Return to old tactics fails Emery as Arsenal draw Southampton – Tactical Analysis
Following an international break where Arsenal elected to maintain their faith in manager Unai Emery. Southampton traveled from the south coast to the capital. Similarly, they too elected to hold onto their head coach, Ralph Hasenhüttl despite poor form. The Saints come into the matchup losing six of their last seven games and Arsenal winless in five.
When both managers initially came to their clubs they brought hope and promise of elevating their squads to success. Hasenhüttl with a reputation for intense counter-pressing and Emery aiming to maintain offensive edge while offering defensive solidity. Things haven’t gone to plan for either as both come into the game uner immense pressure. In this tactical analysis, we will explore the tactics of these two managers hanging onto their employment by a thread.
Unai Emery turned to an old friend in the 3-4-1-2. He’s used a three at the back for the third consecutive game now. Sokratis and Tierney entered the lineup for Kolasinac and Holding. Mesut Ozil featured in the lineup for two consecutive games for the first time this season.
Southampton has moved away from the three at the back shapes following a run of poor form. Opting for a 4-4-2 which would be pivotal in their tactics. Danny Ings featured as a forward, he’s scored in five games this season however his team hasn’t won all five.
Emery returns to old ways
Absolutely everything that could go wrong has gone wrong for Unai Emery’s red army this season. Moving through numerous different shapes and tactical principles things just haven’t clicked on and off the pitch. Finally though with a majority of the squad fully fit he returned to the 3-4-1-2 formation as detailed above. Plugging in the returning Hector Bellerin and new pieces David Luiz and Kieran Tierney. Returning with it came back tactical details from last season one of which being the focus of attack though wingbacks.
The two wingbacks Tierney and Bellerin would look to be fully unleashed in this setup. Together they provided the width in this formation occupying the left and right flank. In possession, they positioned themselves high as the right and left center back split wide. Pinning Southampton wide defenders back and creating space for Arsenal to play into. They maintained 61% possession this match and sustained control of the ball for longer periods than throughout this season.
In the image below you can see Tierney positioning self high up the left flank, intelligently positioning his body where he can scan what’s happening around the pitch. Southampton’s narrow defensive shape allowed for him to receive the ball with time and space. Matteo Gunedouzi to Kieran Tierney was the third most common passing combination in the match showing how influential he was to Arsenal’s play in possession.
Being tasked with influencing the final third is probably their most crucial role, however. We can see this through analysis and statistics Tierney created two chances, attempted the most crosses in the match, and attempted ten passes in the attacking third. As you can see in the image below he played a big part in Arsenal’s first goal. Galloping down the left flank he created a chance through a cross that found Aubameyang inside the box, which would then lead to Lacazette scoring. They attacked down their left side 41% of the time.
Hasenhüttl has proven through his tactics that he’s tactically competent. He did again here as he deployed a 4-4-2 mid-block that caused problems for Arsenal. Specifically with play in the central areas. Passing lanes into midfielders Torreria and Guendouzi would be cut off when trying to receive the ball in-between Southampton’s first and second line of pressure. Despite using a back three, Arsenal circulated the ball at a slow tempo not allowing for these passing lanes to open. David Luiz only made three passes to Guendouzi in the first half. Once a player stepped into Southampton’s half they were immediately pressed forcing them to change direction and preventing them from passing.
This also disjointed the gunners attacking force. Because their defensive shape was so narrow space would come at a premium between the lines as Lacazette, Aubameyang, and Ozil throughout the game were often playing at a numerical disadvantage with limited passing options. The German playmaker only connected with Aubameyang two times throughout the whole match highlighting the difficulties these tactics gave Arsenal’s attack. In the image below you can see Lacazette receives the ball already being pressured and two other players are closing down and cutting off his only passing option to Aubameyang.
To find space Aubameyang specifically would move out wide. However, this would leave him isolated in most sequences sometimes at a numerical disadvantage with no support from the wingbacks. In 1v1 situations his dribbling also isn’t good enough to rely upon. Ozil also started making similar movements into pockets of space out wide but this was all playing into Hasenhüttl’s tactics pushing Arsenal further away from goal.
Emery throws the kitchen sink at Southampton
Going into the second half something had to change if Arsenal wanted to earn a victory. Emery would switch to a 4-2-3-1 replacing Calum Chambers with Nicholas Pepe who would go onto the right. This brought positive changes. Players wouldn’t be isolated in wide positions during attacking sequences as the fullbacks would overlap the wide forwards. Ozil was able to drop deep in central pockets of space assisting Guendouzi in central ball progression. These intelligent movements allowed the German to influence the game more. Ozil made 10 forward passes in the second half compared to five in the first. In the sequence below Guendouzi finds him he turns and sends Tierney down the wing who’s cross creates a chance for Pepe.
Chances came but the home side still looked unlikely to turn things around. With it, all on the line for his contract at Arsenal Emery had no choice but to throw everything forward in his tactics. Gabriel Martinelli came on for Bellerin adding another quality forward to the mix. Arsenal was structured in a 3-3-4 of sorts forcing the visitors to defend into a deep block. Southampton made chances on the counter-attack, often in good numerical opportunities as the space between the midfielders and three defenders were too much for the back three to have support but couldn’t convert their chances.
Arsenal failed in 12 take-ons as they played most of the match with make-shift wide players which played right into Southampton’s favour. Martinelli would make the difference being deployed on the left, being isolated in a 1v1 he beat his man and provided a quality cross which found Lacazette inside the box. Southampton defenders tracked the runs of Pepe and Aubameyang which left Lacazette free.
Both managers will live to see another day. Arsenal was slow in possession and was very one dimensional with only chances from wide being an optimal way of penetrating the final third. Emery’s “all-out attack” tactics scraped a point from Hasenhüttl’s Saints in the final moments who will feel unlucky not to be leaving London with a win. Nonclinical in attack and not being able to hold onto leads, Southampton right now has relegation candidates written all over it.
What should have been a routine win for Arsenal against 19th place Southampton only ends with Emery scrambling through tactic change after tactic change clinging onto his job with no obvious signs of things turning around.