After a weekend of terribly exciting, front-footed football, and then a 2-2 draw against Manchester United, Saturday’s performance against Huddersfield was stilted. Though Arsenal can point to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette missing easy chances, Arsenal had two shots on goal over the 90 minutes against the side 18th in the league, showing that there was dysfunction in the side’s attacking play. In some sense, that is to be expected, given that Arsenal were without Mesut Özil and Aaron Ramsey, and because Unai Emery started the match with three players in midfield that he has categorized as number 6s—Matteo Guendouzi, Granit Xhaka, and Lucas Torreira. It was Torreira, a former second striker, who had both of Arsenal’s shots on target, and Torreira has shown capabilities going forward. Yet Emery’s lineup shows the importance of having link players in forward positions, be it Özil, Ramsey or Mkhitaryan and Iwobi, who both came on later (indeed, one reason why Emery keeps having to make half-time substitutions is because his starting lineup isn’t working).
Arsenal’s attacking play in the first half simply did not work. With five defenders and three more defensive minded midfielders, there simply weren’t the forward numbers to play around Huddersfield’s pressure. One way of playing through pressure is by structuring your attacks to move the ball around, but Arsenal could only infrequently get the wing-backs forward, and without a link player in midfield, Xhaka, Guendouzi and Torreira were often forced to play square or backwards.
While Arsenal’s first halves have generally been slow under Emery—the Gunners are still to have a half-time lead in the Premier League—there was a clear tactical reason on Saturday: there simply weren’t enough attacking players, for reasons unbeknownst. With Huddersfield matching Arsenal’s shape, the Gunners were unable to create the overlaps necessary to get their wing-backs forward, and were forced to play more direct passes, either for the two strikers, or cross-field passes. An example is when Sokratis drives forward in possession. There’s space in behind the Huddersfield defensive players, but there simply isn’t an Arsenal player exploiting that space; Sokratis, then, hits a fairly aimless pass out of play. While part of this is Sokratis not being a great user of the ball, it is also down to Arsenal’s players not making attacking runs—in part because it isn’t necessarily the game of Guendouzi or Torreira to tear forward.
Emery made half-time changes, to bring Iwobi and Mkhitaryan on, switching to a 4-3-3, with Guendouzi to the left of Xhaka and Torreira to the right. In this left-of-centre role, Guendouzi played high and often to the left of Iwobi, giving an option for the overlap, as well as combination play with Kolasinac—and also to protect Kolasinac. Iwobi and Mkhitaryan didn’t have a great effect on the game, but with these changes, Arsenal did get numbers higher up the pitch, and were able to exert greater control and pressure in Huddersfield’s half. Yet, it nearly did not come to fruition for Arsenal, until Guendouzi’s floated ball for Aubameyang and Torreira’s run forward.
What this emphasizes for Arsenal is that under Unai Emery, having an attacking player in forward positions to link play is of vital importance. Ramsey’s introduction in this role against Tottenham was crucial and turned the game, an effect that Iwobi and Mkhitaryan have not had in recent situations. With Ramsey on the way out, and Mesut Özil in and out of the side, it presents an opportunity for one of Arsenal’s younger players to perhaps make a claim for the role, for not only is the role itself important, but the ability of the player to receive the ball in areas of space on the half-turn is also of importance, transitioning the point of attack. It is in this sort of role that Emile Smith Rowe has impressed in League Cup and Europa League games, and it is perhaps the second most important position in the side for Arsenal’s attacking play after the fullbacks; for, without it, Emery’s attacking play becomes non-existent.