Ever since Danny Welbeck’s gruesome ankle injury during Arsenal’s Europa League clash with Sporting Lisbon on Thursday, the spirit of those in the stands and the players on the pitch has been severely dampened. In many ways, the lifelessness and lack of intensity the Gunners carried through much of that match continued into Sunday afternoon’s clash with newly promoted Wolves. Nuno Espírito Santo has lead Wolves to a very respectable mid-table start to the season in their long-awaited return to the Premier League, and they arrived at the Emirates Stadium intent on making life difficult for their hosts. The Gunners failed to match Wolves’ intensity from the off, and an early goal saw Wolves take the early lead. It took Arsenal nearly all of the remaining time to earn the goal back, and the match ended with nothing separating the two sides on the score sheet in a 1-1 draw.
Wolves Prove A Frustrating Customer
Early in the season, as the Arsenal players struggled to play out from the back with the pace and fluency Unai Emery’s system demands, many opponents elected to press high up the pitch to try and force easy turnovers. Petr Cech began the season as Emery’s first choice goalkeeper, and he found the new style particularly difficult to adapt. However, after multiple opponents fell victim to the crisper passing and highlight reel goals that have peppered the Gunners’ undefeated run, some have decided that patience and a compact defence are more effective in slowing down the Arsenal attack.
Following the lead of Sporting Lisbon from Thursday night, Wolves were patient and organised at the back for 90 minutes. With eight, nine and sometimes even ten Wolves players behind the ball, the Arsenal attackers were continually denied space in and around the penalty area. The Wolves persistence in clogging up the central areas of the pitch and their refusal to get drawn out when Arsenal recycled possession back towards their own goal meant that the Gunners were forced to play through a veritable wall of gold shirts each time they had the ball. Mesut Ozil dropped deeper and deeper to collect the ball as his intelligent movement was effectively wrangled by the Wolves midfield. Whenever he did receive a pass in the Wolves half, he would turn to find two markers closing him down.
The Wolves brought intense physicality to the Emirates, and a tired looking Arsenal squad was not prepared to match their opponent’s effort level. The Gunners failed to even register a shot on target until a Hector Bellerin left-footed effort well into the second half was saved easily by Wolves keeper Rui Patricio. The second half was marred by the Wolves gamesmanship, and Arsenal watched precious seconds drain away as Wolves stretched each throw in and goal kick as far as they could without receiving a caution from match referee Stuart Atwell. Despite Arsenal finally breaking through to steal the point from the visitors, they hardly ever looked the better side, and there could be no better sign of their frustration than the yellow card Atwell brandished in Ozil’s direction after the German erupted in anger over another call gone against his team.
From Slated To Scorer
As any Arsenal player from the last five years will tell you, Arsenal supporters are a demanding lot who have been starved of the success they once took for granted in the final years at Highbury. Often, this expectation manifests itself in criticism of a particular player, and recently Henrikh Mkhitaryan has been singled out for his performances. Never one to shy away from putting in a shift, the Armenian’s issues have instead been with his end product and his decision making. He would do so well to win the ball back and beat a man, but his 78% pass completion rate this season is low for a creative midfielder in a side that keeps the ball as much as Arsenal, and considerably lower than teammate Ozil (86%), who has played a similar role this season. In fact, Alex Iwobi was handed the start in his stead against Wolves, and despite being an even less accomplished passer the Mkhitaryan this season (75%), his directness and power were favoured by Emery against the sturdy Wolves defence.
After the Gunners had failed to generate any quality scoring chances, Mkhitaryan was introduced in a double substitution along with Aaron Ramsey with a quarter hour left to play. The duo immediately injected some energy into the tiring side, and the Gunners started to increase the pressure on Wolves’ retreating defence. After a flurry of corners and near misses, the Gunners again took a quick corner and the ball found its way to Mkhitaryan just outside the penalty area. He lofted a cross towards the back post, which froze Rui Patricio as his defenders tangled with the Arsenal forwards in front of his goal. The ball almost appeared to float as it curled down into the corner of the net, knotting the score at 1 and salvaging a point for Arsenal. While the goal could arguably be called lucky, as Mkhitaryan didn’t appear to be aiming for the net with his cross, he will take it nonetheless. It will also come as quite a relief for a player who hadn’t contributed to a goal since the loss to Chelsea at the beginning of the year, and could finally provide him with a dearly needed spark of confidence.
Leno Saves The Point
After Henrikh Mkhitaryan levelled the score in the 86’, Arsenal immediately looked intent on scoring again before time elapsed. In their excitement, players streamed forward looking to overload the suddenly strained Wolves defence. This left Adama Traore, the pacey and powerful forward who had come on for Helder Costa at the same time as Mkhitaryan had for Arsenal, with acres of space to cause distress to the Arsenal defence. Traore did just that, twice spearheading dangerous counterattacks that had Rob Holding chasing him in desperation and lead to two incredible saves by Bernd Leno.
The German was absolutely sensational on the night, maintaining his focus through long stretches as his teammates held possession to be there when called upon to make a key save. Only 1 of 6 Wolves shots on target found the mark, and many of them required more than a routine stop by Leno. His spectacular reaction saves on first time shots have saved Arsenal’s impressive unbeaten run on multiple occasions, and Sunday was no different. A clear upgrade to Cech when playing with the ball at his feet, Leno has also showed himself to be every bit as capable as a shot stopper this season. If anything, since becoming the starter after an injury to Cech, he has only strengthened his grip on the role, and now looks highly unlikely to concede it to his veteran teammate again.
Emery’s Aggression Rewarded
For all the talk of a better, fitter, brighter Arsenal (points which are buoyed by favourable results of late), the Gunners have undeniably struggled to hit their best form in the first half of the majority of their matches this season. While there could be some debate over whether it has been Unai Emery’s initial tactics or his players’ penchant for starting slow and growing into matches that is most at fault for this trend, the halftime break has typically signalled a turning point in the team’s performance, leading to some incredible attacking displays in the waning minutes.
After watching his team dominate possession but concede all of the best chances to Wolves in the first half, Emery once again took a proactive approach in trying to rectify the situation, swapping arguably the most dangerous looking Gunner in the first half, Alex Iwobi, for Matteo Guendouzi and his 4-2-3-1 for more of a 4-3-3. The gangly Guendouzi offered the Gunners more control in the centre of the pitch, and they slowly started to work their way deeper and deeper into the Wolves end. While Arsenal were still far from dynamic in possession, Granit Xhaka and Lucas Torreira were free to move into more advanced areas, and Wolves’ mid block became more of a low block against the ever-increasing pressure.
However, it wasn’t until the 75th minute when Emery played his final hand, sending on Ramsey and Mkhitaryan for Ozil and Kolasinac. This saw Granit Xhaka once again slotted back into an aggressive left back role, and the Gunners mounted their most sustained pressure of the match as the clock ticked down to the last 10 minutes. Emery had cast caution to the wind in a bid to knot the score, and was rewarded with Mkhitaryan’s lucky goal in the dying minutes.
The aggressive tactics did nearly cost Arsenal the match, as the backline was badly exposed to counterattacks in the second half, but Emery has consistently shown faith in his players to function in a variety of roles as they chase a lead. The current run of 16 matches without a defeat suggests that Emery’s aggression is rewarded more often than it is being punished, but the fact of the matter is much of his gambling in the second half would be unnecessary if the players could start matches with the right intensity and commitment. Arsene Wenger struggled to get this team to start fast at times last season, and in many respects it is one of the few areas in which we haven’t yet seen a noticeable change under Emery. But unlike his predecessor, who trusted his players to find solutions themselves and was much less likely to haul an under-performing player off unceremoniously at half time, Emery is taking a more proactive approach.
Good Time For A Break
While Arsenal have been able to maintain their unbeaten run through October and into November, extending it to 16 matches with the draw on Sunday, there have been increasing signs of fatigue and lapses in form within the squad in recent matches. Arsenal have now drawn 3 matches in a row, scoring just 3 goals in that span. Teams have focused on stopping the passing combinations and dangerous runs into central areas in recent weeks, and have applied consistent physical pressure to both Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. The ever-present smiles have waned from the faces of the dynamic duo in recent weeks, and their free scoring form at the beginning of the season has levelled off.
Having played 7 matches since 22 October, the international break comes at a good time for the players to recharge and regroup. With much of the squad remaining in North London during the break, Emery and his coaching staff can use the time to evaluate their tactics and maintain the fitness levels of the players remaining at London Colney. Players like Nacho Monreal, Konstantinos Mavropanos and Laurent Koscielny continue to work their way back from injuries, and Monreal in particular has a chance to rejoin the squad by the time league play resumes in two weeks’ time.
The break is the last of 2018, and Unai Emery will soon experience his first English festive period and its cluttered fixtures list, a far cry from the winter breaks that Europe’s other major leagues observe. Few could have imagined that Arsenal would be in the middle of perhaps the strongest fight for top 4 places in Premier League history, but the results have overshadowed some of the struggles that lie simmering beneath the surface; the Gunners simply allow too many scoring chances and don’t generate enough of their own on a regular basis. They have shown improvement in many areas this season, but have yet to put it all together thus far under Emery. However, with each passing week and new training session, the players will become more and more comfortable with what their manager asks them to do. So while the underlying statistics suggest a downturn in form could be on the horizon, this Arsenal team has plenty of potential to improve.