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For Pépé, Aubameyang, and Lacazette to work, Unai Emery will need to shed his conservatism

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Arsenal FC v Tottenham Hotspur - Premier League Photo by Visionhaus

After using his expensive front three for short periods of time against Burnley and Liverpool, Unai Emery finally deployed all three from the beginning against Tottenham. Yet while it theoretically worked, as both Lacazette and Aubameyang scored and Nicolas Pépé impressed individually, there was little going on between the three; Aubameyang played crosses, but Lacazette generally didn’t connect the play with the other two of the three. Indeed, rather than coming short, a feature of the play of all of Arsenal’s front three was looking to make runs behind, all of which put increased pressure on Arsenal’s midfield to create.

Yet, in selecting his most adventurous attacking three, Unai Emery selected his most conservative midfield three: Granit Xhaka, Matteo Guendouzi, and Lucas Torreira. In the first half, with Arsenal playing deeper, there was a huge gap between the midfield and the attack. This saw the two number 8s, Guendouzi and Torreira, play wider, largely passing to the fullbacks and other midfielders.

Emery made two changes before Arsenal equalized: Dani Ceballos came on for Torreira, and then Henrikh Mkhitaryan came on for the injured Lacazette. Both substitutions increased Arsenal’s connectivity: Ceballos began to link play, but also increased the creative freedom for Guendouzi, allowing him to play the ball for Aubameyang’s equalizer. While Mkhitaryan’s last appearance was particularly unimpressive, having a left sided player with the ability to pass the ball and link with other players allowed Sead Kolasinac to better work overlaps, meaning that rather than Guendouzi looking to play Kolasinac in, Mkhitaryan was doing so, meaning Guendouzi came inside.

Kolasinac passes, 1-67’

All of this allowed Arsenal to increase pressure and to dominate the match more, but they still failed to create high-level chances, exemplified by having 26 shots but an expected goals under 3, meaning that the quality of the chance created was average.

Kolasinac passes, 67-90’

There were, then, three significant changes in the second half. Firstly, Arsenal played higher up the pitch, pinning Tottenham in, and closing the distances between the lines, meaning that one ball couldn’t bypass Arsenal’s midfield and leave significant space for Spurs’ attacking players, significantly Son, to run at Arsenal’s defence. Secondly, bringing Ceballos on for Torreira improved the connectivity between Arsenal’s different units, with Ceballos much more apt to play between the lines than Lucas Torreira, who was here used as a pressing number 8, without much creative responsibility. Finally, bringing on a wide player with the ability to come inside and play the ball to the overlapping full back meant that Sead Kolasinac had more of an attacking influence, the kind of influence that Emery wants to have from his full backs.

The identity of Arsenal’s front three clashes with Emery’s preferred playing style. Emery likes to have wide playmakers, which allow for the ball to be played to overlapping full backs. While Pépé linked up well with Maitland-Niles, there was less of this from Aubameyang, who is a striker playing on the left-hand side, rather than a wide forward. But the bigger issue arising from the North London Derby is that despite selecting Arsenal’s most direct and attack-minded front three, Emery opted for conservatism elsewhere: a midfield three of Torreira, Xhaka, and Guendouzi, forcing two of those three into positions where they were unable to influence the game during the first half, and a middle block, meaning the gap between the midfield and the attack, already affected by the safety of the midfield, was increased.

With these systemic issues, a point is not a bad result for Arsenal. Yet, the first part of the season is now over. When Arsenal’s players return from international duty, the matches will take on greater significance, as teams start to separate into various levels. Whether Emery can shed his innate conservatism will determine whether Arsenal are leading the the race for 3rd and 4th, or part of the pack.