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Under Emery, Arsenal games are like basketball matches – endless transitions, no control

September 23, 2019

ON the face of it, being 2-0 up away from home against the bottom side in the league with Nicolas Pepe, Pierre Emerick Aubameyang, Mesut Özil and Dani Ceballos on the pitch ought to be a coach’s dream. With Watford chasing the game, the Gunners had the players to draw the sting from the contest and control their opponents through possession and intelligent counter attacking.

It has been a theme of Unai Emery’s managemeant of this Arsenal team that when they take a lead, they try and sit and contain. It’s striking how seldom Arsenal have won by more than two goals under Emery. Only Fulham (4-1 and 5-1) and Bournemouth (5-1 at home) had been recipients of an Arsenal throat stamp in the second half of a game. All three of these games were in the balance at half-time.

Away at Fulham, the Gunners were level at the break, before scoring four second half goals. Arsenal only led Bournemouth 2-1 at half time at the Emirates in February before Emery let his team off the leash and they helped themselves to another three strikes. They led Fulham 2-0 at the interval in January before falling back into their shape and attempting to contain, allowing Fulham to reduce the arrears at 1-2. At that point, they released the handbrake with two goals in the final 11 minutes.

This season, Arsenal’s matches have largely descended into basketball type affairs, with a lack of midfield shape meaning the Gunners become embroiled in end to end slugging contests. They were 2-0 down at home to Spurs before rallying to draw. They were 2-0 ahead against Watford, before the Hornets pegged Emery’s men back, against Aston Villa on Sunday, Arsenal had to come from a man down and a goal behind on two occasions to win.

In fairness, the Gunners have become far more prolific in transition. Aubameyang’s goals against Newcastle, Burnley, his first at Watford and his goal at Frankfurt all came as a result of Arsenal winning the ball in the opponent’s half and attacking quickly. It is not a bad strategy to lean into. The issue is that Arsenal have surrendered possession and control too much in pursuit of this tactic.

This issue was perfectly illustrated by Calum Chambers against Aston Villa. His technical error in failing to bring down a routine pass from Bernd Leno forced the transition that led to the Villains’ second goal. However, Chambers himself equalised by latching onto Tyrone Mings’ undercooked defensive header.

The arrival of Nicolas Pepe seems to have been the catalyst for this rethink, Pepe scored most of his goals for Lille last season on the break. With Pepe and Aubameyang in the forward line, becoming more of a transition side does make some sense. Emery’s substitutions are also a giveaway in this respect. At Watford, he opted for Reiss Nelson, Joe Willock and Lucas Torreira from the bench because these are ball carrying, transition type players.

Likewise, against Aston Villa, Emery left Mesut Özil counting blades of grass on the subs bench while Joe Willock and Lucas Torreira were released into a helter skelter contest. Emery has utilised the Uruguayan higher up the pitch this season. “His qualities are that he can give us good pressing, and he can win the ball high up the pitch to give us the possession to score,” he explained in the wake of the Frankfurt game.

However, in trying to lean towards a more transitional style, Arsenal have lost balance and been overly inclined to sacrifice possession and territory to the opposition. The shots against column has ballooned as Arsenal struggle to control teams with the ball and games become hectic and pendulous, like a pair of drunks exchanging blows in a pub car park.

Arsenal’s rope-a-dope strategy has exposed a glass jaw too often- even if they have been able to land a few sucker punches of their own. Altering the chemistry a touch so that possession becomes more of a priority would help alleviate the pressure from Arsenal’s over stressed defenders. The Gunners picked up seven yellow cards on Sunday as they lost control of the contest.  Arsenal have also struggled to build from the back, especially from goal kicks.

Part of the issue lies in a lack of technicians to help Arsenal combine with short passes and move away from pressure. Arsenal are playing a technically subpar player at left-back in Sead Kolasinac, whom they cannot trust with the ball in tight spaces. It robs the defence of a valuable out ball when trying to pass out from the goalkeeper. Becoming a transitional side is not a bad idea, in theory, but Emery needs to correct the technical balance of the team in search of greater control.