For the first time since the first week of the season, Arsenal went into half time behind. In the eight games since, Arsenal, who have not been very good in first halves under Unai Emery, have been tied at half time, with tactical adjustments usually enough to get Arsenal firing in the second half. That has been the pattern of Arsenal’s winning streak, and against Crystal Palace, little seemed to change: Arsenal struggled, Crystal Palace, as opposition have throughout this run, missed a good chance to take the lead, half time approached. Then, of course, Shkodran Mustafi Mustafi’d, and from the resulting penalty, Arsenal were behind.
Yet, unlike previous matches, Arsenal didn’t do enough in the second half. There was the 5-minute spurt—another characteristic of Arsenal thus far under Unai Emery—but after the 5-minute spurt, Arsenal didn’t consolidate; they returned to where they were in the first half, getting outshot 16-7 as Palace deservedly got an equalizer. And thus, Arsenal’s struggles were not just in the first half; they were all round.
Under Emery, Arsenal have spent most first halves seeking not to necessarily to impose themselves onto the opposition, but to impose their system onto the match. That results in caution as the players get to grips with Emery’s demands, both in possession and off the ball. Off the ball, there is, though Arsenal are running more, not necessarily much difference between last season, and indeed, pressing is the thing that will take the longest. Under Mauricio Pochettino, Southampton took about 6-8 months of training to become a Pochettino side.
It is in possession where one can see Arsenal’s characteristics, and where one can see the changes. Under Arsène Wenger, Arsenal’s midfielders pushed high up the pitch, relying on the centre backs and the full backs to build attacks in the space opened. Most possession teams will have a #6 drop in, split the centre backs and push the full backs up. Emery does the latter of three, but then he also demands that both central midfielders sit deep. What ends up happening is a disconnect between Arsenal’s attacking players and the players who build. Indeed, neither central midfielder seems to have a defined role—they split #8 duties and #6 duties, and thus it takes a lot of in-game positioning from Emery and half time changes to improve things. With time, these automatisms may become more ingrained, but Arsenal’s most frequent midfield partnership, Granit Xhaka and Lucas Torreira, was disrupted with the Swiss a makeshift centre back and Matteo Guendouzi drafted into the team.
With the centre backs split and the midfielders sitting, width is usually provided by the full backs, allowing the wide players to come inside and play combination passes. There were two crucial differences here, though: first, Granit Xhaka, as a natural midfielder, and not necessarily suited to the physical demands of the left back role, didn’t push forward on the overlap, and with Aubameyang on the left side, Arsenal didn’t build on the left in the attacking third, funneling their play down the right. This suited Palace: with James McArthur on the left of Palace’s midfield four, they were able to match Arsenal.
Thus, Arsenal usually had five players building in their own half, while the attacking players pushed forward: meaning Arsenal had lots of possession, but little penetration. In the second half, Emery had Lucas Torreira push higher up the pitch, and the Uruguay won the free kick from which Xhaka equalised after playing higher up the pitch.
By playing higher up the pitch, Arsenal were able to better connect between their players. Yet Crystal Palace came back into the game, and Emery’s changes handed the initiative to Palace. He replaced Özil with Welbeck, seeking to replicate the match against Fulham. Against Fulham, though, there was better balance in the side: Iwobi was in his natural position on the left, Mkhitaryan and then Ramsey were in midfield roles, able to offer control, and there were actual fullbacks. Here, with Xhaka not in midfield, Guendouzi not calm in possession, Arsenal needed Özil, even though he was not at his most influential (though none of the attacking players were): he could offer the connectivity and change the tempo, slowing tempo down if needed. Instead, Arsenal lost control, as Emery highlighted after the match. By bringing Ramsey on for Aubameyang, Emery sought to regain control, but it was largely too late.
What could Emery have done differently? With Xhaka at left back, Emery could’ve changed his midfield setup, utilizing Xhaka in the way that Pep Guardiola uses full backs at times, changing them into holding midfielders in possession. He then could’ve used Aaron Ramsey as a box to box midfielder, giving Arsenal better balance between attack and defence, and used Alex Iwobi wide on the left to stretch play.
But a longer view is necessary as well. If Arsenal are going to continue to feel their way into matches, getting used to Emery’s demands, then a better balanced side will be necessary. So far, the combination of Aubameyang on the left and Lacazette at centre forward does not enable Arsenal to be a balanced side, in part because Alex Iwobi is not as good on the right as he is the left. It is an uncomfortable headache for Emery to have but a necessary truth to face: without playing 442, it may not be possible to get Aubameyang and Lacazette into the side without sacrificing Arsenal’s creativity.
It has worked when Arsenal have had their midfielders higher up, allowing Aubameyang to play on the shoulder, but that takes away from the security of two holding midfielders that Emery craves. Dropping two points means that these questions return, as well as emphasizing a repeating characteristic of Emery’s Arsenal: even as they were winning games, they were not a balanced side. If Emery is to have another run similar to the one that just ended, he’ll need to a balancing solution.