After a gruelling, physical week, which saw two of the most frenetic matches of the season so far, Arsenal’s ‘easy run’ was supposed to begin on Saturday against Huddersfield. But did it?
I think a fair summary of Arsenal’s performance would be scrappy, some of which should be credited to the Huddersfield press. Far from what I expected at the Emirates, they didn’t sit back but were able to isolate moments of the build-up to swarm, which significantly disrupted the ‘build from the back’ style that has typified Unai Emery’s Arsenal. This meant Leno was forced to kick long, and without a physical target man, the Huddersfield defence coped well. When you add the disruption of the flow with clever tactical fouling, and the reshuffle of the defence meaning Arsenal’s deep distributors were Sokratis and Lichsteiner (who are far from the passers Mustafi and Holding are), the disjointed nature begins to make more sense.
There were still chances for Arsenal to take the lead, and with better finishing, I felt Aubameyang could have had a brace before the break, and Lacazette arguably should have had a goal. The Gabonese striker put two chances wide that you would have expected him to do better with, and the Frenchman not only slipped at an inopportune moment, spooning a good chance over the bar, but had a (in my view) reasonable goal disallowed for offside. Although marginally offside from the flick-on, the Huddersfield player then has control of the ball and passes it back, before Lacazette pounced on the mistake. I won’t open the can of worms with VAR written on the side, but maybe next year that gets reviewed and overturned. On Lacazette, I was encouraged with his performance, and can only assume his substitution at half-time was a precautionary measure, and due to Emery’s desire to shake things up tactically.
That brings me on to Iwobi and Mkhitaryan. Their roles are hard to analyse, because whilst I thought individually they were not great, they had an important tactical impact on Arsenal’s shape. Iwobi in particular, who individually I thought played more like the winger who frustrated me so much last season, enabled Kolasinac to become more involved in the play, whereas when Aubameyang and Lacazette partnered upfront, there was not as great a link to the left side of the pitch. If you assess his FPL potential, I think the future partnership of the two strikers could severely limit Kolasinac’s attacking prospects, unless Ozil comes back into the side; he needs a link man, to connect the play to him. The nominative wingback himself (Kolasinac, not Ozil. Although imagining the German in defence makes me see Kolasinac more favourably), did threaten more in the second half offensively, but still leaves chasms behind him, forcing Guendouzi to cover the vacant space. Against better sides, as happened at times against United, the space then left in midfield exposes the defence to a quick counter. It might go unnoticed, but Guendouzi’s pass in the build up to the winner was beautiful. I don’t think the camera angle does it justice, but the trajectory and weight to pick out Aubameyang speaks volumes for the youngster’s vision and range of pass.
The other two central midfielders also impressed. When Arsenal set up with 3 in the middle, Torreira tends to play more of a box-to-box role, and fulfils many of the requirements Sarri has been trying to instil in Kante. Whilst he is great with intercepting, tackling, and then quickly shuffling the ball forward, his attacking threat often gets overlooked; besides the late run into the box that allowed him to score that great scissor/bicycle kick, he had a long range effort that forced Lossl into a smart save earlier. I cannot speak highly enough of the Uruguayan. The impact he has had on the side since becoming a regular starter is such, that he might now be the most important player in the XI. You can tell the opposition has identified this as in the last two games, he has been one of the primary targets for foul rotation, and opposition pressing. I’m not sure this more advanced role is permanent, but whilst its working, I am thoroughly enjoying the greater attacking freedom he has. Xhaka, subsequently pushed as the deepest midfielder, proved he could actually defend! I thought, from a defensive stand point, it was probably his most impressive performance in an Arsenal shirt for a while, but he still showed his tendency for lapses in concentration that has cost Arsenal in the past, and that will go punished against superior opposition.
Overall, I think the biggest positive is that the current unbeaten streak continues – 21 games is nothing to be sniffed at. A potential Mustafi injury further adds to the defensive shortage, but the German and Sokratis are both suspended for the next match anyway, so what the line-up will be is anybody’s guess. I’d like to see a more dominant creator in the side for the trip to the Saints, because otherwise playing two strikers whose greatest strength is their finishing seems a bit pointless. If only there was a playmaker in the Arsenal squad, with a long history of great chance creation and assisting … Oh well, there’s always January!