There is a universally accepted truism that, for the last two seasons, Arsenal have been very strong at home, but about as robust as wet cardboard away from home. Reputation counts for a lot in top level football and the Gunners’ contrasting form at the Emirates and away from N5 have both created their own economies of scale type effects.
Arsenal’s issues on the road are compounded by an air of vulnerability- the longer the fallow form endures, the more opponents are encouraged by that perception of weakness. A lot of the team’s issues are based around tempo and an inability to respond to a high-octane approach from opponents. They simply cannot impose their game on the bright eyed and bushy tailed.
So, to embrace that most charming of football phrases, the opposition ‘has a go’ and therein lies the key to beating this Arsenal team. Turn the temperature up and watch them toss themselves into the furnace. At home however, there is an equal and opposite phenomenon at play. Arsenal have forged a fearsome reputation at Emirates Stadium.
This often results in opponents backing off into tightly coiled banks of four. They allow the Gunners to have the ball and, with it, control of the thermostat. At the bookends of the season, lots of teams play with greater freedom. In the late summer and early autumn, the table has yet to take shape in the Premier League’s flabby midriff. Points are not yet considered at a premium.
Often, as the evenings grow lighter, objectives have been achieved and that freedom returns for all but the relegation threatened. In this particular season, two relegation places were decided in March, with the final one a drawn-out inevitability. There is a greater sense of liberation in this Premier League season than most others. In the harsh winter months, a greater volume of teams have played survival football.
In the late summer and early autumn, Arsenal were outshot in consecutive home games against Watford, Everton, Wolves and Liverpool (more understandable). In the preceding game of that run, Emery’s side had allowed West Ham 13 sights of their goal. The team came through that period without defeat thanks to varying slices of serendipity.
After that came the piece du resistance of Arsenal’s season, a 4-2 victory over Spurs in which the home side took double the amount of shots of their beleaguered visitors, a day on which Emery’s tactical tinkering worked to a tee and the sun truly shone. These are the games very suited to the coach’s style.
He might forever regret using the word ‘protagonists’ in his opening salvo as Arsenal boss, because his coaching style could not be further removed from the term. What he is is very reactive. He is good at setting up a team to shut down other team’s strengths, especially in home matches. Controlled victories against Spurs, Manchester United and Chelsea elevated this team from 6th placed also rans to (reluctant and unsuitable) participants in the world’s shittest bun fight for 4th.
But Arsenal made hard work of the likes of Burnley, Huddersfield and Cardiff in home matches- the latter, fighting tooth and nail for survival, took more shots than Arsenal at Emirates Stadium. With Ramsey and Özil in a kind of 352 formation, Emery seemed to finally discover a workable formula a couple of months ago and Bournemouth, Southampton and Newcastle were swept aside with considerable ease.
Rennes and BATE were very accommodating visitors in the Europa League, trying as they were to protect first leg leads earned thanks to Arsenal’s shambolic away form. Rennes in particular tossed Arsenal the keys to the match and allowed them to dictate and the Gunners’ collection of sunshine players made hay.
The last two home matches have shown a regression to the mean for typical home performances against the league’s lesser lights. It’s difficult to remember too many genuinely memorable displays against teams from 7th downwards at the Emirates, save for a brief period in February and March when Ramsey was helping Emery to answer a season long conundrum between protecting a ramshackle defence and buttressing an under-supported attack.
Indeed, Arsenal have been fortunate to have two elite strikers capable of playing in a multitude of positions at once. Aubameyang is effectively asked to be a wide forward and centre forward simultaneously, while Alex Lacazette drops into midfield because the supply line behind him is insufficient. Without this pair of strikers, Arsenal would be in even more trouble.
They have scored 42 goals in total at the Emirates in the Premier League this season and Aubameyang (13) and Lacazette (9) are responsible for more than half of them. This in a season where the team’s elite chance creator, Mesut Özil, has 2 assists, 1 for Aubameyang at home to Leicester and 1 for Mkhitaryan at home to Bournemouth. Auba and Laca have been the judge, jury and executioner of Arsenal’s attack, left to forage for their own chances and they’ve both done it very well.
Emery might be thankful that Arsenal’s season has come to a conclusion at the Emirates, because the cloak of N5 invincibility is beginning to slip. Valencia dominated the Gunners for the opening 15 minutes of the Europa League semi-final and really ought to have led by more than one goal. Until Lacazette and Aubameyang eked out a goal for themselves in a move that has come to define the lack of support they both endure from their colleagues.
Lacazette dropped into midfield to play a delicious pass into the channel for Aubameyang, who strode towards goal and found that his friend and strike partner had made the gallop forward to stroke the ball into the net. They are largely left to hunt their own game. Thankfully, this goal seemed to scare Valencia into ceasing the high-press attacking approach they hitherto adopted and they retreated into defensive subservience. This again allowed Arsenal’s collection of control freaks to dictate the temperature of the game.
Either side of this match, Crystal Palace and Brighton illustrated how Arsenal respond to their opponents upping the stakes. Shkodran Mustafi against Palace and Granit Xhaka against Brighton happily threw themselves and their teams off the cliff edge at the sight of the tiniest slither of cloud in the sky. Any opposition scout worth their salt knows that challenging Arsenal to a duel is a far more worthy tactic than retreating into the trenches.
Hopefully, the regression to the mean at home to the Eagles and the Seagulls has come late enough in the season for opponents to have forgotten about it come August. Even more optimistically, Arsenal might even seek to rectify their complete inability to handle pressure and their creative deficit in that time. Because if their reputation at the Emirates starts to fade, they might find a few more teams willing and able to be have a go heroes.