In the final fixture of the Europa League group stage, Arsenal and Standard Liege finished in a 2-2 stalemate.
To no one’s surprise, the game was full of dull and stagnant sequences for Arsenal. The Gunners trailed 2-0 after a disastrous opening 25 minutes of the second half. But thanks to the heroics of 18-year-old Bukayo Saka, Arsenal were able to salvage a draw. With the result, Arsenal finished at the top of their Europa League group for the third straight season.
From a tactical perspective with this game, there is not much for interim manager Freddie Ljungberg to take away and learn from considering the starting 11 he rolled out. Instead, the main takeaways from this game center on the performances of two players.
Emile Smith Rowe shows promise
For the first time under Ljungberg, Arsenal played under a three at the back formation, operating with a 3-4-3 setup. Under this approach, four players were positioned out wide on the flanks, but they each were given the freedom to hover inside the half-space or center if the opportunity presented itself. Meanwhile, Matteo Guendouzi and Joe Willock slotted in as the double pivot duo in the center.
As has become the norm over the past month, Arsenal lacked the precision to break down teams through the center. Instead, they pushed a bulk load of build-up sequences through the flanks, which gave a multitude of opportunities for 19-year-old Emile Smith Rowe to show Ljungberg how well he can assist a team’s progression upfield from out wide. Throughout the game, the English international did just that.
Smith Rowe was constantly active in his movements. There were rarely instances throughout the game where he decided to stand pat in one area of the pitch. Instead, he was zigzagging across Liege’s own half in an attempt to drag defenders off of their defensive line. He succeeded in this objective several times through his 85 minutes of playing time.
For example, see here how Smith Rowe makes a run out wide to the flanks after he recognizes a Liege player zone in to challenge Ainsley Maitland-Niles. This opens up space for Smith Rowe to move into and also provides a clear passing lane for Maitland-Niles to go to. Smith Rowe is not only able to corral the ball after receiving the pass, but also drags a Liege defender off of his line. Thus, he is able to cut inside to the box and distribute a decent pass to a waiting Alexandre Lacazette. This was just one effective way Arsenal were able to build up against Liege’s 4-5-1 defensive structure.
Taking into account Arsenal’s build up problems over the past two months, Smith Rowe did well to play a part in moving possession upfield. He often dropped deep to provide a passing option for either Guendouzi or Willock. He was not just hovering the space on the right flank, but also made an impact when drifting out to the center and opposite flank.
Overall, Smith Rowe had a relatively fair showing when it came to keeping possession. According to SofaScore, he completed all three of his attempted dribbles and won a moderate five out of nine ground duels. While he did not create a goal-scoring opportunity over his 58 total touches, he did exactly what was required for him as a winger: keep the ball and move it into the final third.
Smith Rowe certainly did the most of his first appearance for the club since October.
Bukayo Saka provides another man of the match performance in the Europa League
While Smith Rowe make an impact from out on the right side of the pitch, Bukayo Saka had an even more influential showing from out on the left.
Saka orchestrated play as the wing-back out on the left, which gave him the responsibility of covering the entire left flank. So, when Arsenal controlled possession in the final third, Saka was there receiving and distributing possession. And in situations where Arsenal dropped to a low block to counter Liege, Saka patrolled the defensive third seeking to clear away the ball.
Saka’s attacking contributions is what made the difference in his performance and also with the final score. Unlike his wing-back counterpart Maitland-Niles, Saka was more assertive to involve himself in the build-up of play while in the final third. He made a number of off-ball runs deep into Liege’s defensive third. It came to the point where he essentially played like a third winger in Arsenal’s tactical setup. Sure, this aggressive approach inevitably leaves behind open space in behind for Liege to pounce on via a counter-attack sequence, but he did make an extensive effort to track back and challenge for the ball whenever the Gunners lost possession in dangerous areas of the pitch.
His exuberant presence while in the final third created an array of problems for Liege’s defensive setup. Mehdi Carcela-Gonzalez and Collins Fai had an extremely difficult time man-marking and even limiting the on-ball activity from Saka. Like Smith Rowe, Saka enjoyed great success in keeping possession; he completed both of his dribble attempts when on the ball and won six out of seven grounds duels.
Even after the late switch to a 4-2-3-1 setup, Saka continued to have his way on the flanks, which was evident with his goal after a quick run from out wide. Liege’s wide defenders simply had no answer on limiting his attacking contribution over the 90 minutes.
With this performance, the 18-year-old caps off the Europa League group stage with two goals, four assists and an average of three key passes per game.
A deep Europa League run won’t be easy work like in seasons past
Over their last two Europa League runs, Arsenal did not really have much problem through the early stages of the tournament. The Gunners were able to breeze past the group stage and they also won their opening three knockout stage rounds without facing many significant tactical challenges.
But this season will be different.
Arsenal have tactical issues they still need to figure out. But more importantly, the competition will be even more challenging. From defensively stout teams like Inter Milan to counter-attacking units like Roma, Arsenal will certainly have to play near flawless games if they wish to make another final.
Whether it will be Ljungberg or another manager in charge, it will also be interesting to see just how they will approach the early stages of the knockout rounds considering resting starters may come into play during the stretch run of league season.
For now, the Gunners will shift their focus on their upcoming home showdown against Manchester City, which will be Ljungberg’s biggest tactical test so far.