Unai Emery’s predilection for cutbacks has become a running joke. On twitter, one can find display names such as “Kolasinac Cutback FC,” and jokes about needing “three perfect cutbacks.” This is similar to the jokes about the numbers of defensive midfielders used under Emery, but it speaks to a larger truth: with Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Özil in diminished roles, a greater proportion of Arsenal’s attack has been dedicated to using the fullbacks, who find themselves being asked to create chances for Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
This is not a new development. Emery has long favoured overlapping fullbacks, so much so that many tactical previews selected at random said as much: “He tells us not to be afraid of attacking because they want the full-backs to be part of the attacking game but without forgetting that we are defenders. So first of all, we have to fulfill that task. Arsenal will play offensive football, through the flanks, with a lot of possession.”
Arsenal play 15 crosses per game. Granit Xhaka and Mesut Özil lead the side in crosses, but Xhaka and Özil take set pieces. Arsenal’s third and fourth leaders in crosses are Sead Kolsinac and Hector Bellerin, who play 2 and 2.3 crosses per 90 minutes respectively, having been 8th and 7th last season, with Nacho Monreal 9th, and playing few crosses per 90 minutes. Clearly, then, there is a greater focus as using the fullbacks as the sole wide players, with the wide midfielders playing narrower, emphasizing the importance of Alex Iwobi and Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
Cutbacks, in fairness, can be a devastatingly effective style of play. It was a notable feature of Arsenal’s player under Arsene Wenger; Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City often features a through ball for a wide player to cutback for a striker and the opposite wide player. Why, then, have cutbacks become such a major talking point associated with Arsenal?
One reason is that Emery’s Arsenal have lacked an identifiable playing style. After discussing high pressing and playing from the back in pre-season both have fallen by the wayside, even as Bernd Leno came into the side at the expense of Petr Cech; indeed, the higher frequency of Leno going long has been more noticeable than Leno facilitating Arsenal’s play from the back. Similarly, that’s why fans jumped on joking about Emery playing three defensive midfielders and five centre backs: in a season where there are many open questions about what exactly Arsenal are, jumping on one of the few things that becomes readily apparent is not hugely surprising.
For all the joking and denigration, though, cutbacks are highly effective: Bellerin, Kolasinac and Monreal are 3rd, 4th, and 5th in assists per 90 minutes (after Danny Welbeck and Aaron Ramsey), and Kolasinac is 4th in chances created per 90 minutes, after Welbeck, Özil and Aaron Ramsey. Indeed, Kolasinac is 8th in the league in terms of expected Assists, and is 5th in terms of xA90 among players who have played a minimum of 500 minutes this season, ahead of players like Kevin de Bruyne and Eden Hazard.
And yet, the critique, that it requires a high degree of specificity and perfection to come off is valid. That in part, though, is not because of the move itself, but because of Emery’s own attacking conservatism. To make up for having two advanced full backs, there are two sitting midfielders who are not encouraged to go forward. And with the role of slipping in the fullback coming from the wide players, they are not expected to score many goals, or indeed make goal-scoring runs. Thus, rather than having multiple options to slip players in, and multiple targets, it often works out that the crossing player has just the lone striker in Arsenal’s setup, unless both Aubameyang and Lacazette are playing, or Aaron Ramsey starts.
The problem is found in the lack of variation. Indeed, what was remarkable about the first half against Southampton was that Arsenal did vary their attack, using Granit Xhaka and link up play between Aaron Ramsey and Alex Lacazette to attack through the middle and then use either Iwobi or Mkhitaryan wide. When Arsenal cannot play through the middle, play becomes predictable, looking to consistently slip one of the full backs in, making it easier to defend.
This, then, is the challenge for Emery: to set Arsenal up so that they’re not predictable. One change between the Wenger-era Arsenal is the less frequency of one-touch, off-the cuff play. That would be fine, but with it comes predictability. With less technical quality in the side, that makes Arsenal less spontaneous, and less likely to score through moments of genius, relying instead, on the precision of through balls and cutbacks.