Unai Emery and Arsenal have some big problems. While the attacking play has left some to be desired, Arsenal have been poor defensively, conceding six goals in three games. The underlying numbers back it up too, and were it not for some crucial saves by Petr Cech, West Ham could, and really should have been out of sight by half time last weekend.
Part of Arsenal’s defensive issues stem from a potentially Andre Villas-Boas style high line. It is something that Unai Emery has installed into the side, and while there are legitimate questions about whether the centre-back pairing of Shkodran Mustafi and Sokratis have the nous and pace for such a high line, Emery should not abandon the line just yet. Playing a high line is fine if your side is good at pressing, something which will take time. Yet for Arsenal to get used to pressing and playing a high line, they have to do it, even if it costs points. And as Morgan Schneiderlin said of Maurico Pochettino’s Southampton, a similar hard-running pressing team, it took six or seven months of work, “because it’s a huge job in training.”
That though, doesn’t mean that Arsenal’s defensive woes should not be focused on, or that they cannot be addressed in the interim. As I have written on this site, Emery likes having his full backs push forward in attack, and Nacho Monreal and Héctor Bellerin have been huge presences in Arsenal’s attacking play, effectively acting as wingers, but having space to drive into because they start their runs from deep. The question for Emery is finding balance for his attacking full backs, something which Arsenal have been unable to do.
Right now, Emery’s midfield is a strict 4-2-3-1, with a double pivot. This makes sense in terms of pressing in a 4-4-2 shape, but that is more suited to a zonal style of pressing, whereas Emery, thus far, has gone for a form of man-marking. The ramifications of this are two-fold: one, if a midfield runner runs off, they have space to run at Arsenal’s centre backs, who secondly, with the full backs higher up, have more space to cover. An example of this comes from two West Ham attacks last week.
Here, Granit Xhaka has closed down Jack Wilshere, while Matteo Guendouzi stands off. This makes it easier to break through the Arsenal lines, and run at Arsenal’s centre backs—note the space in the middle of the pitch, with Mustafi and Sokratis out of frame. One pass later and Felipe Anderson can run at Arsenal, or play the ball back to Jack Wilshere, who has run beyond Xhaka and Guendouzi into space.
West Ham now have a counter attack, where they have lots of space to exploit: Anderson can run with the ball, as he does, attempt to find Michail Antonio, with Bellerin, having come infield, now having to go out to the run of Antonio, or play the ball to Xhaka.
If Arsenal defended and pressed in a 4141 shape—oddly enough, Emery’s preferred style—it’d mean a midfielder sitting deeper, providing cover to the centre backs, and closing off the very space that Wilshere, in the above space, was trying to exploit. And, with a midfielder running back, the deepest midfielder could close off Anderson’s run.
Without that protection from a true #6, Arsenal’s centre backs are vulnerable. They have to split wide to cover the attacking runs of the fullbacks, and have lots of space in the middle to cover when the midfield duo are too high. This means that the centre backs can get drawn into 1v1s, and with both Mustafi and Sokratis aggressive players, they can get beaten in a 1v1, or an attacking player can spin off them, as happens here.
Arsenal here are in a 2v2, and only a slightly early run sees Arnautovic called offside. And yet, it’s not even a 2v2: Antonio plays the ball to the on-rushing Anderson, who has gotten beyond Guendouzi, who then tries to slip the ball to Arnautovic, who becomes completely free because Mustafi has to close down the space that Anderson has run into. Again, with a central defensive midfielder, a number 6, who can cover or drop into the defensive line, the centre backs would not be drawn into these situations as frequently, and it was notable that the introduction of Lucas Torreira in the second half saw Arsenal’s midfield tilt.
While Arsenal are going to be insecure defensively while they get to grips with a high-press, it does not mean that they have to be more open than the Maginot line. With better positioning of his midfielders, Unai Emery can enable the attacking play of his fullbacks while giving his centre backs slightly less space that they’re responsible for. If Arsenal are to get maximum points from the weaker teams in the league, it is a change that Emery will have to seriously ponder.