Connect with us

Post Match Review

Arsenal set tone for 2019, dismantle Fulham at the Emirates

Arsenal Fulham Tactical Analysis Statistics

2019 is finally here! For Arsenal, the New Year celebrations mean the business end of the season has arrived, and the battle for places at the top end of the Premier League table is only intensifying. Reeling from their embarrassing 5-1 defeat at the hands of table-topping Liverpool just three days earlier, the Gunners were desperate to collect all three points from relegation battling Fulham. Luckily for Unai Emery, the attack took matters into their own hands, putting together one of their best performances of the season en route to a comfortable 4-1 victory at the Emirates Stadium. A muti-goal cushion late in proceedings allowed Emery to hand a Premier League debut to the latest Hale End product, 17-year-old Bukayo Saka, but above all the victory put the Gunners back on track in their quest for a top-four place this season. The Gunners remain in fifth place just three points behind Chelsea in fourth, and will aim to draw level with their London rivals when they face off in a little more than two weeks time.

First Hurdle Of 2019 Passed

Last season, Arsene Wenger’s last as Arsenal manager, was a trying one for fans and club alike. While the whole season was full of the usual drama surrounding Wenger’s job security, things didn’t get truly patchy for the 2017/18 edition of the team until after the New Year, a period which saw them wait until 20 Jan to register their first win. This included an embarrassing 4-2 defeat in the FA Cup to Nottingham Forest, which was only a harbinger of the struggles to come.

Mercifully for all involved, there was no such wait in 2019 as they managed to register all three points in their first try. Coming on the heels of a holiday period that saw the Gunners fall off the pace in the race for top four with three ugly losses in December, the victory was essential to the players’ confidence as the second leg of the season kicks off. However, as many are no doubt aware, the real struggles last season came in away fixtures, with the Gunners not registering a victory until they beat Huddersfield 1-0 in May. Unai Emery will get his first crack at besting that mark on 12 January when the Gunners will travel to the London Stadium to take on a mercurial West Ham side that finds itself entrenched in mid-table obscurity, well of the pace of a Europa League place. 

Can’t Buy A Clean Sheet

Despite a scoreline that suggests a relatively easy day for Arsenal, the first match of 2019 was not a radical departure from what we have seen from this defence. The Gunners’ last clean sheet in the Premier League came on 8 December, when Emery’s men were able to squeak out a 1-0 victory against Huddersfield at the Emirates Stadium, and they failed to keep Fulham at bay for 90 minutes in this match, finally conceding with 20 minutes remaining. 

The problem, as it has been for much of the campaign, is that the defence continues to allow far too many opportunities for Emery’s liking. The Gunners conceded nine Fulham shots on the afternoon, with four managing to find the target, and the Cottagers finished with an Expected Goals (xG) of 1.71. Arsenal allowed an average of 10.75 passes per defensive action (PPDA; essentially a reflection of how long the opponent is allowed to keep the ball in the middle and final thirds before a defensive intervention), which is down from their season mark of 9.6. This potentially suggests a more conservative approach to pressing from the front, and the back three formation Emery has employed recently could also have played a part. 

As the match unfolded, there were moments when Fulham appeared to wrest away the initiative, and the Arsenal midfield was bypassed far too easily once the initial press was broken. This is hardly a new phenomenon, as Unai Emery has been searching for a balance between defensive solidity and attacking fluidity since the very first match of the season. Injuries and fatigue played their part during the busy festive period, but the defence’s recent patchy form will remain a concern for Emery going forward. 

Establishing A Link

While the Gunners’ defensive woes pre-date Unai Emery’s arrival by years and have never truly subsided, the December swoon was marked equally by a lack of a cohesive and fluid attack. The individual talents of Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang have ensured the team is never without threat, but with principal creators, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Mesut Ozil both sidelined through injury, the team had struggled to supply the front with adequate service. At times, the team almost looks as if it is separated into two halves: six or seven players involved in buildup and tasked with recycling possession while the remaining players are isolated in attack, waiting for someone to break the lines and allow an opportunity for a scoring chance. 

Against Fulham, the midfield trio of Granit Xhaka, Matteo Guendouzi, and Lucas Torreira, who came on for Shkodran Mustafi at the half, were much more effective linking play with the attack. The Gunners posted a healthy xG of 4.43, their best mark of the season, and it suggests Emery has begun focusing on correcting some of their creative woes. This was exemplified by Xhaka’s opening goal, which came following a penetrating run into the box that was reminiscent of Aaron Ramsey’s more aggressive interpretation of the central midfield role. Alex Iwobi bagged an assist in the second consecutive match as he has assumed the mantle of chief creator in the absence of others, and the Nigerian is showing signs of a return to his energetic form from early in the season.

With four key passes and one assist, Sead Kolasinac once again showed how important he has been to the attack from his left wing back position. Aaron Ramsey’s introduction with a quarter of an hour left to play saw the Gunners become even more threatening, and they quickly added two more goals to their total, including one for the Welshman himself. Aubameyang put together one of his most complete performances of the season as he displayed good energy and a willingness to do work further away from goal, and his work in a front trio with Iwobi and Lacazette was key to the newfound attacking fluidity. 

While it is too soon to say the Gunners have solved their creative woes, and indeed Fulham is far from defensively stable themselves, the match showed off a far more dynamic attacking team than we saw for much of December. The return of Ozil and Mhkitaryan will once again give Emery a more diverse stable of creative options, but if Emery is able to extract more attacking performances like Tuesday’s from the players currently at his disposal, it will go a long way toward re-establishing the Gunners’ legitimacy as a contender for a Champions League place.

Disgruntlement Boils Over

Despite coming away with a three-goal victory, the match was not without displays of discontent from the Emirates Stadium faithful. The recent downturn in form had put a damper on the excitement generated during the 22-match unbeaten run, but on Tuesday, it was news of the club’s rumoured plans for the January transfer window that had fans most on edge. The BBC’s David Ornstein, long considered the most reliable source for insider information at the club, reported that the Gunners would likely have a quiet January on the market, much to the frustration of many fans. 

With a snowballing injury situation and apparent needs at centre-back, full-back and on the wing, fans have long hoped that January would see the club target moves to aid in their quest for a Champions League place. However, Ornstein’s report seemed to suggest a lack of funds to spend in January, and he stated that the Gunners were far more likely to pursue temporary loans to add reinforcements. Aware of the club’s massive cash reserves, this had fans immediately pointing the finger at owner Stan Kroenke, assuming the American was behind the paltry budget. The reality is that the club is far more concerned about Financial Fair Play regulations involving yearly wage bill growth, but the complicated nature of the rule set first established in 2013 makes it difficult for a casual fan to understand.

The Emirates Stadium was anything but electric for most of the afternoon, and the situation came to a head when Unai Emery decided to sub off Alexandre Lacazette with 15 minutes to play. Tired of seeing the striker again denied the opportunity to go the distance, the fans lavished Emery with a chorus of boos. So poor was the reaction, Lacazette took it upon himself to goad the fans into applause, turning his slow walk toward the touchline into a trot, clapping and imploring his fellow players to remain focused.

It was the sort of fan reaction Arsene Wenger had become used to in his final season, but Emery has seldom encountered in his brief tenure. A return to winning ways and a productive transfer window could go a long way toward restoring the excitement to the stands once again, but fans have become increasingly wary of a rejuvenated Manchester United now hot on their tail in the race for top four. 

Koscielny Lasts the 90

The defensive woes that have plagued the Gunners for much of the season were hardly alleviated on Tuesday, but there was one positive from the match that could be a good sign for the remainder of the season. Club captain Laurent Koscielny started and lasted the full 90 minutes of a Premier League match for the first time since his horrific Achilles injury last season, and already showed signs of knocking off the rust that plagued his first few appearances of the season. The Frenchman completed 90% of his passes on the day, registering a tackle and three interceptions to go along with a blocked shot at the back end. Perhaps most telling of all, however, were Koscielny’s six successful aerial duels, suggesting the 33-year-old has recovered some of the athleticism that has been a hallmark of his Arsenal career.

His return to form could not come at a better time for the Gunners as they continue to deal with a run of injuries in defence. Hector Bellerin and Nacho Monreal both missed out on the match, and Shkodran Mustafi was forced off at the half with a recurrence of a hamstring injury he had been carrying previously. Should Koscielny return to his best form, it will only help the Gunners in their quest to rejuvenate their struggling defence. While his best days are no doubt behind him, Koscielny was the standard bearer at the back for Arsene Wenger’s last half decade in charge, and it warms the heart to see him back and performing well within the team. 

More in Post Match Review