Our style with the ball is to be protagonists, to do things with combinations, to control the match with the positioning of the ball. And then when we have the space, to be aggressive going forward. Defensively: first it is to be organised, recover the ball quickly. But in these two moments in the match we need to work. To say it here is easier than doing it on the pitch. We also need time, but now I am happy because I think the players are improving.
More than a year after issuing the most in-depth description of what he wanted from his players, Unai Emery is still desperately looking for control. If Arsenal had control at times last season, that has been very much absent this season, with games now effectively resembling the end to end style of basketball. That has been very evident this week, in the 2-2 draw with Watford, the 3-0 win against Frankfurt, and the 3-2 comeback win against Aston Villa. Across those three games, Arsenal gave up 69 shots, which works out to nearly one shot every 4 minutes, a statistic that frankly does not happen if your team has control.
Down to ten in the second half, Arsenal made the game more chaotic. It had an upshot; in these kinds of circumstances the individual quality of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang came through, and Mattéo Guendouzi was able to drive the team forward, with his passing, ball progression, and runs from midfield, winning the penalty for Pépé’s goal and setting up Calum Chambers’ goal to make it 2-2.
But as Arsenal made it chaotic, Aston Villa took advantage, to go ahead 2-1, and could’ve punished Arsenal more: before Wesley’s goal, McGinn had a shot go wide, and after Arsenal made it 2-2, Villa immediately went down the other end, forcing Bernd Leno to make a save. Indeed, Arsenal’s comeback was not, much like the Tottenham game, predicated upon any big tactical change, but rather, through quality players making individual moments; for that reason, only one of Arsenal’s goals came from open play.
Against Aston Villa, Emery reverted to the midfield that had last delivered victory in the Premier League, selecting Dani Ceballos, Granit Xhaka and Mattéo Guendouzi. Ceballos, in is own words, is a destabilizer, and here, Emery gave him a freer role in a 4-3-3, with Guendouzi more to the right and Xhaka central. Yet, Arsenal failed to control: “When it was 11 v 11 we didn’t control the match how we wanted because we lost a lot of balls in the middle and gave them chances in the transition.” That failure to control speaks, in part, to a lack of understanding.
In possession, Arsenal lack a cohesive plan, an organization to progress the ball from back to front. This can be seen through Arsenal’s difficulty to play out from the back, and also, when Arsenal have the ball in the final third, the inability to create much. Arsenal’s players don’t move well off the ball, because they’re unsure of how they’re supposed to move off the ball, aside from the full backs, who are told to push forward for cutbacks. One reason why Bukayo Saka has been such a bright spark is he plays instinctively, with his desire to create, take players on and push forward. When Arsenal’s players play instinctively, as they did in the second half, down a man, they can play well; when they’re trying to control a game, it becomes muddled through the contradictions of Unai Emery’s tactics.
These contradictions are seen most in the defensive phase of the game. Before arriving at Arsenal, Emery spoke a lot about pressing. He constantly speaks about controlling through team shape, through Arsenal’s work off the ball. Yet Arsenal don’t have work off the ball. Their midfield pivot effectively drops into the defensive line, which is why it was so damaging when Guendouzi let McGinn run off of him to score Aston Villa’s first. By dropping off, their is no pressure on the ball; by dropping into the defensive line, there is no team shape. The lack of pressing is seemingly intentional, with The Athletic reporting that, “bar a few drills at the outset of last season, pressing has never been a major part of his tactical plans.”
Arsenal are in the top four by virtue of the qualities of their players, not their coaching. Perhaps no player reflects this more than Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who has scored 16 goals in his last 16 Premier League games, of which Arsenal have won 7, drawn 4, and lost lost 5—a record that, extrapolated to a full season, would result in fewer than 60 points. While Unai Emery continues to search for his team to get control, the reality is that it is increasingly looking like his suitability for the job is much like his team’s ability to control matches: missing.