Saturday, June 10, 2023

Tactics Column: Ozil and Torreira change the game in Cardiff

Unai Emery reportedly got the Arsenal job after displaying his incredible in-depth knowledge of the squad in his interview. But he had only seen them play under Arsene Wenger and hadn’t worked with the players himself. Managing them himself is a different challenge altogether. The opening weeks of the season have been pretty good evidence that Emery is still weighing up his players and how best to use them, and that was clear in yesterday’s 3-2 win over Cardiff.

On Sunday at Cardiff, that meant a first Premier League start for Alexandre Lacazette – who had been impressive off the bench up until this point – and the reintroduction of Mesut Ozil. There was still no place in the side for summer signing Lucas Torreira but he would come off the bench during the second half.

Arsenal’s play in the opening 45 minutes in south Wales was often slow and laboured. The hosts were encouraged to press an obviously nervous Petr Cech and Sokratis at the back as Arsenal insisted on building play with short passes. Unfortunately, they did so too slowly to cut through the newly-promoted side.

When Arsenal did push upfield, Granit Xhaka tended to move to the left of the central defenders, with Mateo Guendouzi playing between them. The shape helped Arsenal avoid dangerous pressing situations but the players – possibly wary of losing possession – didn’t use their numerical advantage to play past Cardiff.

That meant many situations in possession with big gaps between the players at the back and the nominal ‘forwards’ – Ozil, Aaron Ramsey, Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Unlike last week’s game against West Ham, the frontline was too static and too slow to drop deep for the ball. Without stretching the Cardiff defence or midfield with movement off the ball, Arsenal asked far too few questions of their opponents despite dominating possession.

I don’t think this was by mistake – Arsenal wanted to keep players forward to stretch Cardiff and vacating the central areas could help give Xhaka and Guendouzi more time on the ball – but by having as many as four players advanced, it allowed Cardiff to sit tighter and keep the spaces between the midfield and defence small.

Usually Arsenal looked to move the ball wide, often down the left as Xhaka took up a position to the left of the defence in Arsenal’s first phase of possession and tried to move the ball down the line, but there was little danger with the ball on the flanks. This was particularly obvious on the right, where Hector Bellerin was so dangerous against West Ham just last week. The absence of Henrikh Mkhitaryan meant Bellerin was often isolated on the touchline, with nobody making runs to take opposition players away or offering themselves for a quick combination into space.

Some small adjustments could have improved the play out from the back – Ramsey and Ozil often looked to move into the same spaces – but Arsenal were generally static. Ozil in particular didn’t do enough to move wide of the central midfielders to receive the ball behind them in the right half-space.

The underlining feature of an underwhelming first half on the ball was the failure to move it forward quickly. That changed drastically after the break, when Ozil found himself space much deeper and started to ask questions of Cardiff. Dropping off the Cardiff backline and into space, the playmaker started demanding possession before quickly moving it into Ramsey or Lacazette.

In the clip below, Ozil does take up the position to the side of Cardiff’s central midfielders, turning into space once and moving into it before receiving possession on the second occasion. From there, linking up with the frontline is simple for a player with his qualities. Arsenal were suddenly playing up against the Cardiff back four more often with Ozil dropping into space and linking play from further back.

When Arsenal play like this, the attributes of Ramsey, Aubameyang and Lacazette are all highlighted. Ramsey and Aubameyang are allowed to move off the ball freely and explore space, while Lacazette drops off of the defence to either link-up with Ozil and find his team-mates or drag defenders out of position. Ozil found the Frenchman for a flick on in the clip above and a similar touch led to Aubameyang’s goal.

Notice Ramsey’s run when Aubameyang scores, driving into the space that opens on the right after one defender follows Lacazette and another moves across to cover. The Welshman wasn’t directly involved in any of the goals on Sunday but this one showed how he could be and how Ozil dropping deeper and supplying the players ahead of him gets more out of everyone.

Needless to say, the game wasn’t over there as Arsenal found themselves level again after Danny Ward’s header. The instant response from Unai Emery was to bring on Lucas Torreira, who slotted into midfield alongside Granit Xhaka.

On the ball, the most striking things about the Uruguayan are how quickly he moves the ball and how often he looks to play it forward. As long as there’s an option ahead of him between opposition players, he darts sharp passes between opposition players and into feet. It’s a marked difference from Granit Xhaka – who is a great passer of the ball despite the occasional lapse in common sense – and something Arsenal lack in midfield. Guendouzi is also tidy in possession but neither he nor Xhaka appear to have the same urgency as Torreira, who is snappy in all areas of the game.

Just his second pass of the game (37 seconds into the video below) superbly found Xhaka behind the Cardiff midfield and before long another put Lacazette behind the backline for his spectacular winner.

This isn’t to say Torreira rushes in possession, either, but he moves it on much faster than his midfield competition when it does land at his feet. His accuracy isn’t bad either – he completed each and every one of his passes at Cardiff.

The obvious issues at the back aside, this was a promising second half. Unai Emery has been applauded for making quick substitutions in recent weeks but the crucial change after the break was to Ozil’s role, getting more out of someone rather than just hooking them for a below par. That’s more valuable and more sustainable than replacing players halfway through a game. It was also encouraging to see Arsenal attack in a different way. We know the Mkhitaryan-Bellerin axis is an option to us after the games against Chelsea and West Ham but having just one way to score is never going to end well.

There has been a lot of talk about Ozil in the last two weeks. Is he happy, will he adapt to Emery’s way, will Emery be able to get much out of him? Ultimately, Mesut Ozil is a brilliant footballer and he will deliver more often than not as long as you get him into the right areas and Arsenal did that in the second half. Alexandre Lacazette showed he deserves a run in the side and that a partnership with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (and Aaron Ramsey) can be fruitful for all parties.

Lucas Torreira will, at best, only manage to plaster over some pretty serious cracks at the back when he is starting games but it’s important to know he can influence the side’s attacking fortunes too and he must be near his first Arsenal start now.

There’s still clearly a lot of work ahead of us and we can’t rush to conclusions – Emery needs to figure out his players, they need to figure out him, and fixing a defence takes time. Even moreso when the individuals that make it up are error prone.

However, scoring three goals a game is no mean feat and we’ve done it two weeks in a row. Scoring was a huge problem away from home last season and if we can look this dangerous with some regularity we’ll have an improved record on the road if nothing else.

It’s easy to fixate on Petr Cech’s discomfort with the ball, our ability to concede two against any opponent, and all the other problems we’ve grown accustomed to but a second away Premier League win of 2018 had plenty of promise too. Lacazette taking his shot leading the line, Torreira’s game-changing cameo and Ozil’s second half performance sealed the three points and are a great place to start building from.

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