent a ball over the top for Monreal, whose sliding volley sailed wide in the 67th. Defensively, Xhaka was no match for the hard-working Capoue and Doucoure in midfield. The Switzerland international lost a key duel in the 36th when Kabasele outjumped him to head a cross from Holebas. But Cech made the save and managed to catch the rebound before Deeney could hit it. Xhaka also switched off defensively in the 17th when Hugues made a reverse pass to Deeney. The Watford striker ran past a static Xhaka to make a dangerous cross for Gray.
At the back, Holding produced a solid performance, winning 75% of his duels, having a passing accuracy of 89% and making 1 block, 3 interceptions and 9 recoveries, while Mustafi only won 45.5% of his duels, had a passing accuracy of 77% and made just 1 block, 2 interceptions and 4 recoveries, according to the club’s website.
Holding made a crucial block in the 72nd, but two plays exposed his average pace. He lost a foot race with Gray, who chased a through ball from Deeney only to be denied by Leno in the 68th. Then Holding was on the wrong side of Success, whose chip brushed the far post in the 75th. Because Holding doesn’t have the recovery pace of a Koscielny in his prime, he must find a way to improve his reading of the game and his positional play.
The Hornets created many chances in great part because Mustafi had a poor game. Mustafi was caught ball-watching when Deeney knocked the ball toward an unmarked Hugues in the 11th. He also let Deeney run in front of him to meet a free kick from Holebas in the 52nd. His lack of composure led Mustafi to give away silly free kicks in the 23rd, 35th and 73rd.
The Gunners can definitely thank Leno for the clean sheet. He came off the bench to replace Cech on the stroke of halftime. Leno made a couple of outstanding saves, turning Deeney’s volley around the post in the 52nd, and denying Gray in the 68th and Cathcart in the 74th. His only dodgy moment was when he went for a high ball in the 57th and completely missed his catch. Leno will certainly start the next few games as Cech pulled his hamstring with a goal kick. The German goalkeeper had a much better distribution than Cech with a passing accuracy of 67% compared to 39% for the Czech veteran.
I expect Emery to rest his key players against Qarabag in the Europa League on Thursday because the Premier League game against Fulham on Sunday starts at noon. There’s a too big risk of injury with the long trip to Azerbaijan and the short rest between those 2 games.