Arsenal – Wolverhampton Wanderers: Emery’s experimentation leaves Arsenal wanting as Nuno’s side claw back to take a point (1-1)
For any top six team, facing Wolves is usually a tough prospect. This may be even more true for a side such as Arsenal, whose struggles were on show despite a new-look midfield. The visitors gave them a helping hand in the first half, but the second half only amplified what Arsenal lacked as the game wore on.
Tactical analysis and match report by Peter M.
With just one win in their last four league games, Unai Emery has returned to the firing line ahead of a must-win clash against Wolves – a side who they have yet to beat since their return to the top flight.
With things becoming a bit stale within Arsenal’s attack, the manager made some quite drastic systemic changes, which included bringing Mesut Özil back into the fold for the first time since mid-September, for only his second start of the Premier League season. At the same time, following last week’s incident with the fans, Granit Xhaka – who had featured in nine of the opening ten league games – was left out of the squad, which ended up seeing the Spaniard field a 4-2-2-2 formation.
It has certainly taken some time for Nuno Espirito Santo’s Wolves to find their bearings again, with the Europa League to contend with this season, but their recent form might suggest things have begun to fall their way – at least more so than at the very beginning of this campaign. The Portuguese coach fielded the exact same lineup in last week’s 1-1 draw with Newcastle United, which shaped up as a 3-4-3, seeing Adama Traoré become a much-needed dynamic presence in attack. Coincidentally or not, this is the same shape which stifled Arsenal at the Emirates last season in a 1-1 draw also.
Wolves apply early pressure
The cardinal sin for a side defending in a diamond is to give time and space to a player on one side, simply because it opens up the possibility of a switch, at which point the defending side’s shape becomes stretched and insufficiently supported. Unfortunately for Arsenal, once again, that was the crime they committed.
By having two-versus-three and one-versus-two in the first and second lines, Arsenal were already somewhat underprepared to be able to close down Wolves so intensely. And, through Rúben Neves’ short exchanges and movements wide to open up room into the center, Leander Dendoncker, in particular, had all the time in the world to play through the middle or switch it.
A common practice for Wolves was to have the inside forwards drop very short for the ball to try and draw open the space between the lines. As an example, Adama dropping in to receive outside of the block attracted pressure from Mattéo Guendouzi, the number six in Arsenal’s setup, meaning he had the chance to shift it and drive through the middle into the space left open. He did this on a few occasions but the defensive line of the home side suffocated the channels well enough to block entries into the box.
The other more common way was for Wolves to simply spread it wide whenever they could. The forwards’ movements also helped here, though, as their blind-sided If a defender looks one way, an attacker can try to make a run behind the defender’s back, on the side where he is not looking. This is called the blind side. presence could pin back Arsenal’s base midfield, which helped open access into one of the holding midfielders – who was only sometimes taken up by Özil at the point of the diamond.
Wolves’ near-sided attacker helping open space into Moutinho to then switch play.
In the opening minute, Wolves had already put this to good use, with Dendoncker being afforded enough time to play it to Jonny Otto on the far side, his header down accessed Diogo Jota’s overloading When one team has more players in a certain area or zone than the other team. presence, before the attacker played in Jonny’s overlap When a wide player, most of the times a wing-back, runs outside to fill in the space left by a winger going inside with or without the ball, this is called overlapping. but the cutback was blocked.
A lot of Wolves’ attacking play ended in cutbacks – the majority of which were well defended, with the 4-3 defensive base closing in on deep central areas well to block any efforts at goal. Arsenal even dealt immaculately with Adama’s one-versus-one threat out wide; the winger frequently rotated positions with Matt Doherty to pose a greater threat on that side.
Arsenal gain some control
After cooling the pressure on themselves, Arsenal began to take a foothold on the game. A foothold enabled by their ball-oriented setup that involved a box midfield featuring Guendouzi, Lucas Torreira, Özil and Dani Ceballos. The four rotated around the ball on both sides excellently, with occasional further support from the closest striker. The ball retention and counterpress After losing possession, a team immediately moves towards the ball as a unit to regain possession, or at least slow down the pace of the counterattack. was far better than it had been in recent times for the hosts and thus gave them the upper-hand.
The Arsenal midfield rotating, in combination with the near-sided striker, to create a network of options for the ball-holder.
The most notable chance came just before the twenty-minute-mark when the constant pass-and-move rotations ensued down the right side before Özil perfectly found Lacazette’s channel run from deep. As Torreira had rotated into a forward position in his place, he was then accessible for a short cross into the box, but his drilled effort from a narrow angle was never likely to cause Rui Patrício many problems.
Arsenal’s chance creation
Arguably the bigger takeaway from that chance was the matter of Wolves’ defensive organization against crosses. Without the support of the three forwards, the double pivot were often caught out by Arsenal playing into the small pockets of space just off the back of their center-backs. Not only was that the case for Torreira’s chance, but it was also the case for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s goal just a minute later, which came surprisingly easy to the hosts.
Arsenal, so far, had not generated many good crossing positions outside of the one aforementioned chance. Their close linkup play was hardly cutting Wolves open centrally in very congested 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 the 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. and their creation of space for the fullbacks was not particularly great either, which meant there were very few deliveries from optimal angles (i.e. deep on the diagonal or on the cutback). The straight angle, floated crosses were never likely to find Aubameyang on the far-side, but what did work – and what highlights Wolves’ struggles in defending the most basic of crosses – was balls, again, into that area off the back of the opposition center-backs.
Calum Chambers’ venomous cross, dug out from the corner flag, into Lacazette, who was open thanks to Romain Saïss’ position leaning towards the near-post, gave the Frenchman a yard of space to turn and play it to Aubameyang – the other striker who was left unaccounted for. When you give that kind of room to Aubameyang, there is often only one outcome, as was shown by his delightful first-time shot back across goal.
Arsenal’s new-found 4-2-2-2 shape in action.
Emery’s side continued to control the game from then on before creating another similar opportunity when Chambers dug out another cross, which, this time, looped over to the back-post for Ceballos, who casually rolled it across for Lacazette off the back of the Wolves defense, but his effort was poorly taken on his weaker left foot.
Wolves did not end the half completely empty-handed in terms of chance creation, though. Just before half-time, they managed to create two good chances through cutbacks. The first in transition, as Jota overloaded the midfield to take it forward before playing it back to the edge of the box to find Doherty’s underlapping Underlap means that the full-back joins the offensive play by playing on the inside of the winger he supports. This is the reverse of an overlap, where the full-back plays on the outside and the winger moves inside. run, but his effort was struck right at Bernd Leno. Then in the forty-fourth minute, Neves had the time to find Doherty out wide, who pushed towards the byline before finding Jota, whose blocked shot found João Moutinho, but his effort was also denied in similar fashion, which really highlighted the effectiveness of Arsenal’s block when retreating into their own box.
A duller affair in the second half
Nothing changed moving into the second half, which is why so little ended up happening either way. Arsenal, as alluded to, were not overly productive in their current attacking setup for all that it was worth in the deeper buildup phases, so it was hardly surprising that, when you take away Wolves’ inadequacies, they would struggle to kill of the game. This was highlighted by the fact that they failed to record a single shot on target following on from Lacazette’s chance mentioned earlier. And, proceeding those frustrated spells of possession, the home side lost the intensity they had showcased before in this shape.
The only significant change came with just over fifteen minutes to go, when Bukayo Saka was introduced in place of Torriera, then forming a 4-3-3 shape but to what purpose? Well, that much was unclear, especially when you take off your most prolific tackler when defending a lead. So, there could be little surprise when the away side, seemingly out of nothing, went back level.
From something as simple as a throw-in to a sharp Moutinho dart in behind Ceballos – which, arguably, Torreira would have been more alert to – the midfielder was able to loop up across to Raúl Jiménez, who was poorly marked as neither Sokratis Papastathopoulos nor Chambers were in line to properly contest the header, as he directed it down and in.
Ultimately, it was a killer blow that Arsenal failed to respond to. In the final minutes the home side did manufacture some better crossing angles, but their three-man wide rotations prominently down the left were predictable and quite languid. And, any good crossing positions that were worked, were blocked by the number of Wolves bodies within such a tight area, meaning that was how the match ended.
Emery’s experimental setup had its ups and downs but there was something significantly better about his side’s buildup play, including the ways in which it facilitated for Özil and Ceballos to play in freer roles, linking play, whilst Guendouzi looked to dictate from a base position. Overall, it is a shape that needs working on, especially on the defensive side of things.
Nuno will undoubtedly be content with a point here, even in spite of Arsenal’s recent form, as Wolves once again proved how stubborn a test they are for the big boys at the top. That being said, the defensive frailties continue with Arsenal’s two biggest chances in this game coming as a consequence of their own issues.
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