Sunday, April 21, 2024

Fulham focus should be on who was there, not who wasn’t

Sunday’s win over Fulham was hugely enjoyable. When you consider the start we had to the season, if you’d asked anyone if, just six games later, you’d be happy to be just two points off the leaders and in the top four, I think they’d have been bitten your hand off.

We’ve had some concerns about the way we’ve been playing, but how often do we say that managers and teams are judged first and foremost on results? I don’t think we can ignore performances, it would be remiss of anyone who is writing about this team and trying to analyse it to pay no heed to how we’re achieving the wins, but when it comes right down to it there’s no arguing with results right now.

When he took over we heard about how Unai Emery was a more tactically flexible coach than Arsene Wenger, and perhaps we’ve seen evidence of that in the last few games. He’s played his apparent favoured 4-2-3-1 throughout the season, but went to a back three against Qarabag – albeit for just 45 minutes – and at Craven Cottage we played what was a 4-4-2, sort of.

For more on that formation, you should read our tactics column from yesterday in which Lewis breaks it down very well and suggests it was more of a 4-2-2-2, and I’d also recommend the Breakdown on the official Arsenal website in which Adrian Clarke looks at the way we set up against Fulham and how effective it was.

I think what was interesting to me was the fact that the first time we played with two up front, it wasn’t Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang who started. Now, this might well have been because the latter had been sick during the week, but for weeks we’ve wondered how to properly fit to two of them in the team together – two up front seems the best way to do it and get the maximum from both players. Of course, Aubameyang came on in the second half and got two goals and an assist, so it was evidence of how this system suits him, but again we’ll have to wait and see if this is something we’re going to use on a regular basis or only in certain games.

For weeks questions for the Arsecast Extra have asked us if we’ve seen any sign of Emery tailoring his tactics for the opposition we’re about to face, and perhaps the Fulham game was the first really obvious evidence of that. It was a tricky enough away game, an early kick off after a European game, and you might say it was brave to give it a shot but there’s no doubting how well it worked.

It was probably our most balanced performance of the season. Not only did the components of the ‘front four’ work well together, they were ably assisted by a midfield duo that gave them the platform to perform the way they did. Lucas Torreira’s natural defensive instincts and his unerring ability to read the game were qualities we’ve needed for some time, and maybe we’ve finally found the right man to partner Granit Xhaka.

Both Emery and Wenger before him see the Swiss international as a key part of their midfield. His passing ability is something they consider vital to the progressive football they want to play, but for all his qualities on the ball it’s been clear that there are flaws in his game which can be exposed. He’s always felt like a player who needs exactly the right partner, the Goldilocks midfielder beside him who is ‘just right’, and while it’s early days still, Torreira looks far, far more like that player than anyone else we’ve ever partnered Xhaka with.

The other issue of note was the absence of Mesut Ozil and Aaron Ramsey, particularly the former, and how well we subsequently played. For me, when looking at the Fulham game, this really isn’t a significant talking point. We’ve won games like this lots of times with Ozil in the team, this isn’t one of those away games where he finds it a struggle to make an impact, and I just thought the focus on him not being there takes away from the great work done by the players who were.

It doesn’t mean there aren’t questions to be asked but I don’t think you can draw a direct correlation between how well we played against Fulham on Sunday and the fact Ozil wasn’t available. I think it does a disservice to the performance in general, and the guys who did the job, but it did mean Emery didn’t have to make a difficult decision when it came to his team selection – and it might be worth considering if this formation was in some way a consequence of the German being out of action.

In that 4-4-2 or 4-2-2-2, it’s hard to see exactly how Ozil and Ramsey fit in the starting line up as well as Iwobi and Mkhitaryan did. As I wrote in Sunday’s blog, in previous games we’ve basically been playing three of our attacking four out of position and looking for their individual quality to make up for it, and the way we set up against Fulham felt much more balanced and effective. I think Emery is feeling his way into the job and when he has days like Sunday when things come together as well as that, he’ll take serious note of them. If you’re looking for your team to attack well and defend better, do you then instantly revert to a system which hasn’t been as convincing in either regard?

Again, that’s one of the most fascinating aspects of life as an Arsenal fan now. We’re still trying to understand and know our manager as much as he’s trying to do the same with his players and squad. We can’t second guess anything because the sample size is still too small, and as we get closer to our game against Leicester after the Interlull we’ll speculate as to his team selection and maybe get a surprise or two when the line-ups are announced.

Whatever else you’d say though, being an Arsenal fan right now is quite good fun. I’m not getting carried away with where we are because the season is long and there are lots of good teams still to play, but you also have to let yourself enjoy what we’re doing in the moment without worrying too much about what lies ahead. We’ll cross those bridges soon enough.

Right, that’s that. News throughout the day on Arseblog News, more from me here tomorrow.

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