Arsenal had never lost to a French team before their thrashing at the hands of Rennes in the first leg. They scored a goal within three minutes but a red card to Sokratis meant Arsenal had to play with ten men for more than an hour in which time Rennes piled on the pressure and scored two more.
Rennes came into the first leg of the knock-out stages of the Europa League in the middle of a streak. They’d won their last match against Orleans, drawn with fourth-place Marseilles and hit Real Betis for three to qualify for the knock-out stages. Arsenal had also looked like a rejuvenated side after having been held to a draw against Tottenham Hotspurs due to questionable referring and winning against Bournemouth, and Southampton earlier in impressive manners. Most Arsenal fans would have expected an easy win but what followed was anything but.
Arsenal started in their 4-2-3-1 with four changes. Lucas Torreira came in for Matteo Guendouzi, Mesut Özil returned to the lineup in place of Aaron Ramsey and Alexandre Lacazette was replaced by Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. The goalkeepers were also swapped – Petr Cech came in for Bernd Leno.
Rennes made two changes to the lineup that had defeated Orleans – M’Baye Niang was replaced by Adrian Hunou as the striker while right-back Hamari Traoré was replaced by Mehdi Zeffane.
Rennes’ pressing and Arsenal’s defensive problems
Rennes played a pressing game right from the first minute. Their two forwards were constantly hounding the Arsenal centre-backs and Arsenal couldn’t settle into the game as people would expect. This was partly due to the fact that Cech was in goal – someone not particularly good at playing out from the back in high-pressure situations.
Rennes pressing scheme worked well against Arsenal’s midfield and defence. The two strikers – Hatem Ben Arfa and Hunou would press Laurent Koscielny and Sokratis when they had the ball. The fullbacks – Shkodran Mustafi, and Nacho Monreal were marked by the wingers -Benjamin Bourigeaud and Ismaïla Sarr. They started deep but moved up to press once their opposite full-backs had the ball. The interiors – Benjamin André and Clement Grenier would provide stability in the centre by marking Özil and Mkhitaryan. Since the full-backs were pressed well, Arsenal couldn’t build as easily through the wings as they usually like to do.
The Rennes press yielded results very soon. Combined with how often Arsenal’s midfielders got caught out in possession in dangerous areas, their slow backline, and how good Rennes’ ball-carriers were, it was all too easy for Rennes to create chances. The centre-backs had to commit unnecessary fouls to stop the shots and this was what led to Sokratis’ expulsion from the game in the 41st minute. He collected two successive yellow cards and was given his marching orders.
Arsenal’s defensive issues
Arsenal fell back into a 4-4-2 without the ball. Iwobi and Mkhitaryan would join the double pivot to create a midfield four. When Arsenal were reduced to ten men, they shifted to a 4-3-2 with Mkhitaryan filling in at right-back. The numerical inferiority naturally meant Arsenal had to defend tighter than usual and concede space out wide. However, Mkhitaryan is no right-back and even in 1v1s, he fared badly against Ben Arfa. Rennes targeted this weak area again and again either via directly taking him on or drawing him out wide and then making runs in behind.
Rennes’ plan in possession
Although in the first forty-five minutes, Rennes didn’t keep possession for too long, they did have a clear idea of what to do when they got it. They had lined up in a 4-4-2, a structure which remained largely the same except for one small change. During possession, the left-back, Mehdi Zeffane wouldn’t push up high like the other full-back creating a back three. This made them look like a 3-5-2 in possession. A concept which is commonly seen at Guardiola’s Manchester City, this helped them a lot in a couple of different ways. Firstly, it provided a stable base in case of turnovers in the middle third or their own third. Secondly, it confused the Arsenal press, most notably Alex Iwobi. Arsenal pressed with Aubameyang and Özil but since Zeffane created a numerical imbalance there, Iwobi had to move up to press.
This was exactly what Julien Stephan wanted as that left the pacy Ismaila Sarr in a 1v1 with Nacho Monreal, with no help from his winger. The French side took a lot of advantage of this by simply moving over the midfielder Andre on to the right side from where he could bypass the press by simply receiving from Zeffane and then releasing Sarr in space, where he could use his pace to beat Monreal. Alternatively, if Iwobi decided to not press, that left the vertical passing lane to Sarr open which they exploited by having Sarr drop to receive and then play a similar one-two with Andre to again run into space.
Since Zeffane would not venture very high in the first half, it had the additional advantage of freeing up the opposite fullback – Ramy Bensebaini. If Arsenal defended Sarr’s flank well, a quick switch of play to the opposite side via Grenier almost always found the right-back in space.
Arsenal were frequently overloaded in the midfield as Ben Arfa dropping meant that they created a 3v2 against the Xhaka-Torreira pivot. The Rennes midfield was one which thrived on counter-attacking or similar situations. During these transition phases, they either used through balls into the path of onrushing midfielders or forwards or they used the dribbling ability of Grenier and Hatem Ben Arfa to directly attack the Arsenal back-line. Hatem Ben Arfa, in particular, attempted fifteen dribbles during the entire match and completed nine out of it! Although he was playing as a second striker or as a number #10, he’d often drop deep to receive, usually following a set-piece and then carry the ball himself. When the Arsenal defence reacted to it, he’d use the space created to release the player making the run – usually Bensebaini from deep. After Sokratis left, Rennes no longer had to worry about defensive solidity and only looked to create overloads on the flanks – with Zeffane pushing up high as well. This change of role was further helped by Iwobi’s substitution which meant the fullback hadn’t much to worry about on the flank.
Arsenal’s Possession Plan
Until the moment Sokratis was shown red, Arsenal had been dominating possession. The Arsenal offence was similar to how to usually functions.
The fullbacks moved high and wide, while Torreira and Xhaka formed the double pivot. Mkhitaryan and Iwobi functioned as wingers, with Özil in the centre and Aubameyang up front. Mkhitaryan has a natural tendency to come inwards – towards the half-spaces or the central areas. This led to Arsenal almost playing with two #10s on the pitch. Iwobi held his width on most occasions. Sometimes, when the ball was on the far side, he’d move inwards and provide half-space support. When that happened, Monreal would occupy the wider areas. This worked well with Emery’s overload-and-switch policy.
Their offensive plan was not unlike Rennes’ itself – usually, Mkhitaryan, Torreira, Özil, and Aubameyang would all shift over to one side, forming neat passing triangles and diamonds. Once the defence reacted to it and shifted over to one side to cope with the overload, they’d switch the play via Xhaka. Then Iwobi would make a diagonal run and exploit the space created by the movement of the Rennes defensive block. This is what led to the first goal.
Imbalances in attack
Arsenal’s attack usually isn’t under the scrutiny as much as the defence but this doesn’t mean it’s without its problems. The attacking talent on the pitch was clear to see. However, they didn’t complement each other very well to grow into something greater than the sum of its parts. For example, as mentioned earlier, Mkhitaryan has the tendency to drift inwards. This led to a gap opening up on the right flank. Aubameyang drifted out wide to receive and combine with the fullback to feed in crosses into the box. However, there was no one to attack the crosses since Iwobi was too far off and Özil isn’t good at heading by any means. This led to a lot of dangerous balls being either cleared out under no pressure or flashed across the goal’s face without any Arsenal player attacking it.
Arsenal have done it again. They have again gone behind in the first leg(they went behind in the first leg against BATE Borisov as well), making history in the process as the first away loss against French opposition in European history. They have all the work cut out for them as next Thursday, they have to overcome a two-goal deficit to ensure that their Europa League dreams don’t turn to dust. Rennes, on the other hand, have all to play for. Already sitting tenth in Ligue 1, the Europa League is their only chance to redeem themselves this season.