Connect with us

Post Match Review

Arsenal pay heavy price for victory over Huddersfield


As perhaps the single most hectic month on the league schedule, December is where the best Premier League teams begin to separate themselves from the merely very good ones. With the race for top four this season as intense and contested as it has ever been, it was imperative that Arsenal start the month on a high. After taking seven points from their first three matches of the month, with two of those matches coming against rival top six teams, the Gunners are off to a flying start, keeping pace with the top of the table.

Saturday’s 1-0 win over Huddersfield was more difficult than many expected, but the three points has kept them within striking distance of Tottenham in third place and still less than 10 points off the top spot. With a meaningless game on Thursday against Vorskla Poltava in the Europa League, the first team regulars should get a much-needed rest before going again on the weekend against Southampton.

Huddersfield Bring The Fight

Arsenal supporters may have been hoping for an easy go of it against Huddersfield following back to back intense clashes against Tottenham and Manchester United, but it was clear from the opening whistle that David Wagner’s side had other ideas. Eschewing the conventional wisdom of a deep and compact defence typically employed by lower table sides against an attacking top six team, Huddersfield instead put the pressure on Arsenal high up the pitch, scarcely letting up as the match wore on. With Arsenal set up in a conservative 3-5-2, the relentless pressure kept the Gunners far from the danger areas in front of goal, forcing them instead to build the majority of their attacks from the flanks. While Hector Bellerin and Sead Kolasinac were able to penetrate the Huddersfield defence out wide from their wingback roles, they found little space for a final ball through the organised opposition. 

Far from merely executing a tactical plan, the Huddersfield players appeared intent on giving a tired Arsenal side another daunting physical challenge. The two clubs may share a friendly allegiance to one of football’s greatest innovators, Herbert Chapman, but the mood on the pitch became increasingly testy and physical as match referee Paul Tierney struggled to control the rising aggression. While the Arsenal players did well to match the intensity of the visitors, it was enough to throw them off their game, and they were largely starved of the attacking fluidity that has been a hallmark of their finest moments this season. Ultimately, Lucas Torreira’s wonder goal stole the chance of a deserved point from a very determined Huddersfield, but the match reinforced one clear message to the team; in the Premier League, there are no easy days.

Emery Goes Conservative

For all of the struggles and shortcomings of last season’s Arsenal team, Huddersfield was one opponent that presented few challenges during Arsene Wenger’s last season in charge, as the Gunners outscored them 6-0 in their two meetings. In spite of this, Unai Emery took a different tact to the aggressive attacking teams deployed in those fixtures last season by Wenger, instead opting for a 3-5-2 devoid of a traditional creative presence to link the midfield to the attack. Perhaps feeling a bit gun shy after watching his players twice give away the lead too easily to Manchester United on Wednesday, the team sheet suggested a manager intent on shoring up these defensive issues with a heavy dose of defenders and central midfielders. 

While this decision did indeed have the desired effect on the defence, with Huddersfield failing to register a shot on target, the attack appeared hamstrung without a truly creative presence to drive the team forward into dangerous areas. Arsenal themselves registered just two shots on target, and much of their possession was spent in slow, deliberate build-up play with lots of sideways and backward passes. Emery recognized this, and at the half sent on Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Alex Iwobi to try and rectify it. The Gunners did become more progressive and dangerous in the second half, but remained frustrated by the continued tenacity of the Huddersfield defence. 

For Unai Emery, this first season in England is a constant learning experience. As he continues to tinker with player combinations and formations in pursuit of the proper balance between attack and defence, seeing these teams in person rather than just on film will better prepare him to face them the second time through. He is a manager quick to identify and rectify his tactical mistakes, and after perhaps getting too conservative in what ostensibly should have been a straightforward victory, his halftime changes helped spur the team to victory. 

Questionable Bookings Create Selection Crisis For Emery

What started as an interesting fact quickly turned into the foundation of a developing narrative for referee Paul Tierney as he officiated his first ever match at the Emirates Stadium. Having disavowed most of the Premier League’s referees at one point or another for slights against the team (some perceived, some with evidence), the supporters were eager to see if a new face would bring a more favourable disposition to proceedings. Unfortunately, after just one half of play, the jury was in on Tierney, and he did not win many accolades from the home support.

After seeing Heung-Min Son win a penalty for Tottenham under dubious circumstances with a deceitful bit of play-acting last Sunday, Arsenal supporters spent the week railing against cheating and diving, appealing to the FA for a stricter view of simulation. Little did they know that they would get their wish, only to see their own players booked on three separate occasions for simulation, with Granit Xhaka, Shkodran Mustafi and Matteo Guendouzi all seeing yellow for alleged diving incidents.

Frankly, Tierney was a bit harsh on Xhaka and Mustafi, who both went down to actual contact from a defender only to be booked for their troubles. Making matters worse, Mustafi’s yellow was his fifth of the season, triggering an automatic one-match suspension to be served next weekend against Southampton. Though not for simulation, Sokratis Papastathopoulos joined him in the book for his own fifth yellow of the season, and he will also miss the next match.

With Rob Holding out with a serious knee injury and both starting centre backs set to miss the next league match, Unai Emery has a massive task before him in trying to create a backline out of the remaining players at his disposal. Stephan Lichtsteiner and Mohammed Elneny could both be called upon to play as central defenders, with recent injury returnees Nacho Monreal and Laurent Koscielny also in the mix. It remains to be seen how Emery will cope with the challenge, but he has shown he isn’t afraid to get creative when searching for solutions to his problems. Also worth noting: Lucas Torreira now sits on four yellows with big matches against fellow top-six opponents on the horizon. The Uruguayan must be careful to not leave his team short of his talents for the vital fixtures ahead.

Injury Woes Worsen

Perhaps lost in the commotion and outrage over all of the bookings and resulting suspensions, the Gunners again failed to make it through a match without losing a player to injury. Shkodran Mustafi pulled up in the second half with a knock to his hamstring, making him the second centre-back in as many matches to be felled, though Emery insisted after the match that his injury was minor. It may also be fortuitous for Arsenal that his injury comes before a match in which he was due to be suspended anyway, but it has not prevented tough questions from being directed at the Basque manager over his fitness regime.

It has been noted far and wide that there is much to separate an Unai Emery training session from those of the man that preceded him, Arsene Wenger. Like his compatriot Pep Guardiola, Emery favours intense, high tempo training sessions to better simulate the type of swarming energy his philosophy requires on match day. This has some wondering if the Spaniard, who has never coached in a league without a winter break, is in danger of overworking his players to the point of a heightened risk for injury.

 Almost certainly, navigating a hectic period of fixtures where he is used to having none will require some sort of adjustment on his part, but Arsenal have a supremely well-respected player performance team whose job it is to get players physically ready to play while also monitoring them for the warning signs of an impending injury. As long as Emery is working in concert with this side of his football operation, and heeding their advice on player workloads, it shouldn’t be cause for much concern. However, if players continue to be felled by injury, particularly those associated with fatigue like the ACL injury suffered by Rob Holding, the questions may continue to follow the new head coach well into the new year.

Torreira The Goalscorer

When Arsenal forked out around £25 million to pry Lucas Torreira away from Sampdoria this past summer, they weren’t doing it to bring in another goalscorer. Having scored just four times in his two seasons at the Serie A club, Torreira built his reputation instead on his incredible defensive awareness and ability to evade the press when on the ball. However, this past week saw him enter the Arsenal goalscoring charts in emphatic fashion, first with his game-clinching strike that put the final in Tottenham’s coffin last Sunday, and then again on Saturday with a stunning overhead kick to fired Arsenal to all three points against Huddersfield.

Starting in a midfield three, Torreira was given more license to go forward against Huddersfield than in previous matches. While some were concerned that Granit Xhaka took up the deepest position of the trio, it did little to affect Torreira’s contribution. His more advanced positioning did ultimately pay off in an unexpected way when, in the 83rd minute, he found himself deep in the Huddersfield penalty area as Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang battled for a loose ball just to the right of the goal mouth. The Gabonian came away with it and chipped a delightful little cross into the six-yard box to a waiting Torreira, who leapt into the air, bringing his foot around over the top of his head and drilling the ball into the back of the net. 

Already rapidly becoming one of the most universally adored players to wear the Arsenal shirt in years for his tenacious defensive ability, Torreira is only endearing himself further with his newfound penchant for scoring massive goals for his team. His impassioned celebrations showed just how much scoring for his new club means to him, and supporters couldn’t be any more smitten with their new favourite player. At just 22, and with a work ethic to match his humble beginnings, it isn’t hard to imagine Torreira getting even better than he already is. With the bulk of the season still to play, Lucas Torreira has already staked his claim as not only the best value signing of the summer, but perhaps the best signing in world football, period, irrespective of cost.  

More in Post Match Review