Emery has become Arsenal’s new manager but this is not his team yet. Sunday’s 2-0 loss to Manchester City looked pretty much like the embarrassing defeats of last season under Wenger. Obviously, it will take more than a season for the Gunners to play the way Emery wants them to.
Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com
As a rule of thumb, I consider that a manager is entirely responsible for his team only when he has changed more than half of the players in his predecessor’s favorite starting lineup. See Liverpool’s starting XI under Rodgers and how it looks now under Klopp. Assuming every player was fit, Wenger would usually start Cech, Bellerin, Mustafi, Koscielny, Monreal, Xhaka, Ramsey, Mkhitaryan, Ozil, Aubameyang and Lacazette. On Sunday, Emery opened the season with Cech, Bellerin, Mustafi, Sokratis, Maitland-Niles, Xhaka, Guendouzi, Ramsey, Mkhitaryan, Ozil and Aubameyang. That’s 3 changes to Wenger’s best starting lineup. We can safely assume that Emery would have made only 1 change if Monreal and Koscielny had been available.
Fans already got a glimpse in the summer friendlies of what Emery wanted to change at the club: playing the ball out from the back and pressing high up the pitch. Against City, Cech took more passes than he did under Wenger because Emery tends to see the goalkeeper as a sweeper too. Unfortunately, Cech didn’t really feel comfortable in that role.
Cech nearly scored an own goal in the 22nd minute while attempting a first-time pass to Mustafi. Then he made a risky pass to Guendouzi that was nearly intercepted in the 39th. Tired of the drama, Cech finally opted for a long punt in the 42nd, drawing cheers from the crowd. I’m afraid Cech is not the right goalie to play out from the back. If Emery wants to stick with that idea, then he should replace Cech with Leno just like Pep ditched Hart to sign Ederson.
Choosing the right players for a high press
Implementing a pressing game is still a work in progress. Arsenal enjoyed mixed results against the Citizens. It wasn’t a systematic high press like the one performed by Liverpool under Klopp. The Gunners seemed to choose their moments and often preferred to wait inside their own half. The first high press attempt in the 10th minute led to nothing. Two attempts led to dangerous fast breaks for City, but Aguero’s final ball was blocked in the 18th while Xhaka cleared Sterling’s cross in the 36th. On the bright side, two other attempts led to half-chances for Arsenal but Ramsey received the ball in an offside position in the 45th and Mkhitaryan shot wide on the stroke of halftime after Mendy put him off.
Emery must ask himself if he chose the right players to implement a successful pressing game. You need players who are smart enough to read the game, mobile enough to cut the passing channels, strong enough to make interceptions or win duels, and industrious enough to repeat such a tiring task.
The Citizens love dominating ball possession. It was therefore no surprise to see them enjoy 58% of possession. The real surprise was Emery’s tactical setup with Xhaka, Guendouzi and Ramsey in midfield. You usually play with 2 deep-lying playmakers like Xhaka and Guendouzi when you intend to control the game. That was obviously the wrong option because City dictated play while Xhaka and Guendouzi failed to protect the defense. Emery implicitly acknowledged his mistake by yanking off Xhaka in the 70th to send on Torreira.
The opening goal in the 14th highlighted the poor defensive work from Xhaka and Guendouzi. Sterling cut inside Bellerin and Guendouzi to curl into the the far corner. Xhaka was late to make the block on that play. Guendouzi’s overall performance was a mixed bag. He won 4 tackles and made 4 interceptions, compared to 1 tackle and 0 interception for Xhaka, according to whoscored.com. The French teenager also led Arsenal players with 7 turnovers, compared to 1 for Xhaka.
Coordinating a recruitment strategy
Guendouzi didn’t look out of his depth, but his inexperience means that he will make mistakes this season. He gave the ball away in the 29th, dived in and fouled Sterling in the 55th, and allowed Aguero to be clean through on goal after misjudging the flight of the ball in the 63rd.
On the other hand, Xhaka had no excuse for his errors. Despite starting his third season in the Premier League, Xhaka keeps playing like a rookie. He made a sloppy pass in the seventh minute, was dispossessed by Gundogan in the 27th, and made a cynical foul on Aguero after being pulled out of position in the 52nd. Xhaka is definitely not a good fit for Emery’s pressing game.
Playing in the role of a free-roaming midfielder like he does for Wales, Ramsey was ineffective in great part because his strength mostly lies in the late runs he makes inside the box when the Gunners dominate possession. Running after the ball, Ramsey seemed in charge of leading the high press and there were times when he wasn’t on the same wavelength as his teammates. In the transition game, Ramsey tried to create space with his runs or acted as a water-carrier by finding Ozil in the 33rd and Mkhitaryan on the stroke of halftime.
At the back, Mustafi and Bellerin had a decent game. Mustafi won 4 tackles and made 3 interceptions, compared to 1 tackle and 0 interception for Sokratis, according to whoscored.com. Sokratis is an old-fashioned centerback with limited ball-playing abilities. You kind of wonder whether there was any coordination between Emery, Mislintat, Sanllehi and Gazidis in the recruiting process because Sokratis does not have the profile of a centerback playing Emery’s brand of football. His sluggishness is also a concern. Sokratis was booked in the 27th for a late tackle on Aguero.
A too predictable offense
The Gunners have an injury crisis at leftback. Maitland, who deputized for Monreal and Kolasinac, had a rough time down the left flank. Mahrez in the 13th and Sterling in the 25th got the better of Maitland-Niles. The academy player was so busy defensively that he rarely charged forward. One of his few offensive contributions was a crossfield pass for Bellerin, who beat Mendy only to shoot straight at Ederson in the 21st. Maitland-Niles’ day was cut short by a leg tangle with Walker and an awkward fall in the 30th. He got back on his feet after a couple of minutes but had to be replaced by Lichtsteiner in the 35th.
In his Premier League debut, Lichtsteiner used his experience to cope with Mahrez’s trickery. Lichtsteiner fouled Mahrez in the 39th and then backed down in a 1v1 situation in the 42nd when the Algeria international curled a shot wide of the far post. However, one lapse of concentration cost his team a goal in the 64th. Lichtsteiner failed to track Bernardo, who connected with Mendy’s low cross to fire into the top corner.
The quality of Arsenal’s passing game deteriorated in Wenger’s last season at the club. One reason was the poor recruitment, another was the tactical answers found by the other Premier League sides. Emery started Ozil and Mkhitaryan as wide players. Unfortunately, his plan was too predictable and City easily coped with Arsenal’s attacking threat. The Gunners produced no through ball and were forced by City’s compact shape to resort to long balls.
Aubameyang was deprived of service because the final ball was often poor. Xhaka in the 16th, Mkhitaryan in the 24th and Ozil in the 69th all overhit their final ball for the Gabon striker. Aubameyang finally collected a decent ball over the top from Torreira to chip Ederson in the 79th but his goal was disallowed for an offside position.
Finding the best lineup for the Chelsea game
Both Ozil and Mkhitaryan had a poor game. Ozil finished the game with 5 turnovers and wasted 2 scoring chances with a miskick in the 80th and a heavy touch in the 84th. Mkhitaryan dallied on the ball and couldn’t get his shot away in the 33rd. In stoppage time, Mkhitaryan intercepted a sloppy pass from Ederson, but his final ball for Lacazette was so poor that the France international couldn’t even catch the frame.
The offense looked a bit more lively when Lacazette replaced Ramsey in the 54th. Lacazette added more directness and aggression to the team. His best chance came in the 56th when he took a pass from Aubameyang and lifted the ball to set up a half-volley that sailed wide. Emery will have to think about the work-rate of his wide players. Walker and Mendy did a lot of damage down the flanks. In the eighth minute, Mkhitaryan failed to track a run from Walker, whose cross was cut out by Cech. In the 64th, Bellerin was left in a 1v2 situation with Mendy and Sterling because neither Ozil nor Mkhitaryan tracked the City leftback.
Emery does not have much time to find his best starting XI because the Gunners visit Chelsea on Saturday. If the Spanish manager wants to continue with a high press, then he must switch to an inverted pyramid midfield with Torreira in the No. 6 role, Ramsey on the right and a third player on the left. Guendouzi, Xhaka, Elneny and Maitland-Niles are the candidates for that third spot in midfield and they all have flaws: Maitland-Niles and Guendouzi are inexperienced, Xhaka lacks the mobility for a high press, and Elneny struggles in duels.
Passing vs. dribbling
More aggression and penetration will also be needed in the front three. The Gunners are too predictable with Ozil and Mkhitaryan as wide players. Under Wenger, both would drift inside and the fullbacks would roam forward like wingbacks to provide the width. That configuration is not possible under Emery because of the flatter back four. So it has to be either Ozil or Mkhitaryan, but not both.
Lacazette, Nelson or Welbeck should play on one of the wings because they could stretch play, dribble past defenders and work their socks off to win the ball back. Although De Bruyne and Sane started on the bench, it was quite telling that City finished the game with 11 successful dribbles to 6 for Arsenal, according to whoscored.com. When teams are too well organized, you can’t always crack a defense with a pass, you also need some dribbling skills. That’s why the Reds have Salah and Mane while the Blues can rely on Hazard and Willian. Will Emery be more pragmatic than Wenger?