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Shorthanded Arsenal get the job done against lowly Huddersfield


Arsenal travelled to Huddersfield on Saturday looking to get the bad taste out of their mouths following a crushing defeat to Manchester City last weekend at the Etihad Stadium. In dire need of a win, the Gunners succeeded in coming away from Britain’s worst place to live (according to a 2018 poll) with three points, but the going was anything but easy. Head Coach Unai Emery and his team will now turn their attention towards the Europa League with two matches in a row against Bate Borisov in the knockout stages of the competition, and they will do so with the hope that some much needed reinforcements will return to the squad after a couple untimely illnesses and minor injuries saw them go into the match with Huddersfield short-handed.

Nothing To Lose

While the Gunners did ultimately come away with the victory, Huddersfield ensured it would be far from a walk in the park with their no holds barred performance. Arsenal started the day in something of a hybrid back three/back four to combat Huddersfield’s aggressive 4-3-3. New manager Jan Siewert, who replaced fellow former Borussia Dortmund II manager David Wagner three weeks ago, has thrown caution to the wind with Huddersfield’s relegation at the end of the season all but assured, and the team has decided to go down swinging by playing a far more expansive game than they had employed earlier in the season. Prior to the match, Huddersfield had gone stone cold in front of goal, going 597 minutes without scoring before Sead Kolasinac’s own goal with just minutes to go in the match finally ended the run of futility. 

Despite their long awaited goal not even being scored by own of their own players, Huddersfield threatened throughout the match to break through themselves. With Arsenal missing some key players that generally help to control matches, Huddersfield surprised witnesses by keeping possession for 55% of the match, completing more passes, taking more shots with more of them finding the target than the Gunners. Sensing weakness in the heart of the Arsenal defence, the hosts pummeled the penalty area with crosses, sending 25 into Bernd Leno’s penalty area. Had Huddersfield been a bit more clinical in front of goal, the result could have been much different, leaving Emery with tough questions to answer following the match. Alas, Huddersfield will have to wait another two weeks to try and begin the difficult slog out of the relegation zone, with Newcastle waiting after the brief one week reprieve from Premier League matches.

Clinical Finishing Saves the Day

The Gunners may have lacked the possession and control of the match that has been a hallmark of their play versus bottom of the table sides, but they were able to capitalise on their chances when they came. Scoring from two of their four shots on target, Arsenal continued to reap the benefits of quality finishing despite the stark decline in the frequency of chances created in Unai Emery’s first season in charge.

With a philosophy geared more towards rapid progression through the lines than extended spells possession in the final third, Arsenal are generating a higher ratio of big chances than last season when they do break into the opposition half. While there a pros and cons to both styles of attacking play, Emery’s way more closely adheres to that of Arsenal and Huddersfield managerial legend Herbert Chapman, who believed that there was a such thing as attacking for too long. Like Emery, he too liked his team to turn and play back towards the goal after an attack has been stymied to stretch out the opponent’s shape, creating more space through which to play. 

Strangely, on a day when Arsenal needed to be clinical in front of goal, the slack was picked up by none other than Alex Iwobi. The former Hale End product has been something of a divisive figure this season, with many noting his improvement and increased confidence this season, while others have claimed his end product, both pass and shot, simply aren’t good enough for Arsenal. However, it was Iwobi who first broke the deadlock with a clever (or scuffed, depending on who you ask) volley struck into the ground that bounced into the Huddersfield goal to give Arsenal the lead. For Iwobi, the goal couldn’t come soon enough following his recent struggles that have seen him either hit the goalkeeper or miss entirely with his shot. Though it is unlikely that Iwobi will ever put up elite goalscoring numbers, he still has much to offer this team, and Unai Emery has shown plenty of faith in the Nigerian international this season. Fans will be hoping the goal sparks a run of good form and increased confidence in the young winger, whose skillset remains unique in a squad devoid of players capable of running at defenders and beating them on the dribble.

Injuries Add to Difficulties 

The Gunners’ performance on Saturday inspire of the victory was concerning to some, but Unai Emery was given little choice in the matter as another bout of absences hit the squad. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who is still in the thick of the Golden Boot race, was forced to miss out due to an illness he had been dealing with all week. He was joined late in the week by Mesut Ozil, who was also struck down with a malady that forced him to miss training on Friday.    They were not the only players to miss out on the clash, with Granit Xhaka still battling to return from a niggling groin injury and Aaron Ramsey dealing with a minor knee injury suffered during the previous week. 

With all 4 players missing out on the action, Emery had a very limited squad from which to select his team, leaving Denis Suarez as the only senior attack minded option left on the bench. The Barcelona man earned his second appearance in an Arsenal shirt on Saturday in the second half, and while he didn’t make too much of an impact, he showed a bit more of the burst and close control that has made him such a tantalising  talent for much of his career. Henrikh Mkhitaryan was mercifully able to return to action following two months out with a broken bone in his foot, and despite clearly showing some rust, his industrious style and progressive approach on the ball gave the Gunners a much needed attacking threat in Aubameyang’s absence.

Perhaps the player missed most of all was a Granit Xhaka, who watched the team, struggle in his absence to sustain possession for extended periods of the match. Summer signings Matteo Guendouzi and Lucas Torreira were both present, but in spite of their clear importance to the future of the Arsenal midfield, neither were able to replicate Xhaka’s influence when in possession. As a result of his absence, Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Sead Kolasinac lead the way in touches, a distinction typically reserved for the Swiss midfield pivot when in the lineup. The Gunners were able to survive without four regular contributors, but Unai Emery will be glad to see all of them back in contention for the Europa League clash on Thursday.

Arsenal Again Fail to Earn Clean Sheet

As poor as the Huddersfield attack has been this season, Arsenal themselves have had more than their share of defensive woes. With just four clean sheets all season, Emery’s side find themselves ranked 17th among Premier League clubs, trailing Liverpool by a whopping 10 clean sheets this season. Injuries and inconsistencies have all served to harm the Gunners’ defensive record this campaign, but even with a full compliment of players, they have hardly achieved what could be described as a solid defence. 

Whether due to a lack of available talent or schematic shortcomings, Arsenal have struggled to limit their opponent’s chances all season long, and Saturday was the latest indication that there is much work still to be done to change this reputation. Bernd Leno has made a few mistakes in this, his first season at the club, but he has also made some excellent and impactful saves to help in the club’s top four bid and he has arguably played at a higher level than any Arsenal goalkeeper did in 2017/18. It would be a mistake to level too much blame at the former Leverkusen man for the dearth of clean sheets this season, and should the team in front of him tighten up in the final months of the season, we could see Leno rapidly climb up the charts into a position far more indicative of his talent.

An Easier Run to the End?

It will be two weeks from now when Arsenal finally return to league action, but in the meantime they should have a chance to regain some lost confidence against Bate Borisov in the Europa League. The Belarusian club are a domestic powerhouse, having won the last 13 consecutive league titles, but they should be no match for the talent Unai Emery has to work with even in this much depleted squad. The Gunners last faced the Belarusian champions in December 2017, when a heavily rotated Arsenal squad demolished BATE 6-0 with goals coming from former Gunners Olivier Giroud, Jack Wilshere and Mathieu Debuchy.

After the second leg of that fixture, Arsenal face a slightly lenient run to the end of the season with Manchester United and Tottenham the only remaining matches against a fellow top six foe. They must battle for every single point on offer to keep their top four hopes alive as they currently trail United by just one point for fourth place. Arsenal can still return to the Champions League by winning the Europa League, but Emery and the players would prefer to keep both avenues open to them for as long as possible. Should they gather momentum with two consecutive wins against BATE in the next two weeks, they could enter the final stretch of the season with restored confidence, and the battle to the end will be as thrilling as it is unpredictable.

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