Valencia – Arsenal: All About Auba (2-4)
Game states and a fantastic Arsenal striker constantly getting in good scoring positions were the largest factors in this Europa League semi-final. Initially, Valencia applied themselves well to this match, and managed to score the opener. However, they failed to maintain the efficiency of their early attacking, and fell victim to an onslaught.
Tactical analysis and match report by Peter M.
With a place in the Europa League final at stake – and having witnessed two historic Champions League comebacks already this week – there was little reason to believe Valencia could not pull off a comeback of their own, after losing the first leg of this tie in London.
Valencia’s imposing 6-2 win over SD Huesca sent a warning sign towards Arsenal, who all but gave up their chances of qualifying for the Champions League via a league finish after drawing at home to Brighton and Hove Albion.
Manager Marcelino made two alterations to his weekend starting eleven, with central defender Mouctar Diakhaby being replaced by Ezequiel Garay and striker Kévin Gameiro replacing Santi Mina, in what was very much a 4-4-2 setup this time around.
Arsenal’s front free of Mesut Özil just behind Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette remained intact, despite now starting three games inside a week. Elsewhere, Henrikh Mkhitaryan dropped out of the eleven to facilitate a move to a 3-4-1-2 system, with Sead Kolašinac making his return to the side. Stephan Lichtsteiner and Shkodran Mustafi were also dropped for Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Laurent Koscielny respectively.
Valencia expose Arsenal’s nervy start
In the opening stages of the game, Valencia were perfectly exploiting the gaps in front of the opposition’s defense. Arsenal’s 3-4-1-2, which saw the two strikers sometimes drop down the channel to create a 5-4-1, often left room on either side of the double pivot. Because of this, Valencia could often build up on one side, and switch play to other side. The fact that Granit Xhaka and Lucas Torreira were shifting to the ball-side to apply pressure, meant that passes directly across passed by them with no cover. Giving up 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. like this is a frequently occurring problem when defending in a 5-2 organization like Arsenal did in this match.
Valencia finding ways through Arsenal’s setup.
Predominantly, Valencia targeted Arsenal’s left side, albeit because that is their preferred side to attack down. Since there was no true secondary support for Maitland-Niles, José Gayà’s constant underlapping runs were untracked, allowing the fullback to get in behind the defense on a number of occasions.
Another feature of their attacking play was to feed it into the feet of the strikers, particularly Rodrigo Moreno. Most of the time, when Rodrigo received, it was closely behind Arsenal’s midfield but in an open channel, where he could then touch it back and spread it across to the left.
These aspects of their attacks were present in the counterattack that led to them taking the lead after eleven minutes. As goalkeeper Neto rolled it out, Dani Parejo fired it into the feet of Rodrigo. His first-time layoff for Gonçalo Guedes set the Portuguese winger away; he was isolated against Sokratis Papastathopoulos, who was standing off him completely. To the defender’s cost, he allowed Guedes to drive inwards, feeding Rodrigo’s underlap, 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. thus resulting in a driven ball across that Gameiro reached and tucked in, to put Valencia ahead after eleven minutes.
It was the major injection of hope and positivity the Valencia fans were craving, making them believe the remontada could be on. The chances continued to flow shortly after, too.
On another occasion soon after the goal, Guedes isolated himself against Maitland-Niles with his run out wide, which the Englishman misread with his attempt at a sliding interception. It set Guedes away. As he entered the box, Rodrigo was the striker to drop off the back of the defense, as expected, and provide a clear option. And, much like he does in general play, he used his receival there to go back across his opponent and open up the angle for a shot, which was stopped on its way by his teammate Gameiro.
There were further signs of Valencia’s wide overloads When one team has more players in a certain area or zone than the other team. causing Arsenal problems in the sixteenth minute when Cristiano Piccini, the right back, had drawn out the press from Kolašinac. With Daniel Wass also occupying the flank ahead, Gameiro’s dropping movement inside to connect it to the Dane meant Nacho Monreal was caught in two minds. As Wass got it, he clipped it long and back to Rodrigo on the edge of the box, whose strike was fiery and so nearly a danger to Petr Čech’s goal.
Arsenal equalize against the run of play
Up until that point, Arsenal had very few stretches of possession play. Typically, their buildup passages would involve drawing out multiple Valencia players in a kind of chain reaction. Often, the ball-sided wide midfielder would follow the wide center-back, the fullback followed the wing-back and the center-back followed the striker, who had come very wide to create a short option. Once it was worked back inside – which was not too often due to the intensity of the marking – the deep midfielders would try to locate Özil. The German tried to position himself in either halfspace, waiting to connect it into either wing-back.
Arsenal’s equalizer, however, certainly did not come from any specific possession patterns. From a goal kick of theirs, Aubameyang lost the first aerial duel but was quick and smart in recognizing a chance to run off the back of the upcoming second, which Lacazette won. The opportunistic Gabon international then got the ball and struck it on the half volley with supreme control from just outside the box to level it up.
This crucial away goal tipped the balance in Arsenal’s favor. Valencia kept performing their same offensive tricks, and to minor successes. What was most notable after Aubameyang’s goal was both the up in defensive intensity from the visitors, and the lack of efficiency in the home side’s moves. Whether it was a pass not quite falling a player’s way or an Arsenal defender being first to the ball, things were not falling Marcelino’s side’s way at all.
Unlike before the goal, where they created three chances inside the box, Valencia failed to create another chance inside the box until the second half. And, as the game gradually settled into a slower pace, it began to suit Arsenal more.
Another inaccurate cutback from Gayà, who was still running in behind free on the underlap, saw Özil collect the ball on the edge. And, presumably as planned by the coach, Özil linked with Lacazette and then Aubameyang. Aubameyang’s excellent turn of pace got him past Gabriel Paulista before cutting it back to Lacazette, who, like Rodrigo, was looking to drop off into pockets of space constantly. His finish, though, went narrowly wide.
Second half follows similar themes
Shortly after the break, Arsenal had the goal that surely wrapped up the tie for good. Parejo miscontrolled the ball, giving it away to Aubameyang in the middle third. Following a tussle with Gayà, he got it to Torreira, who played it across to Lacazette. Here was where we saw the Frenchman’s true quality, as he turned his man, touched it out in front to beat an oncoming opponent and tucked it into the far corner. Truly excellent individual play, and one of the reasons Emery has to play both Aubameyang and Lacazette in a central role if he wants to squeeze the most out of his best starting eleven.
Valencia almost reignited the stakes by getting another goal back, to make it 2-2. Parejo had casually carried the ball into midfield, then playing in behind Wass’s out-to-in run, which went completely unnoticed by Kolašinac. He cut it back for Rodrigo; his shot was headed wide – Gameiro got in the way again. Thankfully for Valencia, he helped it in this time, drawing the score with thirty minutes left to play.
Still in need of another three goals with half an hour to go, it was not an impossible for Valencia. Until Aubameyang grabbed his second of the night, that is. A simple switch of play saw Maitland-Niles jinx past Guedes, whip in a cross to the near-post where Aubameyang was on red alert to get there ahead of Garay.
And, if it was not already job done, Aubameyang made it so with the goal to complete his extraordinary semi-final hat-trick. Following a delightful exchange, fully instigated by the striker, he thumped it in at the near-post from an impossible angle.
When you have the quality in attack that Arsenal has, there is the potential for them to carry you through games, which is just what they did, here. Arsenal did not start in a convincing manner whatsoever, but the deadly duo – who have formed an excellent understanding for one another on and off the pitch – were on hand to dish out some devastating blows.
Arsenal now have to beat London rivals Chelsea in the final in order to qualify for next season’s Champions League. Tonight’s results also mean that, for the first time ever, both the Champions League and Europa League finals contain only English sides.
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