The match at Fulham was, if nothing else, encouraging.
It’s hard not to feel like this was the type of occasion Arsenal might squander. After a good period of momentum heading into the international break it almost seemed inevitable. This is less a dig at Wenger and more the mentality on display in the past few seasons. Whether this string of results is due to Emery’s efforts in addressing this mentality or if we’re just enjoying a period of good fortune remains unclear. My guess is that it’s probably a bit of both.
Instead, our club extended its run to nine consecutive wins across three competitions, not only a testament to form but the manager’s ability to effectively balance results, morale, and injury. Alexandre Lacazette put in another man-of-the-match performance. Alex Iwobi came of age. Aaron Ramsey finished a sweeping move that will surely compete for goal of the season. And Torreira… f*cking Torreira. The team responded positively to conceding before the break. The football was tidy and purposeful; at times, nostalgic. For the first time this season, it felt like we were watching Unai Emery’s Arsenal.
This is not to say that fundamental issues don’t remain. There are serious questions about the club’s ability to build a title contending team with the error-prone Mustafi leading our back line. The increasingly familiar butt-clench that follows a Xhaka turnover somehow managed to escape us these past few outings, but I suspect they too will return. Coupled with a broken wage bill and a few uncertain futures, it will be interesting to see how Emery’s time at Arsenal plays out.
Still, there is no denying the attacking football that was on display last Sunday. In addition to feeling like the first glimpse of the new Arsenal, it was also the first time I (and likely thousands of other supporters) felt like we’d made tangible progress on our performance the week before. Perhaps most encouraging—and the initial inspiration for this piece—was how we set up on Sunday. I must admit that I was completely oblivious to this change in formation during the match and it wasn’t until my second viewing that I started to form an idea of why everything seemed to be going so smoothly.
The debate over the importance of formation at the highest level is valid. Thanks to the fluid nature of football, at any given moment it is not unusual to find a center back occupying the space of a forward or a midfielder dropping deep to cover for their outside back. The debate over the importance of tactics is not. As I touched on earlier, it is still too early to draw any real conclusions about Emery’s managerial prowess and it will likely be an entire season or two until we can. But, if we can take anything from these first few months of life under Emery, it is that he approaches the game in a fundamentally different manner than his predecessor. It would not surprise me in the slightest if we’ve already produced more goal-line cut-backs in the last three months than in the entirety of the 2017/18 campaign. Hyperbole aside, Emery clearly has an idea of how he wants this team to play and continuing in a 4-4-2 is the right step in getting the most out of both the system and the players.
Well, sort of. I don’t actually believe that we set up in a 4-4-2. I think that a 4-2-2-2 variant might be a more appropriate assessment. We don’t possess the natural wingers. We do, however, have an abundance of wide attacking midfielders and a couple of fullbacks that love to eat up space. Iwobi and Mkhitaryan were brilliant on the day, the latter quietly so. As we built from the back, our “mid-wingers” often tucked in to create space for the fullbacks which created multiple chances and eventually our first goal. These narrow positions also served to tighten things up defensively and relieve pressure on our back-six. On a side note— how good is Seri? He had a relatively quiet game by his standards, but I certainly wouldn’t mind some of his technique and calmness on the ball in our midfield.
If you revisit the first half at Craven Cottage you will find some beautiful partnerships forming. The pairing of Torreira and Xhaka at the base of midfield allowed our attacking unit the confidence to get numbers forward with great effect. The understanding shared by two incredibly intelligent footballers in Mkhitaryan and Lacazette is a real treat. I wouldn’t say these partnerships or understandings can necessarily be attributed to the formation, but it’s hard to argue against the idea that every single player in that starting eleven lined up in their preferred position. What’s more, the game was effectively won before we even had a chance to observe the 4-4-2’s greatest offering— surely the biggest advantage to this formation is that it allows for the duo of our combined £100m men. Pushing Aubameyang wide hasn’t been entirely ineffective but it simply wasn’t the role he was brought in to play. Pair him with his pal Lacazette, let the bromance blossom, and allow our new strike-force a chance at greatness.
Again, this is all very encouraging. In my opinion? We aint seen nothin’ yet.
A few questions to consider during the lull…
- Is the 4-4-2 (or 4-2-2-2) here to stay? Or will Emery’s tactical flexibility keep us wanting?
- Where do we start reintegrating Ainsley Maintland-Niles?
- How does 350,000-pound-per-week man Mesut Ozil fit in to all of this?