18 games into Unai Emery’s Arsenal reign, it became quickly obvious that it would take a lot of time and a lot of games for him to get things right, to implement his ideas into the players and get results with that. Although Arsenal are on a 16-game unbeaten run, most will agree that there has been few solid performances from start to finish during that run, even if the ability to grind out results throughout the process must be praised.
However, 4 draws in the last 5 games (the only win being against Blackpool in the Carabao Cup) have highlighted some of Arsenal’s flaws, slow starts, a high press that is still a work in progress, a lack of defensive stability but especially, and that will be our focus today, an unbalanced attack.
Whether Arsenal play in a 4-2-3-1, 4-4-2 or 4-3-1-2, Arsenal always seem to be too narrow to break down opposition deep blocks, as we saw against Wolves’s compact 3-man defence. Unai Emery wants his full-backs to push on, stretch the pitch and run in behind to provide cutbacks for the strikers to finish. This tactic has helped Hector Bellerin into becoming an absolute key figure of our attacking play, while the full-backs push on, the “wingers” tuck inside in the half-spaces, which is a direct consequence of Emery’s coaching.
The issue is, when the full-backs are blocked (like Jonny Castro did with Bellerin), Arsenal seem to be lacking any cutting edge from the flanks, forcing the Gunners to cut inside and pass it around until there’s an opening.
Calling back Reiss Nelson from Hoffenheim could be tempting but it would also be foolish, this year under Nagelsmann is crucial for his development, he’s very decisive but his all-round play still needs a lot of work according to the German coach. No one currently at the club has the ability to take a man on, apart from Alex Iwobi, but only when he plays on the left wing, and that leads to another issue.
Players out of position
Alex Iwobi looks like a reborn player this season, he’s one of the players benefitting the most from the new coaching setup, and his performances can warrant him a place in the starting eleven for most matches. Yet, in recent weeks, he has found himself in and out of the team, playing less and struggling on a few occasions. The thing with Iwobi is, he’s a tremendous player on the left, who struggles massively on the right.
Unai Emery has been trying different ways to fit as much talent as possible into his team, starting with Ramsey at #10 before dropping him, Aubameyang uptop before putting him wide to accomodate Lacazette, he was always bound to try and fail a few times at the start before finding the right formula. Recently, Arsenal have been playing a 4-2-3-1 with an Iwobi/Mkhitaryan-Özil-Aubameyang line behind Lacazette, the abundance of talents helping us see through games, sometimes easily, sometimes with a slice of luck and good goalkeeping but overall, it doesn’t look nor feel natural for most players.
Aubameyang is a top-class penalty box striker playing as a left winger with his very limited skillset, Iwobi is playing on a side he’s absolutely not comfortable on while Özil started the season on the right flank, unbalanced yet talented would be a way to describe our attack. Our best attacking performances of the season have come against Leicester and Fulham, 2 games where we were missing key players (Aubameyang and Özil v Fulham, Aubameyang v Leicester) but 2 games where our attack was more balanced, with everyone playing in positions they feel comfortable in, Iwobi won’t score 40 goals a season like Aubameyang, but on the left hand side he’s providing a lot more in terms of creativity, take-ons and defensive cover.
Lack of planning and solutions
This lack of balance is a direct consequence of Arsène Wenger’s last transfer window as Arsenal manager, where the club tried to make the most of a very bad situation with Alexis leaving and Özil’s future uncertain, Mkhitaryan and Aubameyang were brought in on big money to salvage a Champions League qualification, Özil signed a mega contract who shattered the wage structure. Although it looked like a statement of ambition at the time, Arsenal also signed the burden of having three 29-30 year old attackers on big money deals, a short-termist vision that failed in Madrid in may.
There is no denying that those are quality players, but Özil, one the last typical number 10 existing is always a tricky profile to fit in a team, Mkhitaryan is more versatile but very inconsistent and Aubameyang was bought for a club-record fee 6 months after Lacazette arrived.
Fitting all this talent in one team, keeping everyone satisfied is a huge challenge, one that Unai Emery is still trying to take on. Lacazette and Aubameyang would be a formidable strike partnership but playing a flat 4-4-2 doesn’t suit Özil at all, Arsenal’s best player on his day. The 4-2-3-1 doesn’t really suit Aubameyang but it helps to fit Özil and a wide creator, in both cases there’s a spot there for the taking on the right wing, where Mkhitaryan is at ease. The Armenian is totally devoid of confidence at the moment yet he’s the easiest attacker to fit in, that’s why Emery has given him so many minutes.
Emery will most likely find his preferred attack at some point this season, but it looks more and more likely that one or two of Arsenal’s big name offensive players will have to make way in order for the team to click and find the right balance.
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