On The Road

With eight games of the Premier League season remaining, Arsenal sit in 4th place with none of their top six rivals to play. On that basis, the Gunners ought to be favourites to reclaim a top four berth that seemed to be their birth right until 2017. Five of their eight remaining games will be played away from home and Arsenal’s away form looks to be the single biggest impediment to their top four chances.

Trips to Everton, Watford, Wolves, Leicester and Burnley will go a long way to determining their Champions League chances- not to mention a fixture in the intimidating Stadio San Paolo in Naples in the Europa League. Arsenal’s next four visits are to teams ensconced in the Premier League’s muffin top, away from the top and tail of the division.

Each are dangerous teams, but Arsenal might hope that, with little riding on the games for their hosts, the opponents’ levels might drop a couple of per cent- not least as one of Watford or Wolves will have a Cup Final on the horizon when Emery’s side come to town. Burnley could well be scrapping for survival on the final day.

Arsenal’s away form initially improved under Emery in the autumn- it could scarcely have dipped any further compared to last season’s portable horror show up and down the country’s motorways. But after a narrow 2-1 win at Bournemouth in November, the Gunners fell back into bad habits. Their only away win since that day in late November was at lowly Huddersfield and they made pretty hard work of that.

This, multiplied by bad evenings in Belarus and Brittany in the Europa League, have caused away day anxiety to resurface. So why did the team’s away from revert to 2017-18’s horrendous mean? Well, first of all, some of the fixtures in that run were not straightforward. Trips to Manchester United, Liverpool, Manchester City and Tottenham contain few guarantees.

However, a draw with Brighton and defeats at Southampton and West Ham during December and January bore the paw prints of a team that had lost its mojo on the road. I think some of this was psychological. It is impossible to measure intangibles like confidence, but it doesn’t mean they don’t exist and aren’t significant. The Gunners started games at Brighton, West Ham, BATE, Rennes and Huddersfield well enough.

But the worm seemed to turn in each of those games when a significant moment occurred. A goal for or against Emery’s side seemed to disturb their equilibrium. They took the lead at Brighton, Liverpool, Huddersfield, Rennes and Spurs and ought to have taken early leads at West Ham and BATE. But Arsenal either retreated into their shell a little once they had assumed the lead, looking to protect their advantage, or else were shell-shocked by going behind.

I think this is partly psychological, but partly instruction. At home, Arsenal have closed games out quite impressively when they’ve needed to, away they have looked a little less certain. Having taken a 2-0 half-time lead at Huddersfield, I am sure the plan was to sit back and counter the home side, but in their nervousness, Arsenal just ended up sitting back.

Defensive interruptions had their part to play during this run of fairly turgid away form. At Old Trafford in December, Rob Holding ruptured his cruciate ligament during the first half. At Southampton, Bellerin had to be withdrawn at half-time with a muscle injury while Koscielny played his first game for seven months. At Brighton, Arsenal had to field Lichtsteiner as a centre half before changing the system and fielding him as a right-back because Laurent Koscielny was only fit enough for 70 minutes.

Bellerin, Holding, Monreal and Mustafi were unavailable for the trips to Brighton and Liverpool. At Anfield, Koscielny and Mustafi had to share halves because neither was fully fit, while Kolasinac was also unavailable. For the 3-1 defeat at the Etihad I think you can insert a giant shrug emoji here, but that Sokratis was injured for that game and Huddersfield away doesn’t exactly detract from the point. Arsenal lost a rare home game against Manchester United in the Cup after seeing both centre halves injured during the match.

Arsenal’s defence was constantly shuffled due to injuries, while Koscielny, Mustafi and Monreal hobbled in and out of the line-up because they were nursing fitness issues themselves. Though Bellerin and Holding remain long-term injury absentees, the defence has settled a little in recent weeks and it’s no surprise that the likes of Maitland-Niles, Kolasinac and Leno are all enjoying their best form of the season in this context.

The game against Spurs showed some green shoots of recovery, even if it is questionable whether this actually qualified as an away game. Arsenal paid the price defensively for an error by Shkodran Mustafi who, if you were being generous, you could say was playing out of position that day due to injuries at right-back. If you watch him with any regularity however, you would concede he could set a room on fire with a wet cocktail stick at the best of times.

Arsenal looked just fine at Rennes until the double whammy of a Sokratis red card and an unstoppable Rennes equaliser, which saw Emery, perhaps foolishly, move Henrikh Mkhitaryan to right-back. One of the consequences of that move was not just a player in an unfamiliar defensive position, but it robbed the team of an escape strategy with the ball and they were unable to relieve the French side’s second half pressure.

It is not solely defensive jiggery pokery that has cost Arsenal on their travels though. The attacking personnel was also slightly depleted. Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s absence was impactful because he is a strong counter attacking player, ideal for away matches. His return coincided with the Gunners’ uptick in form and that’s not wholly a coincidence.

Emery decided to drop Mesut Özil for the majority of the away fixtures in this sequence and the upshot was that, without Mkhitaryan and Özil, Arsenal lacked creativity on the road. The strike duo of Pierre Emerick Aubameyang and Alex Lacazette had only Alex Iwobi and Sead Kolasinac to look to for assistance. Even if questions abound about Özil’s suitability for away matches, he still automatically ups the team’s creative potential even when present as a substitute.

Denis Suarez was procured as a depth option, but Murphy’s Law has taken hold of his Arsenal career to date. He would have been a far more useful player in December and January than he has been since his arrival. The re-integration of cogs like Ramsey, Özil and Mkhitaryan has altered the balance for Emery for the better.

He can either play three at the back and absorb the attacking instincts of Ramsey, Mesut and / or Mkhitaryan without sacrificing too much defensive security. Or else, he can play a back four with two more orthodox central midfielders in front of them (essentially, two from Xhaka, Torreira and Guendouzi). Too often in Arsenal’s fallow period, the three central midfielders were played in tandem, with the likes of Ramsey, Mkhitaryan and Özil peering on from the sidelines.

It’s taken time to come to terms with the losses of Holding and Bellerin, but the Gunners have looked far better with Koscielny and Sokratis teamed at centre-half. This partnership has helped to settle the likes of Leno, Maitland-Niles and Kolasinac. Emery has opted to play an extra attacker, with either two offensive midfielders in a 352, or else a number ten (Ramsey or Özil) bridging the gap between the two wide forwards behind a lone striker in a 4231.

That shift from 4321 to 4231 has been crucial in Arsenal’s improved form. An improved bill of health has also given Emery greater license to change games from the bench. At Huddersfield, Arsenal were shorn of Ramsey, Özil and Aubameyang and Mkhitaryan was playing for the first time since a broken foot. The substitutions that day saw Elneny replace Torreira, Suarez replace Mkhitaryan and Willock come on for Iwobi.

They are all like for like swaps that did little to swing the momentum of the second half away from Huddersfield. Arsenal have reasons for cautious optimism on the road given the level of performance against Spurs, which saw a defensively more settled side balanced better between defence and attack. If Emery can maintain this balance, the Gunners stand a good chance of rectifying their rocky away form and finishing in the top four.

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