On Sunday evening, Arsenal welcomed Wolves at the Emirates Stadium for the 10th gameweek of the Premier League. The Gunners came from a disappointing goalless draw against Leeds in the previous matchday while Wolves went to the Emirates after a lucky 1-1 draw against Southampton. Both teams appear to be having a rather difficult start of the season, but for either side a win would catapult them right in one of the top 6 spots.
Arsenal lined up with a similar formation and starting 11 as the game against Leeds.
Once again, Ceballos and Xhaka compiled the midfield base while Willock was moving as in a no.10 role, Willian was moving at the right wing, Saka stayed on the left wing and Aubameyang was playing up top as the main striker. In defence, Tierney was tasked to try and contain the speedy Traore, Bellerin was responsible for the right side while the Brazilian duo of Gabriel and David Luiz was paired.
Wolves played in a similar formation with a different use of the no.10 role.
Nuno Espírito Santos used the 4-2-3-1 formation that in attack operated more like a 4-4-2, with Podence playing around the main striker of the team. The full backs, Semedo and Marcal, stayed back almost at all times, the midfield duo would operate flawlessly in covering the center backs while the wingers Traore and Neto were playing very wide trying to outpace and pass the Arsenal’s full backs.
The game started with both teams displaying a willingness to play a high tempo game. Both sides tried to dominate the game in the early minutes, but the game was interrupted after 5 minutes, when after a corner kick, David Luiz and Jimenez’s heads collided severely in an attempt to win a header. The impact resulted in a fractured skull for Jimenez who was admissioned to the hospital. After a 10 minute break, the game resumed, with Luiz trying to shake off the injury; maybe mistakenly so, since he wasn’t looking so sharp on the pitch.
After such a long interruption, the rhythm of the game was gone and it took a while until both teams were showing intensity.
In the 27th minute, Wolves took the lead with Neto finding the net. Adama Traore sprinted away from Tierney on the right side, he crossed in the box, where Dendocker out muscled Bellerin, his header found the crossbar and Neto took the rebound from close distance.
3 minutes later, Gabriel equalises with a header. Willian played a low pass from a corner to Bellerin who returned the pass, Willian provided a sublime cross and Gabriel showed will and his power to win the header.
But in typical Arsenal fashion, Wolves got back in the game just before the 45 minutes mark. Traore skipped pass Tierney and Xhaka in the midfield line and played a pass to Neto, his shot got a deflection on Bellerin’s back, Leno is unable to clear it well and Podence reacts quicker than everyone else and scores from close range.
In the second half, Arsenal played much better with better intensity to their game. There was many chances, for example, in the 50th minute Saka missed the ball from close range, in the 64th Holding’s header just missed the target, on 73rd minute Aubameyang could not finish after Particio’s mistake, and on the 82nd minute, Aubameyang again missed a header from close range.
Once again, Arsenal is punished for their defensive frailties. Mistakes made by experienced personnel that have happened before, so it’s not a one off. Before going into detail, I should say David Luiz performance was not good and he was not looking too sharp to play. Maybe he insisted on playing the rest of the first half, maybe it was negligence from the coach and medical team, either way this played a part in the goals we conceded.
On the first goal, when Traore crosses the ball, both central defenders are following the sprint of Silva to the near post and are not covering the back post, leaving Bellerin to win a strength battle against the powerful Dendocker.
Bellerin would lose the header every day of the week, and it is not his fault; Dendocker is taller and stronger than him. While Tierney tried to block Traore’s cross, the truth is that he has no cover.
On the second goal, I will say that it is simply unacceptable for Neto to carry the ball in the middle of the field for 20-30 meters unobstructed, and then also to leave him space to shoot. This is the most blatant example for the lack of a proper screening midfielder, like Partey or even Elneny. Such a midfielder there would put pressure on Neto or in the worst case scenario, bring him down. Just look at the space he was given.
Honestly, I can’t blame Leno for this goal, he is the last person responsible. The lack of cover in the midfield, the lethargic central defenders and Bellerin’s poor block of the shot, made it impossible for Leno to rescue Arsenal once again.
Arsenal is associated with high tempo style of play, quick transition from defence to attack and devastating speed. However this style was vanished over the late years of the Wenger era, who deployed a slower-possession based build up. This worked because Arsenal had the players that could create space to play the ball into; Alexis, Ozil, Ramsey.
Arteta wanted to bring back this quick transition game to Arsenal. The players who can play this game are not there though. To simulate that, he initially favored a more defensive formation and hitting the opposition on counter attacks. When he reverted to a more possession controlling formation, it seemed that the pass players of the team are afraid to look for the long ball that can split the opposition defence. Xhaka is a player that can do that and last summer he was playing long balls to find one of the attackers. However, last Sunday, he had two prime opportunities to search for a counter attack but he decided to hold the ball and recycle the possession.
We knew that the transition from the defensive system that Mikel used in the beginning to a more attacking and attractive style of play would not be easy. We know that to play attacking football, you also need the defensive midfielder to protect your team from counter attacks. But, the creative part is missing here.
A frustrating example is that we mainly pass laterally and we don’t exploit the space in the middle. At all. And in this game we faced a defence that is not very quick. Compare the passing combinations of our team with the passing combination of Wolves.
That results in recycling the ball around the opposition defence without finding the channels to break them through. Hence, we create less dangerous situations per possession than most of the Premier League teams.
Last week, I wrote about Bielsa’s vertical passing play and how this is making Leeds’ less technical players to create so many changes for them. I also wrote that this would suit Arsenal perfectly with the good passers this team has. For the time being, this style of play is nowhere to be seen.
And, the final straw that broke the camel’s back, we don’t shoot. Not even long shots outside the box. For me, this is the most worrying part of the team’s inability to create anything.
I don’t feel that time is running out for Mikel, but the time is definitely running out for our chances to fight for a European spot for next season. While it is still early in the season, and this year the league is crazy, Arsenal’s form is worrying. Papa Wenger always said that winning is a habit, and that when you lose one game, you must win the next one to break the cycle of bad results. It has been a month since Arsenal won in the Premier League, and this is a terrifying prospect for the rest of the fixtures. The pressure is on now even more, and there has to be a leader in the dressing room to guide the team. Or least that is what I want to believe.
By Stelios Mouratidis