Post Match Review
Hasenhuttl Inspires Southampton To Victory Over Battered Arsenal
Prior to Sunday’s clash at Southampton’s St Mary’s Stadium, Arsenal had gone three months and 28 days under Unai Emery without losing a match. But like all streaks, this one was bound to come to an end, as it finally did with Arsenal’s embarrassing 3-2 loss to their relegation battling opponents.
Already hamstrung by untimely injuries and the unwelcome suspension of two key defenders, the Gunners ran into a club riding a wave of excitement following the appointment of perhaps their best manager since Mauricio Pochettino patrolled the touchline at the St. Mary’s Stadium in Ralph Hasenhuttl. In spite of this, the players did themselves few favours as individual errors ultimately paved the way for Southampton to catapult themselves out of the relegation zone, and in doing so become the last club in the English League system to win a match at home this season.
Hasenhuttl impresses in English debut
This week, there will be much made about how Arsenal failed to get the job done against Southampton, and rightfully so, but it would be unfair not to highlight just how well the Saints played in the first match under Ralph Hasenhuttl. Perhaps predictably for those who had followed Hasenhuttl prior to his arrival in England, the Saints appear rejuvenated and galvanised by his presence, and they showed tremendous energy throughout the 90 minutes on Sunday. The players have reportedly taken to his methods with vigour, and their performance reflected a team whose confidence is already rebounding.
Despite forgoing his preferred 4-2-2-2 formation from his time in Germany, opting instead for a more defensive 3-4-2-1, many of the tactical concepts for which he has earned his reputation were already present in the way Southampton played. The Saints put pressure on Arsenal’s piecemeal back line with direct diagonal balls into the channels that bypassed much of the initial press. Stuart Armstrong and Nathan Redmond consistently gave the Arsenal midfielders fits with their movement into the space behind them and in front of the centre backs. The Gunners, themselves playing with only two central midfielders to begin the match, were hopelessly overrun in the centre, with Oriol Romeu and Pierre Hjobjerg wrestling control away for long stretches of the match.
It may have surprised some that Hasenhuttl matched Unai Emery’s 3-4-2-1 on the teamsheet, but despite only arriving at the club two weeks ago, he undoubtedly got his players to execute it better.
Emery outsmarts himself
This season in the Premier League, no manager has been better than Unai Emery at making half-time adjustments. Curiously, Arsenal are one of just two teams in the Premier League who have yet to be leading a match at the half, making their tally of 34 points through 17 matches all the more impressive. His intuition for making match-altering changes has been seriously impressive in his brief tenure, but Sunday also demonstrated how the Basque coach has at times struggled to get his tactics right from the opening whistle.
Forced to find creative solutions following a rash of injuries and the suspension of both first-choice centre-backs in the previous match, Emery opted for a back three that included midfielder Granit Xhaka and a full-back in Stephan Lichtsteiner, both of whom paired with recent injury returnee Laurent Koscielny. Emery undoubtedly was hoping his decision would give the Gunners some much-needed defensive stability, but it had the unintended consequence of conceding control of the midfield to the Saints. Despite playing with an extra defender, the lack of natural centre-backs on the pitch left Arsenal susceptible to an aerial threat, and Danny Ings gave them fits whenever Southampton got a cross into the box. Ings twice beat the Arsenal captain to the spot and bagged himself a brace before giving way to Charlie Austin, who managed to beat Koscielny once again for the Saints’ winning goal.
As Emery navigates his first full season in the Premier League, he is bound to make some mistakes. The analytical manager has a deep affection for video analysis and crafting boutique match plans, but he has little in the way of first-hand experience with many of the teams in the league. It is often said that players need time to learn their new manager’s philosophy in his first season at the helm, but it isn’t often noted that a first season in a new league is a learning experience for the manager as well. As Emery continues to learn his players and gains valuable experience managing against all the league has to offer, his first-half tactics should improve. Not only would this help the Gunners by leaving less to do in the second half of matches, it would also decrease the present reliance on a stroke of genius at half-time to earn a result.
Injury woes worsen
As Arsenal continue to make their way through the hectic holiday schedule, Unai Emery will be called on even more to find creative solutions to his problems as injuries have struck yet more blows to an already ravaged squad. The defence is expected to receive a boost after the return of Sokratis Papastathopoulos and Shkodran Mustafi from suspension, but Emery now faces a serious thinning of the ranks at full-back for the next few matches. Sead Kolasinac was the first new casualty this week after an apparent thigh strain suffered in training looks likely to keep him out for a small stretch of matches. He was joined on Sunday by Hector Bellerin, who was forced off just before the half with a lower leg injury that Emery fears will require some time to overcome. To make matters even direr, Stephan Lichtsteiner was also forced off in the second half, though his injury does not appear serious.
Given Rob Holding has already been ruled out for the rest of the season following reconstructive knee surgery, Emery will once again have to summon every ounce of creativity to navigate a tough slate of fixtures stretching into the new year. These blows could hardly come at a worse time for the Spaniard, as he gets his first taste of league football without a winter break to regroup. Arsenal will require a massive coordinated effort by Emery, his coaching staff, Director of High Performance Darren Burgess, the team’s physios, and Strength and Conditioning Coach Shad Forsythe to make sure the players survive the busiest period of the season ready to fight for a Champions League place in the second half. It will be a real challenge, only made more difficult by the most recent casualties, but how Arsenal come through the festive period will go a long way toward determining how much they achieve in Unai Emery’s first season at the helm.
A nightmare return
From the moment Laurent Koscielny collapsed in a heap during the second leg of last season’s Europa League semi-final, there were questions as to whether he would ever return to the pitch as an Arsenal player. The ruptured Achilles’ tendon he suffered that night ended his chances of helping France to their eventual World Cup victory, and made many both inside the club and out fear for the long-term implications the injury would have on the 33-year-old.
However, Koscielny never once faltered in his rehabilitation, surprising even the club’s medical staff with his consistently positive attitude and his apparent recovery with little sign of a physical decline (according to the club’s own performance data). After months of gradually increased intensity in training, a run out with the Arsenal U23s and a return to the senior team action in Thursday’s Europa League clash, Koscielny finally made his first Premier League start of the season on Sunday.
It did not go as he had hoped. Koscielny very much looked a player who had seen little action in months, and it was he who was targeted most for pressure by the Southampton attack. While Koscielny managed to finish with a 92% pass accuracy from 103 touches and 2 successful aerial duels, 2 of his 3 tackles resulted in fouls, and he seemed to struggle with tracking his mark on balls into the box. In short, he was extremely rusty in a match the required him to be at his best to combat a supremely motivated Southampton side.
While he looked rather good physically and seemed to still have much of his signature pace, Koscielny still faces a road back toward being an essential contributor to the Arsenal defence once again. The Frenchman will undoubtedly be helped by the return of fellow centre-backs Mustafi and Sokratis from suspension, but despite making his return to the team, he still faces a battle to get back to his pre-injury levels.
North London cup clash
The Gunners’ impressive 22-match unbeaten run, stretching all the way back to August, was always going to end at some point. However, the Arsenal players could have done without the dent to their confidence as a daunting clash with Tottenham on Wednesday in the Carabao Cup is next on the schedule. The two teams have gone in opposite directions since the Gunners won their first meeting of the season to open the month of December. While Tottenham haven’t dropped any points since losing at the Emirates, Arsenal have won two, lost one and drawn another in that same period.
In spite of their impressive run since the North London Derby, Spurs are facing similar issues to the ones confronting Unai Emery at London Colney, with Mauricio Pochettino also forced to deal with some key injuries and endure questions about the depth of his squad. Indeed, given the hectic schedule facing both teams and the lower priority of the League Cup relative to the Premier League, both teams could field heavily rotated starting XIs for the match.
Whether the Gunners will chance losing at home to their biggest rivals with a lineup as heavy on academy products as last Thursday’s Europa League match remains to be seen, and Mauricio Pochettino will be loathed to drop two straight to the hated Arsenal. This only adds another layer of intrigue to the fixture, and the strength of each manager’s squad should give insight into how both clubs have chosen to prioritise the competition. A win would be a lift to the sagging confidence around Arsenal following Sunday’s slip up, and would allow Emery to keep as many avenues open in pursuit of silverware in his first season on English shores. However the managers choose to approach the match, the battle will be as intense as it always is when these two teams face off, even if the competition fails to measure up to the more important domestic and European league season.
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