Exit Strategy

Unai Emery’s lack of a clear, tangible ‘philosophy’ causes varying degrees of consternation in the Arsenal fan base. If you were to survey Arsenal fans for the principles, the basic tenets of ‘Emery-ball’, I reckon ‘playing the ball out from the back’ would score quite highly in the most common answers. It was one of the premier talking points of his reign last August as Petr Cech struggled to get to grips with his new role as a deep lying playmaker.

At Anfield on Saturday, Emery’s game plan conceded Liverpool’s superiority in just about every respect. Yet when it came to playing the ball out from the back, that was a non-negotiable for the coach. Against possibly the best pressing team on the planet, Arsenal insisted and persisted with trying to play their way out of trouble from deep inside their defensive territory.

Now, you could argue that it was part of the attacking strategy to draw Liverpool in before quickly manoeuvring the ball through the thirds, from Ceballos to the pace of Pepe and Aubameyang in behind. However, it is safe to say that it rarely worked. Liverpool took up the invitation to press with gusto, considering it a gift as opposed to a trap.

Arsenal were dispossessed in their defensive third eight times in the first 45 minutes, more than any other team this season. As James Nalton observes in this article, Liverpool are already taking advantage of the new goal-kick law that decrees the ball need not leave the penalty area before a colleague can take it under control.

While some have suggested the new law may reduce pressing from opponent’s goal kicks, Liverpool have seen it as an opportunity to press even more ravenously. Optapro’s High Turnovers Against Figures make concerning reading for Unai Emery three games into the new season, with the Gunners coughing the ball up near their own goal nearly 20 times already- more than any other team.

These statistics are probably slightly skewed by a trip to Anfield, to face a team that has made harrying opponents a personal trademark. Yet Burnley caught Arsenal by surprise with a high-pressing approach at the Emirates, with Dyche’s men often boxing them in from their own goal-kicks- so much so that Bernd Leno’s eventual decision to clear long drew an ironic cheer from the home crowd.

Dyche and Burnley saw a reason to press, they saw Arsenal’s propensity to pass the ball out from the back as a weakness rather bait. One can only assume that is because Burnley don’t think Emery’s side are very good at it. Not yet anyway. The numbers certainly bear that opinion out. So why are Arsenal struggling with an area of their play that the manager has made such a priority? Well, the most obvious riposte to that question is that Arsenal were quite busy in the transfer market this summer.

It was essential that they continued their rebuild- they signed two players in January 2018 (Aubameyang and Mkhitaryan), five in the summer of 2018 (Leno, Sokratis, Lichtsteiner, Torreira and Guendouzi) and another five this summer (Martinelli, Ceballos, Pepe, Luiz and Tierney). That’s a lot of turnover in a short space of time. It stands to reason that Arsenal lack cohesion, especially with a coach that wants his team to be ‘chameleons’ tactically speaking.

Arsenal had three new signings in the spine of their team at Anfield in the shape of Luiz, Ceballos and Pepe- and a pair of 20-year olds as midfield interiors in Guendouzi and Willock. Playing out from the back isn’t just reliant on tactical quality, it’s about creating angles and exit strategies and that takes time to build, even if you are certainly coaching it correctly (we don’t really know whether Emery is or not at this point).

To distil Arsenal’s exit strategy to the point of crudeness on Merseyside, Emery would have seen a straight line between Luiz, Xhaka, Ceballos and Pepe when it came to building from the back and that quartet had not played together before the trip to Anfield. There is more adjustment in the post too, as both full-backs will change in the coming months.

I am not sure how technically clean Kieran Tierney is under pressure yet, I do know that Sead Kolasinac is about as clean as a butcher’s apron when it comes to keeping the ball under duress. Full-backs can be an important part of the exit strategy for a team that likes to play out from the back. Adrian Clarke’s analysis of Arsenal’s 2-2 draw at Selhurst Park last October made mention of Rob Holding’s 91% pass completion from centre-half.

The clip he uses to highlight Holding’s composure in possession is a beautifully clipped pass from left centre-back to Hector Bellerin at right-back. This became the team’s favoured exit strategy from their defensive quarters last winter, before both Holding and Bellerin were injured. It’s a big part of the reason that Holding held down a place in the side.

I would wager that David Luiz’s exquisite passing range was a big part of the reason Arsenal signed the Brazilian. (As well as the fact that a fallout with Frank Lampard and an agent the club’s top brass know very well probably greased the wheels of the deal). Arsenal have some players- new and returning- that should make it easier for the Gunners to pass out, but some teething issues were always likely with injuries and so many new players in the spine of the team.

I have a growing suspicion that Emery would like to phase Granit Xhaka out at the base of the midfield in favour of the more dynamic Matteo Guendouzi. I noticed that Guendouzi played deeper than Xhaka in the pre-season friendly at the Nou Camp earlier this month. It was the young Frenchman drifting back towards the centre-halves to receive the ball, with Xhaka stationed further forward in the midfield as the team built play.

There is a reason, in my view, that Emery is reluctant to name Xhaka as his outright captain and I think it’s because he sees Guendouzi as his preference for the deep lying playmaker role. With so much change already in the spine of the team and a pair of full-backs to be integrated too, Emery might just hold off a little while longer before staging that phase of the midfield revolution.

While it feels to us, as supporters, like Arsenal have been trying to play out from the back without improvement for the last 12 months, it’s important to remember that the personnel executing it has changed. Laurent Koscielny has left, Shkodran Mustafi is not part of the manager’s plans and Ceballos, Luiz and Willock are new components added to the mix.

Bellerin and Holding have been injured, Özil and Ramsey were in and out of the team last season. None of this to say that it will all definitely work out for Emery and his team- we don’t know that yet. However, there are good reasons to show patience and watch with interest to see how the style develops over the course of the season.

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