It wasn’t pretty and it wasn’t convincing, and had Ryan Sessegnon taken one of two early chances, it may have been different. Yet Arsenal’s response to losing 5-1 against Liverpool shows the way forward for Unai Emery, especially the second half performance, when they opened up against Fulham. Arsenal have dropped too many points recently, and while losing against Liverpool is perhaps to be expected, losing at Southampton and drawing at Brighton while chasing a top 4 chase is not good enough. While the goals conceded in those games were sloppy, it was the lack of attacking prowess that was concerning. Against Southampton and Brighton, Arsenal created 2.65 xG; against Fulham, Arsenal created 4.43 xG, their best attacking performance of the season (per Understat—Scott Willis, of this parish, has the figures slightly different). There are some caveats: Brighton is a better defensive side than Fulham, and both of those games were away from home.
Against Fulham, Unai Emery started with a back three, with two number sixes in midfield. Yet, Granit Xhaka, who scored the opening goal, seemed to have a brief to make supporting runs—runs that are reminiscent of what Aaron Ramsey used to provide—scoring once, nearly scoring a second, and creating a chance for Lacazette. At half time, Lucas Torreira replaced Shkodran Mustafi as Arsenal switched to a back four, and Torreira played in a right-sided central midfield role as Arsenal played a lopsided 433, with Aubameyang nominally on the right hand side.
This allowed Arsenal to build on the left. Iwobi and Kolasinac were Arsenal’s most effective chance creators—Iwobi had an xA of 1.46 and Kolasinac 1.68—with the first two goals emblematic of Arsenal’s approach. Iwobi played wide, creating space for Kolasinac to push forward, especially on the inside, providing a more central approach for Arsenal’s attack. Kolasinac’s inside dart, continuing his run after passing to Iwobi, created the space for Xhaka to run forward into space, and effectively have a tap-in.
On the other side, Maitland-Niles stayed wide. In the second half, when Torreira came on, he played narrowly, allowing Maitland-Niles to stay wide, meaning the switch was always on if needed. But with Arsenal’s buildup being focused on the left hand side, with Iwobi and Kolasinac and Xhaka, much of Maitland-Niles work was secondary, and more focused on keeping shape. With Aubameyang mostly playing through the middle when Arsenal were in possession, this lopsided 442/433 (and 4411 when Ramsey came on) gave Arsenal better balance in the second half then the back 3 system provided in the first half.
Indeed, the focus for Arsenal was to get Kolasinac in behind, through combination play, mostly with Iwobi. While Emery’s system is still difficult to understand, a constant has been utilizing fullbacks in high positions—Bellerin, and now Kolasinac, with wide midfielders playing through balls in behind for cutbacks, with the opposite sided player providing the secondary runner. In the first half, Fulham matched Arsenal’s 343, and it was too easy for Fulham to man-mark Arsenal throughout, with only sporadic midfield darts breaking Fulham’s shape—highlighting the need for an advanced midfielder.
Defensively, Arsenal were a mess, and defensively Arsenal are likely to be a mess. Better defending will come with better players and coaching, and as Emery has failed to significantly better organize Arsenal, it is unreasonable to expect Arsenal to become better defensively until the summer, as most tactical changes come during the summer. If Emery is to be pragmatic, then the pragmatic choice is to utilize Arsenal’s strength, which is, as they showed against Fulham, the attacking quality in the squad.