Wolverhampton Wanderers – Arsenal: Exposing His Fragile Backline Proved Costly For Emery (3-1)
Arsenal’s defensive woes continued in a defeat at the hands of Wolverhampton Wanderers. Despite having the balance of play in their favor for the majority of the game and dominating possession, Arsenal saw themselves three goals down by half-time. They ended up losing three important points in the top four race. Arsenal were poor at both ends of the field and prepared their own undoing by a series of mistakes that led to Wolves’ goals.
Tactical analysis and match report by Cem Soylu.
Wolves continued their brilliant run of results against the top six teams this season with yet another win, this time against Arsenal. Their two most recent Premier League games against big sides, Chelsea and Manchester United, were mostly gritty performances that primarily focused on a solid defense and ruthless finishing at the other end. This game was a similar case – Wolves only had 29 percent possession and 0.93 total expected goals, but they took their chances and denied Arsenal of goalscoring opportunities.
Wolves started their best eleven in their accustomed 3-5-2 formation, with Leander Dendoncker coming back into the side replacing Morgan Gibbs-White, who had started the last game against Brighton. Arsenal lost Aaron Ramsey to injury and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang missed out with a sinus procedure, therefore Emery decided to switch to a 4-2-3-1 formation with Mesut Özil as a number ten, flanked by Alex Iwobi and Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
Arsenal in possession – early left-sided dominance
Arsenal dominated possession for the majority of the game having 71 percent of the ball, progressed the ball well into the final third. In general, they did a lot of things right, especially in the opening stages, but lacked penetration into the crowded, well-organized Wolves defense. Against Wolves’ 5-3-2 medium block A medium block refers to a team that retreats in their own half out of possession, generally only disrupting their opponents some way into their own half. Arsenal did not have trouble building up, using the double pivot 4-2-3-1 is one of the most frequently occurring formations in football. The two most defensive midfielders are called a ‘double pivot’. of Lucas Torreira and Granit Xhaka. Wolves could not consistently push João Moutinho and Dendoncker on to these players, because Arsenal occupied 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. with Iwobi and Mkhitaryan, plus Özil drifting to both sides, primarily to the left.
This free roaming number ten role in a 4-2-3-1 formation has always been the best role for Mesut Özil throughout his career – a role that allows him to create overloads on the sides, combine with players around him and pick the right passes in the halfspaces. Here his movement always provided an outlet in progressing the ball, and Arsenal looked good in the early stages.
Arsenal in possession against Wolves’ 5-3-2 medium block. Özil’s movement and Iwobi’s position meant if Dendoncker moved up to press Xhaka, he would leave the halfspace behind him exposed.
Until Ruben Neves’ opener, Arsenal dominated the game thanks to their left sided overload. Iwobi – a curious player profile that has very limited end product but thrives on combination play – took up intelligent positions on the left and combined with Nacho Monreal and Mesut Özil with good effect, with rest of the team also narrowing down towards there for purposes of combining as well as counter pressing.
In the seventeenth minute, Iwobi received freely between Wolves’ lines, combined with Monreal and sent him through to win a free kick from a dangerous spot. Two minutes later, another good combination play saw Torreira combining with Lacazette and Iwobi receiving in a good position in the box, but his final delivery was poor. Lacazette’s role in all of this was to drag Coady deeper showing himself for a ball onto his feet and one-touch service into onrushing players. A minute later he provided another good service for Mkhitaryan this time in a right sided play involving Ozil, but again poor delivery denied Arsenal of an opportunity.
Arsenal’s left-sided dominance is immediately clear from this halfspace passmap.
Ruthless Wolves punish fragile Arsenal defense
For all of their aforementioned positives in possession, Arsenal were committing too many players forward and out of position for how poor their backline is at one-on-one defending. Arsenal’s possession play involved freedom of movement for the attacking trio behind Lacazette, and their counterpressing intentions meant they narrowed down towards the ball-side after losing the ball. This allowed Wolves to switch play and have oceans of space at times, and Arsenal’s defenders simply could not cope with Wolves’ players running at them, especially Diogo Jota who often positioned himself towards the left to exploit Arsenal’s narrow shape.
Wolves’ first shot of the game came in the 21st minute, when Arsenal pressed high after a Wolves free kick in their own half. Neves simply switched play with a long ball to Dendoncker, Doherty was free on the overlap, he cut back to Moutinho who curled wide from outside the box. In the 26th minute, Arsenal lost the ball on the right side when Torreira had an advanced position, and Jota simply ran half of the field towards the heart of Arsenal defense, helped by Jimenez’ decoy run. Jonny Otto was fouled in a dangerous position after Jota’s pass, and Neves converted the free kick beautifully to make it 1-0.
The game had the same dynamics after the 1-0 but Wolves had more confidence. At the same time, Arsenal were making poorer decisions on the ball which helped Wolves to more frequently expose them in the aforementioned way. In the thirtieth minute, after Arsenal lost the ball on the left, Bennett switched to the left to Jonny, who again had a lot of space to run into. He cut inside with the ball without any resistance, slipped the ball to Jimenez for a really good chance, but the Mexican shot high and wide. A minute later Jota received in the right halfspace and ran at Koscielny, drawing a foul in a dangerous spot.
30th minute – Ryan Bennett from Wolves in possession. Arsenal counterpressed after losing the ball on the left, Wolves got out of the pressure and Bennett received a backpass during the play. Bennett switched the play to Jonny, Jonny dribbled a long distance, cut inside and provided a good goal scoring chance for Jimenez.
This ten minute period after the opener was the best spell Wolves had in the entire game, with Arsenal losing the ball more easily than in the opening period. In the 36th minute, Bennett switched beautifully again towards Jota and Jonny against a narrow Arsenal block. The latter slipped a ball to the former into a dangerous position, Leno saved the driven cross for a corner kick. Sokratis broke the offside in Wolves’ corner kick routine, and Doherty converted for 2-0.
In the 45th minute Xhaka’s sloppy pass conceded possession during buildup to Jota, who comfortably dribbled past Sokratis, and slotted home to make it 3-0. Without any significant shortcoming in the balance of play, Arsenal found themselves 3-0 down thanks to some dreadful defending.
Non-event second half
The second half was pretty much a non-event – there were no shots until Jimenez’s chance in the 68th minute. We got used to seeing Unai Emery making half-time switches throughout this season, but having seen his side play decent football in possession despite being 3-0 down and not having many attacking options in his bench, he did not feel the need to change things at half-time. In the 59th minute he made a double change, with Sead Kolašinac and Mattéo Guendouzi replacing Mkhitaryan and Torreira. Arsenal switched to a 3-4-2-1 formation, with Özil and Iwobi behind Lacazette, Xhaka and Guendouzi as the double pivot, Kolašinac at left wing-back and Monreal at left center-back. Sokratis clawed one back from a corner-kick in the eightieth minute, and the game played out to its conclusion.
Unai Emery’s rotation plan for the Crystal Palace and Wolves games completely backfired, with zero points from two crucial matches in the final stages of the top four race. Ramsey’s absence looks like it will be a big blow for Arsenal both for their top four and Europa League hopes. Emery seemed to have found a winning formula in a 3-4-1-2 formation that got the best out of their best players and saw them win against Manchester United, Rennes and both Napoli games, but Ramsey’s very offensive role going forward from the double pivot was a key part of that system and Aubameyang’s injury meant it was impossible to play it here.
The issue against Wolves was not so much that their 4-2-3-1 shape and approach lost the tactical battle – Arsenal did have a decent plan to attack Wolves and this was overall a pretty even contest. The issue was more that Arsenal’s current defenders are not good enough to be left exposed against a quality side like Wolves and they really looked like they needed the third center-back there. Arsenal’s defense looked significantly better in the performances under the 3-4-1-2/3-4-2-1 shapes – barring the heavily rotated Crystal Palace game, Arsenal kept a clean sheet in six straight matches against the likes of Napoli, Watford, Newcastle, Rennes and Manchester United, playing a back three. Emery should be looking to continue the remainder of the season with a back three.
On the other hand, Nuno Espírito Santo’s Wolves side is the pinnacle of consistency and once again they showed that they do not particularly need to be at their best to beat the top sides. They were outplayed against Manchester United a few weeks ago and managed to win, and here they ruthlessly took their few chances partly thanks to their set piece prowess. Despite not offering a lot going forward against these top sides, their defense is extremely tough to break.
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