For just the second time this season, Mesut Özil started in his favoured #10 position. Despite his struggles to find form and, more importantly, Unai Emery’s struggles to weave him into the system accordingly, this kind of performance shone light on the brilliance of the German playmaker and why he should still be an unquestionable fixture in the starting eleven. His contributions are what ultimately earned the home side their victory.
Leicester’s changed shape setup to disrupt Arsenal’s buildup
Away from the expected 4-2-3-1 and then the predicted 4-4-2, Claude Puel opted to go with a back-three in his attempts to stop Arsenal. He elected to go for a 3-4-1-2. Not the most common shape but a shape they stayed true to in and out of possession.
It was the kind of setup that had clearly been refined based on how Fulham had gone about things. So, instead of pushing up four players to press and leaving the back-five behind them completely exposed, Leicester kept a solid double pivot. Jamie Vardy and Kelechi Iheanacho were the two frontrunners tasked with pressing the centre-backs whilst Maddison took care of Arsenal’s double pivot. Sometimes one member of Leicester’s double pivot – Nampalys Mendy, most often – would step out to press the spare holding midfielder if they had too much time and space on the ball.
The key role for Maddison was suffocating play to the flank when Arsenal shifted the ball into the full-backs, or, more specifically, into the left-back, Lichtsteiner. In the same way Jean Michäel Seri did, he would shut down the ball-near defensive midfielder, Granit Xhaka, when Lichtsteiner held the ball. So, with Torreira, from this angle, essentially cut out of the game, the underload against Arsenal’s four man buildup was no longer a problem. It meant they could use the defensive overload further back to their advantage.
Arsenal’s predictability helps Leicester gain control
The reason why Leicester, to an extent, copied Fulham’s approach is because Arsenal’s buildup patterns are so incredibly predictable. Nine times out of ten, the buildup patterns would be the exact same: the ball starts with Leno; it’s fed into one of the holding midfielders; they lay it off to Holding; he then plays into Lichtsteiner; the left-back plays back into Xhaka; he then plays a hopeful ball down the channel at full pelt, trying to find Iwobi.
Now there are a lot of problems with this. The first one being that it’s doomed to fail from the very start. Countless games have featured this same pattern and none to memory, certainly none in any first halves, have paid dividends. In no way are there attempts to exploit the spaces that are usually opened by building from the back. Instead, Arsenal end up congesting the spaces they try to build through, which completely defeats the purpose of this kind of buildup play.
The second one being the affect it has on Özil’s contributions. In his natural, freed up role, Özil does a lot of good in deeper phases of play. He’s excellent at popping up and helping to recycle it. He could even be the key in linking the midfield to the attack in buildup, but in this procedure, he’s completely bypassed.
In full display in the GIF above, Xhaka doesn’t even look to see where he’s passing it to try and find Iwobi. Even with Özil dropping to receive short, Xhaka knows where he’s meant to play it but it doesn’t get Arsenal anywhere. And when you consider the amount of space these dropping movements to the ball have opened behind the defenders, it’s a bit of a surprise Emery hasn’t tried to look at that and exploit it.
So, rather than this being a problem of Özil maybe not being given the freedom he needs – though that is still mostly the case – it’s a problem of the buildup ignoring his position anyway.
And just through these constant failed attempts, the opposition can gain confidence. They know how to stop Arsenal progressing now and it only encourages Leicester to continue forcing them to play out from the back. Momentum only swings one way from that point forward. Therefore it was far from surprising that Leicester controlled a large part of the first half – creating a fair number of decent openings for themselves too.
What was also unsurprising was that, in the one example of Arsenal experimenting with a different buildup technique, it paid off.
In the clip below, by having the holding midfielders split, it completely opens up the centre for Özil to drop into. These kinds of small positional rotations and exploitations of the blind-side are invaluable to slow buildup passages, but aren’t nearly used enough to Arsenal’s advantage.
Arsenal’s attacking plan in the middle phase
Moving on from the struggles of deep buildup play, the Gunners found a bit more success connecting to the attacking midfielders higher up the pitch. The plan here was to overload Leicester’s double pivot (I’m sure Emery had this in mind when expecting to play against any number of Puel’s varying systems, also).
Usually, Özil would peel off to the left whilst Mkhitaryan and Iwobi would rotate between the central and right channels. Further ahead Lacazette would pin back the defence.
By having these diagonal angles into the attacking midfielders, it was fairly easy to gain access to the wide areas.
However, the disconnect between the double pivot and the attacking midfielders was far from ideal. On most occasions – and this once again puts to light Özil’s true lack of freedom – the block of four would be too distant. Part of the reason for that was Arsenal’s riskily direct approach through the centre.
Be it along the ground or in the air, the aim was to play direct into the central receiver whenever the opportunity arose.
With Torreira’s impressive ability to act quickly on openings ahead of him, he excelled at exploiting the small windows in which that lane opened up centrally. Xhaka, on the other hand, was not quite as good. In these kinds of situations, his sluggishness and general inability to adjust his feet with the ball, get his head up and then play the pass quickly is a detriment to Arsenal’s progress in possession. In this sense, Mattéo Guendouzi is much better-equipped to move play forward.
The idea was to have the central receiver be the medium for gaining access into the surrounding attackers. In the example below, Torreira goes direct into Mkhitaryan who then lays it off to the forward-facing attackers around him, and thus Arsenal can progress at pace.
The second way this shape was used was with through balls over the top, or simply into the channels. Arsenal essentially had a man over on the back-three with their four players positioned on the blind-side of the midfield. Very frequently, at least one attacker would bust a gut to make a run in behind. In doing so, they pushed Leicester back and, even if they didn’t latch onto the first ball, the oncoming three attackers were there for second ball support.
In spite of all their best efforts though, chances were still few and far between for Arsenal in the first half. They often squandered the small windows of opportunity that arose when they did break through the lines and the long balls only managed to do so much.
Final 3rd play and counter-pressing
The aim when play progressed to the final third was to overload the ball side. The far-sided wide attacker would come across and look to combine and overload. Lacazette appeared to stay slightly detached at points, maybe with the intention of being a potential link when play recycled across to the opposite flank.
A lot of these kinds of attacks in the first half came down the left as Özil was receiving the ball a lot from Xhaka in that aforementioned channel.
Whilst this method didn’t reap to many rewards in the first half, it did establish more control through the resulting counter-presses. By having Mkhitaryan shift over from the right, as well as the double pivot narrowing over to provide defensive support, Arsenal were well equipped to deal with any turnovers.
One thing the counter-press couldn’t seem to deal with, and which was also a negative of the heavily left-sided approach, was Leicester’s channel balls. Given even an inch of space after a turnover, the visitors aimed to launch through balls past Holding for Iheanacho to latch onto.
No shorter than two minutes in did Iheanacho manage to get the better of the centre-half before working some more space for a shot which was eventually blocked. But it was a big warning sign at the time. Thankfully for Arsenal, this became less of an issue as the game wore on as the away side continued to retreat deeper into their own half.
Arsenal begin to dominate
The way Arsenal seemed most comfortable attacking was in transition. On full display against Fulham and now here, the technical midfielders excelled at retaining possession and moving it quickly on the break. And that’s what gave Arsenal a way back into the game. Having gone a goal down to a Bellerín’s own goal, it was he who provided the assist for Mesut Özil.
The precision of it all was admirable. Started with a snappy forward pass from Torreira, followed by a typical Lacazette lay-off before Xhaka spread it wide and then Özil combined with Bellerín. He then perfectly cut it back again to find the glancing foot of the German. And what a delightful finish it turned out to be. Sneaking in off the far post. Akin to Ramsey’s low, inside-of-the-foot volley against Fenerbahçe all them years ago.
Play shifts to the right in the second half
Level at the break, momentum was beginning to swing heavily in Arsenal’s favour. It’s by this point of the game where Arsenal tend not to have to continue building up from deep and the opposition allow themselves to retreat deeper and deeper. But this is where the problem lies for those sides, and also how Arsenal end up seeing off weaker opposition with much more ease later on in games.
Rather than having play come down the left, the focus was more on the right. Here, the attack could work more space for the better of the wide outlets, Bellerín, since Lichtsteiner wasn’t able to offer much in the way of attacking runs. And, not only this, but the hosts were better placed to facilitate Aubameyang, who’d come on as a substitute.
Just short of three minutes into his arrival onto the pitch, the Gabon striker tapped home to make it 2-1. It followed a wonderfully timed and weighted through ball from Özil for Bellerín’s diagonal run in behind. The Spaniard then drilled it across to the far post and… you get the picture.
An outstanding team goal with Özil connecting all the dots led to yet another Aubameyang tap in at the far post, now doubling Arsenal’s lead. It was a goal that epitomised the two strengths displayed in Arsenal’s attacking game against Leicester – transition attacks and working it into Aubameyang at the far post.
With Emery’s struggles to find the right balance for Aubameyang, this is probably the closest he’s come. At least that has been the case when trying to fit him into the wide position. In previous games, he’d been too involved in wing-play or simply too far away to be impactful with his off the ball work. By not restricting his movement too much – as well as focusing the attacking combinations on the opposite side – the centre-forward could make the runs he’s so adept at making. And, in the end, that’s what won Arsenal the game.
A resounding win yet there’s still a feeling of unfortunate familiarity coming away from this match. However, the growing positives are there. Emery’s persistance with Iwobi and Mkhitaryan on the flanks is paying off. They’ve contributed massively to the success of the attacks down each flank, in support of each full-back, and in providing excellent defensive cover.
Giving Özil back his favoured position did him the world of good tonight. That being said, his freedom was limited mostly to the functions of the attackers between the lines, and the zonal positions that they covered. So, whilst we might not yet be seeing Özil in a do-as-he-likes role just yet, it’s promising that his general contribution figures – not to mention his goal involvements – were at their highest tonight.
It’s now just a matter of whom Emery chooses to partner up top. For me, there are two options: Lacazette and Aubameyang or Özil and Aubameyang. Tonight’s partnership of Lacazette and Özil doesn’t click when you have two ball-heavy players as your other attackers. Even with the Frenchman’s impressive form of late, he’s not as valuable or as good as Özil, so he should be the one that drops to the bench. And, in games against stern opposition, it would be far more beneficial to have Özil unlocking spaces deeper, off of Aubameyang, than to have Lacazette stagnant alongside the striker up top.
So now that Emery has almost tackled the problem of his starting eleven, he can begin to iron out the creases of the defence and how he wants his team to build out from the back. The counter-press has showed promising signs recently but the defence are still far too susceptible to simple channel balls.
Now with a ten-match winning streak as a cushion to fall back on. Despite the overperformance so far, it’s reassuring to know things can still get a whole lot better, here.
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