After a series of weeks where they were getting away with it, Arsenal’s poor first halves have contributed to a swing of momentum. With the Gunners having only won one game out of their last 5, bad first halves against Crystal Palace and Wolves have contributed to a deficit that Arsenal have had difficulty in overcoming. In both matches, the trademark second half revival under Unai Emery didn’t last long enough, and against Wolves, Arsenal were lucky to come away with a point at all; Bernd Leno made several splendid saves, Wolves hit the bar, and Arsenal’s goal came from a cross that went all the way in. The stilted first half in those matches never really ended.
Both Wolves and Crystal Palace defended in a way that was extremely successful against Emery’s Arsenal build-up play. Both teams, broadly speaking, sit back and defend narrowly, blocking the very half-spaces that Emery wants his teams to exploit. In the case of Wolves, their ability to spring on the counter and attack with five made pushing more men forward a tricky proposition for Arsenal. Yet, in Arsenal’s stilted performances over the last few weeks, a truth has become apparent: the league is learning how to stop Arsenal putting together good moves. Even Leicester, who succumbed to a brilliant Mesut Özil display, had a very good opening 40 minutes in which they should’ve had more than one goal.
This, then, is a problem for Emery. While the performance against Liverpool was good, and a step forward, it was followed by a 0-0 draw in the Europa League and the 1-1 draw with Wolves. Winning games against the lesser lights in Europe and the Premier League has to be Arsenal’s bread and butter for getting back into the top 4 for two reasons: Arsenal are better than those teams in a way that they are not with regards to the rest of the top 6, and the other five teams of the top six are winning their games against those sides—Tottenham, for example, got 6 points from Wolves and Palace in October and November, as opposed to Arsenal’s 2.
In Emery’s ideal system of building play, the midfield two drop deep and the centre backs split wide. Progression then happens in one of two ways: the midfielders play the ball wide to the full backs, who look inside for the advanced midfielders, or, the midfielders play forward themselves, with the Xhaka to Özil connection a particularly strong one. Against Arsenal, Wolves were happy to let the midfield two and centre backs have the ball—at half time, Xhaka and Torreira had completed 107 passes but only 16 in the final third—;they just prevented the ball being played forward, through marking and the narrowing the pitch.
There’s another problem with Emery’s system: at the moment, he is imposing his ideal of system of play while at the same time making it imbalanced, by playing Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang on the left, who is not strong at passing the ball, and is also more interested in making forward runs. This cuts off one of Arsenal’s attacking routes, and it is notable that in the various substitutions over the last two weeks, Emery has ended with Alex Iwobi and then Granit Xhaka playing left back, with Danny Welbeck and Henrikh Mkhitaryan ahead.
For Arsenal to improve in the first half, Emery both has to better balance the side, as well as allow for Arsenal to build up different, perhaps playing the ball more quickly in an effort to go back to the front. Playing quickly, though, can only happen in the balance of the team is right, and in a sense, Arsenal’s first halves are a reminder that Emery has avoided his biggest challenge: either one of Alexandre Lacazette, Aubameyang or Mesut Özil has to be on the bench, or Emery has to move away from his preferred 4231 system for something completely different, like the 4312 that he used in the second half against Wolves, though not to great effect, or another system entirely. Only through meeting that challenge will Arsenal stop muddling through first halves as they have throughout this campaign.