Arsenal – Stade Rennais: Unai Emery Wins The Tactical Battle As Arsenal Complete Comeback (3-0)

After losing 3-1 away in France, Arsenal stepped it up at the Emirates and produced a brilliant performance to complete the comeback and progress into the quarter-finals of the Europa League. Despite managing to stay in the tie until the final whistle, Rennes were outclassed here, simply unable to cope with Arsenal’s off-the-ball movement in particular.

Tactical analysis and match report by Cem Soylu.

The way Rennes carved up Arsenal at home was one of the most notable results in the first leg of this season’s Europa League Round of 16. Even if the result was a bit flattering for Rennes considering the chances in that match, Arsenal had to make up a lot of ground in the return match.

To overcome the deficit, Arsenal’s manager Unai Emery chose the same 3-4-1-2 formation that Arsenal played in against Manchester United over the weekend, instead of the 4-2-3-1 shape they fielded in the first leg in France. The only personnel change in comparison to the Manchester United game was the inclusion of Shkodran Mustafi in place of Sokratis, who missed out due to the red card he received in the first leg.

Rennes themselves made two changes compared to the first leg – Hamari Traoré replaced Mehdi Zeffane at the right back position, and M’Baye Niang, who missed the first leg due to a yellow card suspension, joined Hatem Ben Arfa up top in a 4-4-2 formation. Ben Arfa’s role is one of a lot of freedom, so it is easy to point Rennes out as a 4-2-3-1 team as well. Because they had to defend for most of this match, it is more fair to call them a 4-4-2 team.

Spoiler: Arsenal were the way better team.

Arsenal’s keys to unlock Rennes – wide use of strikers and joker Aaron Ramsey

Emery tried numerous formations and line-ups this season. The Manchester United clash this past weekend was the first try of this particular 3-4-1-2 setup, however. Interestingly, Arsenal’s opening phase of the Manchester United also saw them dominate against a 4-4-2 formation, until Ole Gunnar Solksjaer realized his team was too exposed and United switched into a three-men defense early on in the game, going on to be the better side.

In the past few years, with the increasing popularity of defensive systems with three central defenders, we have witnessed many managers coaching underdog teams opting to play with three center-backs in order to nullify opposition threat. This is very relevant in the context of this game, because Rennes’ 4-4-2 shape was exposed in numerous ways to the attacking threat and movement Arsenal possessed. Arsenal had all sorts of passing angles and options to break Rennes lines.

In general, there were two key aspects of Arsenal’s approach to carve open the opposing defense. One of them was how Aubameyang and Lacazette often positioned themselves wide. A 4-4-2 shape is naturally poised to position themselves narrow, as the defending team often wants to keep their distances closer in order to close out passing channels. Aubameyang and Lacazette often placed themselves on a fullback when the ball was at the near side, and opened an avenue for the wing-backs to exploit. Especially on the left side, when Traoré would get drawn onto Kolašinac, Aubameyang would attack the space outside of the center-back and draw him out of position.

Arsenal’s 3-4-1-2 exposing Rennes’ 4-4-2 in various different areas of the pitch.

The other key aspect was attacking with numbers. Especially the role of Ramsey was crucial, as he is always at his best when he is roaming free in the final third The one-third of the pitch that is closest to the opposition’s goal. to get on the end of attacks. In this game, he did exactly that, ending the game with more key passes than any other player (3). These two key aspects were evident in all three of the goals.

Arsenal get the goals early

In the opening stages of the game, Arsenal played with scintillating tempo and movement all around the pitch, which gave them a lot of passing options to play around Rennes’ midfield four. Central midfielders Benjamin André and Clément Grenier were overwhelmed with the amount of players going in and out between them and their defense. Rennes initially started out using high pressure in a 4-4-2 shape, but they immediately saw how risky this was with the pace of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette. Especially without a spare man in the back to cover.

Arsenal’s first goal was a brilliant team goal; Arsenal passed easily through Rennes’ blocks, Ramsey found Aubameyang who was positioned on the left back Bensebaini, Aubameyang backheeled the ball on the path of overlapping Maitland-Niles, he found Ramsey on the box who squared it to Aubameyang for a tap-in. Arsenal had five players in the box when Maitland-Niles passed inside and found Ramsey.

For the second goal, Sarr was caught narrow in transition and Kolašinac drove forward with the ball, played Aubameyang who drifted wide left. Aubameyang received, dribbled at his man, played a one-two with Ramsey who again positioned himself intelligently in the box, crossed to the far post for Maitland-Niles to head home. This time Arsenal had no less than six players in the box!

Midway through the first half, the game’s flow was interrupted a bit through fouls and ensuing injuries, and predictably after gaining the advantage on aggregate, the game’s tempo was at a more normal pace. Arsenal’s 3-4-1-2 formation is not the best at defending opponent possession, as it leaves the fullbacks completely open to receive. Lacazette and Aubameyang however deserve credit for their diligent efforts off the ball, helping their midfield.

After this phase, Rennes started having more of the ball, although they did not look like creating anything. In addition to their free-flowing offensive game in possession, Arsenal posed a direct threat as well on the counterattack, as Rennes pushed their fullbacks forward, Arsenal enjoyed channels to exploit behind them through their forwards drifting wide. For how dangerous Arsenal looked in this half, it was odd to see them not create enough goal-scoring chances after going up two.

Rennes balances out the game, until substitutions inflict the damage

There were no tactical changes by either side starting the second half. Rennes did start to press more aggressively, reverting to fouls in order to disrupt Arsenal’s flow. They committed a whopping seventeen fouls in the second half against Arsenal’s six.

Rennes found their first and last opportunity to score early in the second half, when their pressure after a set piece resulted in a poor giveaway by Mustafi, which allowed Niang space to shoot from the arc, only to hit the post. Despite the game having the exact same dynamics tactically in the first half, Arsenal was really sloppy in possession during this period, giving Rennes encouragement to push forward, perhaps partly due to fatigue after an intense first half. Rennes’ best player Ben Arfa started roaming around to receive in the halfspaces, If you divide the field in five vertical lanes, the halfspaces are the lanes that are not on the wing and not in the center. Because there is no touchline like on the wing, players have freedom to go everywhere. But this zone often is not as well-defended as the very center. This makes it a very valuable offensive zone to play in and a lot of chances are created by passes or dribbles from the halfspace. fullbacks pushed forward and won a few corner kicks, but Rennes could not create chances.

Rennes pushing forward meant there was now more space between the lines, and Emery introduced fresh legs in Alex Iwobi and Henrikh Mkhitaryan to replace Özil and Lacazette in the 69th minute. Arsenal was now playing in a 3-4-2-1 formation with Iwobi on the left and Mkhitaryan on the right. Stéphan also introduced a forward, Hunou, in place of Grenier, and he adapted his side by pulling Bourigeaud into central midfield and Niang to the left.

The substitutions had an instant impact to an Arsenal side that desperately needed fresh legs – perhaps Emery could have done the changes slightly earlier. In the 71st minute after a great passing move that was not seen throughout second half, Xhaka set up Iwobi who shot wide. One minute later, Mkhitaryan set Kolasinac up, who provided a cross that required a simple tap-in from Aubameyang for 3-0. Iwobi and Mkhitaryan’s introduction heavily exposed the increased distances Rennes allowed Arsenal, especially the space in front of their defense. Their contribution set up two more clear-cut chances for Aubameyang in the 81st and 82nd minutes to kill the tie, but the Gabonese squandered his chances and Arsenal had to grind out the result in the final ten minutes.


One of the most interesting aspects of this game was how Rennes manager Stéphan had a clear reference point from the weekend to see how a 4-4-2 shape could be exposed by this Arsenal setup, yet fielded his side in a 4-4-2 formation and watched his side getting played off the park, especially in the first half. Arsenal’s 3-4-1-2 system looks extremely effective in the attacking phase. It would be fair to say that the opponents facing this particular Arsenal shape will need a third center-back to have a spare man against the increasingly dangerous duo of Lacazette and Aubameyang.

Another takeaway is how big of a loss Aaron Ramsey will be for Arsenal, as he is an incredible weapon to have for an offensive team with a free-roaming midfield role. Ramsey possesses unpredictable movement, very good work rate and effectiveness around the opposition box. His shortcoming was always the defensive vulnerability he creates from how much he leaves his position but this is also his strength, therefore he always needs the right setup around him to carry this vulnerability. He was involved in everything dangerous Arsenal created in this game and Emery is probably already thinking how to replace him for the next season.

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