Unai Emery enlightens Arsenal to finally complement their technical qualities
Arsenal’s impressive unbeaten run was extended after they surpassed Eddie Howe’s Bournemouth last week. Unexpectedly, it was their solid defensive performance that added another three points to their tally. Unai Emery’s decision to play a back three proved effective as they controlled Bournemouth’s runs behind the defence. The major decision however was benching his highest earner Mesut Ozil. Emery’s reasoning was that the game demanded physicality and intensity.
Spurs, the other half of North London, experienced a perfect week after outmaneuvering Chelsea at Wembley and then beating Inter midweek in the Champions League. The win against Inter now means that Spurs only need to equal or better Inter’s result in the last matchday of the group stages.
On Sunday, both halves of North London met at the Emirates. Spurs continued with their 4–3–1–2 formation which proved its effectiveness this season. The only change to the line up that faced Chelsea was the introduction of Jan Vertonghen in place of his fellow Belgian Toby Alderweireld. Emery meanwhile decided to continue with the 3–4–3 system without Ozil for the second game in a row. Back spasm was the reported reason behind Ozil’s omission this time.
Arsenal’s intensive pressing at the beginning of the game was reminiscent of Pochettino’s first Premier League encounter against Pep Guardiola a couple of seasons ago. Similarly to Spurs on that day, Arsenal’s midfield duo of Lucas Torreira and Granit Xhaka disrupted Spurs’ midfield with their excellent interceptions with the help of the wing backs and the front three. However, this was a supporting role to the main act. The idea was that with the control of the ball Arsenal can attack through the left side enabling Saed Kolasinac as Alex Iwobi dragged Serge Aurier inside the pitch. Unlike Chelsea’s 4–3–3, Arsenal’s 3–4–3 gives Kolasinac the ability to burst forward and keep the width without having defensive duties in the back of his mind. Also, Sissoko was unable to contain the Bosnian due to the narrowness of Spurs’ diamond, as marking the left wing back would mean disrupting the compactness of the midfield.
Kolasinac threatened from the left side, but it was Aubameyang’s run into the left wing that ignited the first spark. His run caused a misunderstanding between Aurier and inexperienced Juan Foyth. Aurier fouled the striker, and from this foul Arsenal gained a penalty after Vertonghen clumsily handled the ball. Aubameyang struck his 9th goal this season from the penalty spot to give Arsenal the lead.
Arsenal continued their dominance from the left side after the goal and Kolasinac’s testosteronic runs ruled the left flank. In four minutes he created three goal scoring opportunities which minimally should have resulted in a 2nd goal for Arsenal. His low driven cross was scuffed by Aubameyang in the fourteenth minute, then a cut back to Iwobi could have doubled the lead if not for Lloris’ save. The third chance came as Kolasinac’s inch perfect cross found the other wing back Hector Bellerin, but the Spaniard’s shot was blocked by Ben Davies. Three chances that showed Kolasinac’s athleticism and technique, providing three different types of crosses at a considerably high speed.
Spurs threatened sporadically in the first twenty minutes. Prior to Arsenal’s mega chances Son had the opportunity to equalize when he ran behind Holding in the right channel, but his shot was saved by Bernd Leno. It was Son’s runs in the other channel that harmed Arsenal though. Initially running into the space behind Mustafi where he met Sissoko’s pass, Sokratis’ aggresive marking resulted in a free kick, through which Spurs equalized as Eriksen’s cross found Eric Dier’s header. Moments after the game restarted, Kane found Son who was running into the same space. A dubious penalty was the result of Son tucking inside instead of shooting with his left foot. Kane stepped up to take the penalty, and struck it perfectly to give Spurs the lead. With Spurs now ahead, Pochettino decided to switch to 4–2–3–1 for the rest of the half, controlling the game and containing Arsenal.
Unsatisfied with the last fifteen minutes Emery decided to mix things up. He introduced Aaron Ramsey and Alexandre Lacazette in place of Mkhitaryan and Iwobi, and switched to a 3–4–1–2 formation. Emery also switched Arsenal’s style of play from left wing dependency to direct balls into the channels and behind the defence. Leno’s saves earlier in the half kept Arsenal in the game, but it was the switch to balls into the channels that brought them back to life. A Ramsey pass into the right channel was too heavy for Aubameyang as the striker failed to catch the ball. This pass proved a warning to Pochettino and his defence as minutes after, Bellerin’s pass into the right channel fell for Ramsey who invaded that space. Ramsey smartly squared it back to Aubameyang who curled it into the net leaving Lloris frozen as he stood there closely observing the beauty of the strike. Moreover, Lacazette’s movements towards the right wing provided Ramsey with the space to attack. More balls into the left and right channels provided Arsenal with pressure, momentum and half chances to take the lead.
Pochettino was under pressure and the Argentine had to find a solution. He decided to switch to a 3–4–3 formation, dropping Dier deeper into the defensive line. The changes countered Arsenal’s approach and less spaces were available to Arsenal. Despite that, Arsenal were still in control of the game, searching for that crucial winner. Mustafi’s injury resulted in the introduction of Matteo Guendouzi, and Emery switching to his third system of the day, a 4–3–1–2. Unluckily for Spurs, Arsenal’s third goal wasn’t down to any tactical switch but rather a mistake and a deflection. Ramsey pressed Foyth forcing him into a mistake, his pass found Lacazette whose shot reached the back of the net after deflecting off Dier. The stadium erupted, and minutes after Arsenal killed the game with the fourth goal. Torreira’s advanced positioning on the right side of the diamond allowed him to run into the right channel. Aubameyang’s pass found the buzzing Uruguayan who topped his impressive performance with a goal. In search of getting back into the game Pochettino subbed Alli and Son for Harry Winks and Lucas Moura, and switched to a 3–1–4–2. The changes were ineffective and Vertonghen’s second yellow card only made things worse.
In a game of chess that felt like a Formula One race, Pochettino was always one step behind failing to overtake Emery. Three different formations and two completely different attacking approaches from the Spaniard mesmerized Tottenham and enabled Arsenal players to showcase their footballing qualities. Emery’s chapter is just beginning and the next paragraph is at Old Trafford where Arsenal had only won once in the last twelve years.