Arsenal continue to struggle for form in the Premier League, this time throwing away a one-goal lead at home to draw against Wolverhampton Wanderers. This leaves the Gunners with just 11 out of their last possible 24 points, with Unai Emery facing increasing criticism and speculation as to his future. In this article, I will look at the three major tactical errors that the Spaniard made during the weekend’s encounter.
1. The Diamond.
The first time we saw Unai Emery deploy a narrow midfield diamond (i.e. One defensive midfielder, two central midfielders, and one attacking midfielder) was away at European Champions Liverpool. The aim was to force the ball wide away from dangerous areas, yet it resulted in an unprecedented number of crosses from arguably the best fullbacks in the world. I was not sold on its suitability for this Arsenal side.
Fast forward to Saturday’s game, and in the absence of Granit Xhaka, Unai Emery again opted for a midfield diamond. With Matteo Guendouzi in the no.6 role, Lucas Torreira and Dani Ceballos played as no.8’s, whilst Mesut Ozil was recalled to his favoured no.10 role. Again, the aim was surely to provide more stability in the middle of the pitch, yet it provided the wolves wing-backs with acres of space to move into.
With full-backs such as Matt Doherty, who notched up nine goal contributions last season, this seemed unwise. Indeed, it was from a cross, albeit from central midfielder Joao Moutinho, that Raul Jimenez nodded in a deserved equaliser. Well before this, the cracks of this system were being shown, and it appears that the formation may have to be shelved for the coming games.
2. Lucas Torreira.
Signed from Sampdoria at the beginning of Emery’s regime, Lucas Torreira carved out a reputation for himself in a double-pivot alongside Granit Xhaka in his debut season for the Gunners. It has been something of a shock to the system, therefore, to see him deployed as a box-to-box midfielder for the beginning of the 2019/20 season.
In Xhaka’s absence, I, like many Arsenal fans, expected to see Torreira restored to his favoured no.6 position. Instead, that spot was given to Matteo Guendouzi, who at present lacks the sense of danger required to succeed in that role. Twice in the opening ten minutes, he gave the ball away facing his own goal and generally didn’t look comfortable with his responsibilities.
The same can be said for Torreira, the Uruguayan often finding himself out of position. You have to feel for the 23-year-old, who is being asked to play in a position that he is clearly uncomfortable in when someone equally ill-suited to his role fills it. In my mind, switching Torreira and Guendouzi would have worked wonders for the balance of Arsenal’s midfield, and it seems baffling that Unai Emery did not see what the majority of the fan-base could.
3. Odd Substitutions.
Here we come to the crux of the problem- last season, Arsenal were a notoriously poor side in the first half, and the game was often saved in the second. Regularly you would see half-time changes which resulted in a more balanced Arsenal side, joyous whilst simultaneously asking why this could not be achieved from the first minute. This season, however, there has been none of that.
Looking at the substitutions in order, it is clear that the first was perfectly logical- Gabriel Martinelli had scored a brace in midweek against Liverpool, whilst Alexandre Lacazette, despite getting an assist, had been largely ineffectual.
However, the next substitution, replacing Lucas Torreira with the youthful Bukayo Saka, was frankly criminal. Despite being played out of position, Torreira had remained one of Arsenal’s best midfielders to this point, and with Wolves needing a goal it seemed suicidal to take off the only defensive-minded player in the diamond. Dani Ceballos would have been a much more suitable option to be replaced, having been largely ineffective all game. It is entirely unsurprising that Wolves equalised just three minutes after the change was made.
The final change also left much to be desired; Kieran Tierney, albeit a man coming back from injury, could surely have survived the final three minutes of the game as well as he could the first 87. With Nicolas Pepe, a man seemingly finding some form, on the bench, and Arsenal needing a goal, this seemed like the obvious change. However, Emery instead opted for Sead Kolasinac, which smacked of a wasted substitution. Unless there was an unseen injury, the final substitution was entirely pointless and failed to have any impact at all on the proceedings on the pitch.
These three fundamental tactical issues were crucially important across the 90 minutes and surely contributed to the final result not being as was hoped for. Unai Emery appears to have continued to fail to pick successful line-ups, whilst also losing his touch for half-time changes which rectified the situation. It is undoubtedly a bleak situation for the Spaniard, who is surely needing to alter this downturn in form sooner rather than later in order to retain his job.