Unai Emery has spent most of his time as Arsenal’s head coach trying to balance the side, which remained true as the Gunners secured their second away win of the calendar year against Cardiff City. Emery named his most attacking side yet, starting all four of Aaron Ramsey, Mesut Özil, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette, with Matteo Guendouzi and Granit Xhaka unchanged in central midfield.
After a bright start, Arsenal ran into difficulties and Cardiff City began to take advantage of the imbalanced nature of the side. There were two essential issues—Arsenal’s inability to get Mesut Özil into the game, and thus link the midfield to the attack, and the central midfield’s attacking positioning and passing.
Özil played nominally on the right of a 4231, but unlike Henrikh Mkhitaryan, a substitute on the day, Özil didn’t have a relationship with Héctor Bellerín, the creator of most of Arsenal’s good content thus far in the campaign. It meant Arsenal built more down the left hand side, through Sokratis and Nacho Monreal, and especially using Granit Xhaka. This resulted in Özil having a quiet first half, especially in the attacking third.
This changed in the second half. As Emery said, “I think today in the second half Mesut played a good match...maybe with the control and possession [we had] in the second half, and the positions on the pitch, he feels better on the pitch.” Özil, whether out of instruction from Emery or his own volition, took up a freer role in the second half, moving into space across the pitch, and no longer looking to receive the ball in zones occupied by Ramsey or Lacazette, and becoming more purposeful in possession. This was crucial to Arsenal playing better football going forward, and the attacking players began to link with the midfield, exemplified by Aubameyang’s goal, a move that involved Guendouzi and Mustafi before Özil collected possession, injected a higher tempo and movement, and actually looked for the return pass from Aubameyang, opening up the space that allowed him to shoot.
In central midfield, Emery adjusted from last week’s match against West Ham, with Guendouzi notably taking up deeper positions between the two centre halves, both to collect the ball, but also when off the ball. That, though, is an interesting use of his two midfield players: it forced Xhaka to press higher up the pitch, which the Swiss is less adept at doing than Guendouzi. Indeed, Xhaka is better when he has the game in front of him, and one ending consequence was that in possession, Xhaka and Guendouzi would often be in line together, affecting Arsenal’s progression of play.
When Lucas Torreira came on, Xhaka took on a deeper role, and Torreira played more like a number 8. Torreira’s impact was considerable, as he assisted Lacazette’s winner, but in bringing Torreira on for Guendouzi, Emery finally achieved a modicum of balance. Rather than playing in a line, Torreira used space well, tilting Arsenal’s midfield, which allowed for better ball progression from front to back, as it’s easier to break opposition lines vertically rather than horizontally. This is not a criticism of Guendouzi, but rather a recognition that Torreira playing alongside Xhaka is better balanced than Guendouzi playing alongside Xhaka, as Torreira, at the moment, possesses the inability to break lines vertically. It also better suits Xhaka, as Emery has Torreira defending higher up the pitch, allowing Xhaka to sit deeper.
The game changer here was Özil, a reminder that Arsenal are a much better team when he is playing in a role where he can effect the game. If Emery can continue to find some semblance of attacking balance, Arsenal can use the firepower at their disposal to improve their record away from home. In one sense this season, they already have: only twice did Arsenal score three goals or more away from home last season. After one game in Wales, they are already half-way to matching that.