Tactics Column: Emeryball? Narrow Arsenal win two on the bounce

Arsenal have won the two opening games of a Premier League season for the first time in a decade. Things are about to get a whole lot harder, though, with Liverpool and Tottenham up next.

The first two games shouldn’t be too instructive with regards to how we’ll play at Anfield and in the first North London derby of the season but there’s no reason not to look back at them. With plenty of new players involved, we may be one step closer to the Arsenal Unai Emery wants to see on a more regular basis.

With the likes of David Luiz and Dani Ceballos involved from the start, the Burnley game is the best place to begin when looking for how Emery’s Arsenal will approach the new season with their new signings.

First half

Arsenal’s backline looked familiar, with just David Luiz coming into the side after last week’s win at Newcastle. At the other end of the pitch, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang moved wide to accommodate Alexandre Lacazette.

The midfield, though, was the most interesting area of the pitch. Emery opted for a trio of players who are all athletically impressive, all good passers, and all extremely comfortable taking the ball under pressure. Joe Willock played deeper, alongside Matteo Guendouzi, but it was the full debut of Dani Ceballos that deservedly caught the headlines.

Arsenal attempted to play out from the back and the midfield three were absolutely crucial in attracting pressure before breaking through Burnley and launching an attack. Ceballos’ creative passing and perpetual movement were particularly crucial, dragging Burnley apart so his team-mates could be found in space before moving on to receive the ball again in another area.

Ceballos’ inclusion saw Arsenal fix one of the major attacking flaws from the Newcastle game, where Willock was often isolated. The youngster did not always do enough to provide a passing option to his team-mates, hanging to the left of the pitch and failing to make himself regularly available for a pass.

The result was a front four that found themselves isolated from the rest of the team and a lot of square passes, the ball would sometimes go up the flank, then it would come back again, but the connections from the wings to the centre were non-existent.

Ceballos came much deeper, aiding the first phase of build-up, and creating a midfield three. His ability to dribble with the ball and take opponents out of the game made Arsenal move up the pitch without being so easy to defend, especially as the team successfully drew Burnley towards them.

With the nominal number 10 dropping deeper, the midfield found it much easier to combine than they had on the opening weekend. The short, sharp passing we usually associate with the Arsenal midfield was present. Having two midfielders alongside Ceballos who want the ball was crucial in that; Willock and Guendouzi were both calm and considered in possession, moving the ball quickly when Burnley pressed them and rarely looking flustered.

On the whole, Guendouzi played a more reserved role than we’ve often seen from him since his arrival last summer. His confidence on the ball was also crucial in helping Arsenal attract defenders before moving into more advanced areas. Using him in the deepest midfield role was interesting as it helps Arsenal move the ball quicker than when, say, Granit Xhaka is there. Guendouzi plays with a sense of urgency and confidence that can sometimes see him rush through actions but, when it works, is horrible to play against. He always wants the ball and Arsenal find it easier to play out when he is on the pitch because his willingness and confidence in possession always means an option for the man on the ball.

His defensive discipline, though, was maybe even more impressive. Arsenal seem to be more conscious of the need to protect the middle of the pitch right now – Adrian Clarke sensibly noted the narrowness of the fullbacks after the Newcastle game – and Guendouzi was quick to cover Nacho Monreal on his forays forward. Note here how he anticipates Monreal’s move forward and jogs over to cover the left flank. It’s simple and doesn’t seem like much but show a level of selflessness, awareness and responsibility that he lacked at times in his debut campaign.

Maitland-Niles (bottom of the screen in the above picture) also moved across when the ball went over to the opposite flank, as he often did at St James Park. When possession was lost, Arsenal had four men – the centre-backs, Guendouzi, and a narrowly-stationed Maitland-Niles – behind the ball.

The other striking factor of Arsenal’s play was the use of long balls. It isn’t something we are used to seeing from the back, with opposition teams usually reluctant to play a high line. It was a surprise, then, to see Burnley pressing at the Emirates.

As Arsenal circulated possession strongly and wriggled out of Burnley’s attempts to steal the ball high upfield, they wore the visitors down. And when the forwards – Barnes and Wood – were not so quick to press, the Gunners took advantage with long passes forward. Or, more precisely, David Luiz did.

This was the first of three superb long passes upfield – another by Luiz followed in the second half, while Ceballos played a lofted ball for Reiss Nelson in the first half – and the only ‘successful’ one. The other two, though, still forced Nick Pope to rush out of his area and head clear.

If Arsenal can work on baiting the opposition into pressing them, we’re only likely to see more and more of this sort of pass. Particularly now Luiz is playing in defence. With the pace Arsenal possess up front, this could become an incredibly dangerous means of attack, though it remains to be seen whether other sides play such a sloppy high line while failing to pressure the ball as Burnley did at times on Saturday.

Second half

With Burnley pressing in a 4-4-2 shape and Arsenal introducing Nicolas Pepe, it made sense to move to more of a 4-3-3 shape after the break. Guendouzi provided enough support to the centre-backs deep to circulate possession, while Arsenal on the whole played more direct. Burnley’s weak pressing at times meant the Gunners could quickly  break through and be in behind the midfield, so Emery decided to move Ceballos and Willock further upfield after the break.

In the first half, the pair could often be seen alongside or even deeper than Guendouzi, overloading Burnley immediately in front of the Arsenal box and combining effectively to progress the play. Here are where the pair had their touches in the first half.

There is some final third involvement but not a great deal of width (more on that shortly) and the involvement is concentrated in Arsenal’s half. This helped the Gunners play out effectively but whether or not there were enough bodies in and around the box when Emery’s team broke forward is up for debate. Both players have complementary qualities in the final third – Ceballos’ quick feet and technical brilliance makes him strong in tight spaces, while Willock has developed a knack of arriving in the box and getting on the end of chances – but they were often too far from attacks to do so in the opening 45 minutes.

That changed after the break, with Ceballos in particular now driving Arsenal’s attacks rather than launching them.

The change was necessary in part because of Arsenal’s increasingly narrow front three but that did also contribute to the most worrying aspect of Arsenal’s attack – a lack of ability to sustain attacks and probe the defence immediately outside the box.

The width was, though, necessary, with the newly formed front three providing very little. While playing on the right in the first half, the vast majority of Aubameyang’s touches came on the flank and many of those were in the Arsenal half. Plainly, this is not any way to use the Gabonese.

With Aubameyang on the left, his involvement came centrally as he drifted in. Arsenal focused play on the opposite flank – using the newly-introduced Pepe to also drift far inside (though he did so much deeper) to drive attacks forward.

Aubameyang, as is his wont, was much more focused on getting on the end of moves. After taking no shots in the first first half, he took three in the 26 minutes he was on the left. Including the winning goal.

There were big problems up at Newcastle with width – Nelson and Mkhitaryan were encouraged to join in centrally that day, leaving Arsenal’s fullbacks isolated and short of options at times – and we saw them at times in the first half of the Burnley match.

Playing Aubameyang on the right on the first half showed an obvious possible flaw. He is a goalscorer (a great one) but little else, the man wants to be in the box and it can handcuff attempts to build an attack. His touches mostly came on the flanks as, when he moved inside, his team-mates couldn’t find him. It is not only about having width, but also having connections to the centre. Arsenal badly missed them at Newcastle and here the problem, though less frequently, still reared its head.

If Willock passes to Maitland-Niles in the image above, his only way to move inside is by finding a player with a superb cross, rather than a pass. Arsenal need to work on making these links from the flanks to the centre.

In the second half, with Ceballos and Willock more advanced, there seemed to be an attempt to do this. However, the lack of width from the forwards left Arsenal narrow still and the result was a lack of ability to ever really enjoy a spell of sustained pressure.

Lacazette, before he was subbed, was another who made himself available out wide – particularly on the right – in an attempt to balance the frontline. There have been calls for Arsenal to mirror Liverpool’s 4-3-3 approach with their supercharged front three – arseblog’s own Tim Stillmann has mentioned the possibility – and Lacazette appears perfect for a ‘Firmino’ role but such a composition will pose problems of its own.


Where will Arsenal’s width come from with Aubameyang and Pepe on the wings? Will the fullbacks bomb on repeatedly? Will the midfield be structured with two deeper players or just one?

The attempts to make Arsenal narrow should, in theory, help the team’s efforts to defend more solidly, forcing opponents wide and occupying the midfield more strongly for counter-pressing attempts immediately after losing possession. It was precisely this, from Ceballos, that created the second goal. Combining a true front three with excellent build-up play should also provide opportunities to isolate Arsenal’s stacked attack against defenders, which will only be a positive.

But it will take time for a balance to be found between the right amount of width and central occupation. If too many players play centrally, the team will become so much easier to stifle. For all the talent at Emery’s disposal, one early worrying sign is the lack of passing Arsenal have managed to put together immediately outside the opposition area in the two opening matches. This improved against Burnley.

There were improvements against Burnley but largely on the break and, for the team to really progress, they will need to learn to dominate matches at home and penetrate this area of the pitch while pushing the opposition back. It’s interesting to see so much green in the maps above (via StatsZone) in the middle of the pitch, with this Arsenal apparently happy to play patiently in their own third before launching attacks as soon as they get close to the halfway line. Perhaps, along with increased narrowness, it’s in Emery’s mind to get the ball away from the box as quickly as possible so Arsenal can’t slip up and have the back four immediately facing an attack.

With plenty to work on and Arsenal only just getting the new signings ready for the season, it’s not the ideal time for Emery to have to take the team to Anfield before hosting Tottenham and they will line up in these games is, at this point, anybody’s guess.

However, the signs – a threatening and fluid front three, an athletic and technical midfield – are promising and it feels the early games this season have, as well as providing us with six points, seen baby steps towards the Arsenal that Unai Emery wants to create.

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Arsenal Gentleman’s Weekly Review

Felicitations and salutations, my brothers and sisters of the crimson chest and the snowy- white sleeves! I bid thee a fine new season, my comrades of Londinium, wherever you may be! Good morrow, my fellow cannon-riders! Feel that cannon between thine thighs, ladies and gentlemen! Feel its mighty tumescence! Marvel at its tapered bore, its open muzzle, the wadding packed tight at the base, the gunpowder rammed behind a 24 pound, 51⁄2 inch cannonball! We are PRIMED, shipmates of the Good Ship Arsenal. We are CHARGED and RIPE for the season ahead!

Football, and Arsenal, are back. We ARE football and IT IS US. The two are discrete and separate but somehow interchangeable. We are in it and it is in us, a holy binity, where Arsenal is fully divine but football is our Lord and father.

I was hoping to instil a sense of palpable excitement for the season ahead. A feeling that I have not had for years. The slow, steady decay of Arsenal over the past ten or twelve years. Why, I hear you ask? CHANGE HAS ARRIVED AT WOOLWICH ARSENAL. Our bible tells us in Jeremiah 29:11: “For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, saith the Lord, thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you an expected end.” YES, JEREMIAH. YOU WERE A GOONER. YOU FORESAW THE SUMMER OF 2019.

Let us recap.

It is May 29th, just 80 days ago. We had just – of course – lost the final of the Europa League to FC Chelsea 2003. We had ended the domestic season in such a predictably knuckle- bitingly obvious way – successive defeats agin Crystal Palace, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Leicester Fosse, then of course the event that for Arsenal pessimists is the chef’s kiss of the MMXVIII- MMXIX season (please drop your gramophone needle on ‘Now That’s What I Call Ominous and Deathly Symphonies Part 79’ now) BRIGHTON AT HOME. By the time we defeated the millhands of Burnley away on the last day of the season we were adrift of fourth, bereft of spirit. Directionless. Defenderless. Wallowing in the misery of this great club brought low.

And then.

The first of quite a few buggerings off, Denis Suárez buggered off. Thank you for next to nothing, Denis. Why you were here in the first place, we shall never know. The uninvited guest who did not eve bring a bottle of claret to the party, he arrived, he helped himself to the petit fours, then left. Please do not return. We then saw Frederick Longshanks replace Mr. Heisenbould in the co-pilot’s seat. Are we seeing a succession plan in place already? This is not the Arsenal we have come to loathe. Sorry, love.

Then there were the rumblings of a real approach to Gamba Osaka for fleet-footed left back Kazuma Takahiro and Palace’s tricky northerner, Wilfred Sayer. Were these just ‘renewal baubles’, dangled in front of us at the moment that season ticket letters are sent out? Perhaps. In previous seasons maybe. But not with the main man, the mage of north London, Mr. Contacts, Captain Trousers, the Highbury House Hustler, the thinking woman’s David Dein, The London Colney Pole Dancer, the Gazidis Slayer, the man with the voice of rubble, Mr. Roger Stanley.

Adidas showed the world of football how it was done. This is advertising at its very best. Entirely uncynical work that adds to the world. My favourite aspect to the launch film was that it was the first time I had heard our players use their real accents. Orwell, Collingwood, O’Bannon, Lakeshead, McDoozy, Costerley and Bell, all using their native English tongue. Wonderful.

Edward ‘Edward’ Edwards-Gasper arrived as Technical Director. The – what was this?- we signed William Sally, one of the most coveted young centre-halves in Europe, before generously loaning him back, thus demonstrating Arsenal’s strength of character. Another sign of this was when Mr. Costerley refused to travel. Instead of picking up a fake knee-knack or ham-twang, we told it like it was and subsequently sold him.

We signed the future of England’s midfield, Danny Sibbles, on a season long loan. Collingwood and Orwell had a terrifying brush with some knife-wielding criminals and came out better off. And then… We somehow signed Nicholas Pepys, the one player who would challenge for a starting position at any of Europe’s top clubs. How did we do it? We used our special weapon, Roger Stanley.

Statistics based signings have their place, but sometimes you just need a very lucky man with a golden touch. We were then offered Liverpool demigod Phillip Courtenay on loan but in a splendid power-move turned him down. The chap then turned Spurs down which makes me like him a little more. Kazuma Takahiro, The Osaka Express, duly arrived, as did a top-trolling signing, Mr. David Lewis from Chelsea. If not quite the sturdy centurion in the Big Chief Adams mould, then certainly a heart-pumping upgrade on what we have in those areas.

We sold Alexander Webbley; sad to see him go but at the same time we seemed to get a fair price for him, which has become something or a rarity. Yet not any more, with our very own Donald Draper selling our wares.

We duly despatched the magpies with a squad that did not even include our hapless disaster cloud Mr. Masterson. The bench featured such glowing talents as Sibbles, Lakeshead, Torrance and the new lad, the firecracker that is Gabriel ‘The Toddler’ Martin and of course The Peterborough Pirate himself, our new and exciting centre half, David Lewis.

What a season this may turn out to be, dear loves! We are finally seeing change from top to bottom and I for one am thrilled to be watching the chaps this season.


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Column: Arsenal need to entertain again

Tactics Column: Unai Emery’s colour blind chameleon

George Atallah is the assistant executive director of external affairs for the National Football League (NFL) Players Association, and an Arsenal fan.

He writes here about Arsenal’s need to marry effectiveness with entertainment. Follow ‪@GeorgeAtallah

We watch sports to be entertained. When I tune in to a sporting event I do it because there is an enjoyment from seeing something extraordinary. When the extraordinary happens, I feel good about the investment of time and money spent. For the first time as an Arsenal fan, that was mostly not the case last season.
As a U.S.-based Arsenal fan, my allegiance was born out of entertainment. Soccer was not hugely popular when I really started paying attention. Sure, World Cups were mandatory viewing, but it was only after that World Cup of 1998 when Americans had greater and regular access to watching the beautiful game on television.
Arsenal were not only a title winning club, but they were the great entertainers. They were dynamic, attacking and scored breathtaking goals. In short, they were fun to watch which made the investment of time and money on the cable subscription worth it. Sure they won things, but if we are honest, they fell short more often than they triumphed.
My support of the club stuck, so much so that I never miss watching a match and do things like negotiate with my wife on the weekends to make time away (or with?) my daughters to watch. They need to support the club, too and there are all sorts of superstitions I have when I tune in.
Under Arsene, there was a style of play that – win or lose – was entertaining. Even in the lean years his teams had moments of awe that were can’t-miss. Which brings me to project Emery. I cannot remember a season that was tougher to watch than the last one. There was no patented style and it was almost as though the manager was directing play with a faux Xbox controller on the touch line. It all looked contrived in contrast to the free-flowing style that is so appealing to the global football fan.
Yes, transition takes time, but the fits and starts with formations, line-ups and substitutions made it painful at times. I do not fault emphasizing results over style, but when the lack of style paired with a lack of results, it became more and more difficult to convince myself that the two hours watching a match was worth it.
Not everyone can be Brazil or Barcelona, but even when they have won trophies, they have parted ways with managers who stray from the electric style that their history mandates. I argue that the same should be true for our beloved Arsenal. As a global club dependent on global revenues to attract the best talent, the club should not stray from its evolution under Wenger. 1-0 to the Arsenal is pragmatic and effective, but it is not enough to transform the casual international fan like me into a raging Gooner who will contort his limited free-time into supporting the club he loves.
If Newcastle and the new signings this summer gave me any hope, it’s that the club believe in a style of football that is dynamic and fun. It is a hope I hold onto as I get ready to invest in another season.
We are a top-10 global football club in value and revenues, and we should play like it.

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“It’s going to be crazy. Everybody is excited about that. We will have time to play together and we will see. I am looking forward to it. The next game we play at home [against Burnley on Saturday] and we will see what is the coach’s decision. It will be difficult for him [to fit us all in] but that’s the game. When you have a good team it is like that and you have to make choices.”

So said Pierre Emerick Aubameyang of the prospect of forming a front three with Alex Lacazette and Nicolas Pepe. Aubameyang and Lacazette comfortably represent Arsenal’s biggest goal threats and at a cool £72m outlay, Nicolas Pepe will be expected to supplement that. The thought of that trio playing in tandem has fired Aubameyang’s imagination as much as it has fired the collective imagination of the Arsenal fans.

However, there was an undercurrent of curiosity, even caution in his words. “It will be difficult for him [to fit us all in] but that’s the game.” The attacking triumvirate are Arsenal’s three record transfers, but it’s not immediately obvious how they all fit together. Essentially, Unai Emery has the same issue he had last season- how to accommodate two players that want to play centre-forward, when the coach prefers to play with one.

Last season Emery settled on a 3-5-2 that acted both as scaffolding for a porous back line and a means of shoehorning his two outstanding attacking talents into the team. The system had mixed results at best and it is clear that it was not the coach’s preferred solution. The signings of Kieran Tierney and Dani Ceballos strongly suggest that Emery wants to revert to a back four and a more orthodox midfield shape.

Pepe is the easiest component of the formula. We know he plays as an inverted winger from the right-hand side and that suits a modern front three shape. The Ivorian is unlikely to fit any structure that accommodates a wing-back in a back three. He is the natural wide-forward Arsenal and Emery have craved and with that price tag, the plan will be to play him as often as possible.

This begs the question of how best to fit Lacazette and Aubameyang into this structure. Now, you could argue that it should only accommodate one of them, but Arsenal are currently locked in contract talks with both parties and that tells you that the club are not about to sideline one or t’other from the starting eleven any time soon.

This might mean that Aubameyang will have to settle for the left-forward spot as and when Emery decides to play his three supreme attacking talents together. There has been a lot of supposition, from me as much as anyone, that the Gunners could look to ape Liverpool’s world famous front three.

It’s natural that we look to successful sides and mentally re-mould our own teams in their image- see the previous Arsenal hierarchy’s brief obsession with copying Leicester City’s scouting principles when they won the title in 2016. Lacazette, it is argued, could offer a good working impression of the job Firmino does for Liverpool. He prefers to come away from the front line and knit moves together.

From there, Pepe and Aubameyang could play as inverted forwards a la Mane and Salah. Bellerin and Tierney offer good coverage down the flanks in the same way that Robertson and Alexander-Arnold do for Liverpool. However, I am not convinced it is as simple as that. For a start, Aubameyang does not quite have Mane’s dribbling ability.

The Gabonese is not interested in any element of the build-up play and while he can skin a man alive when there is green grass behind a full-back, in tighter situations, beating players is not his speciality. Liverpool’s midfield is also a crucial part of maintaining equilibrium on the flanks too. With Salah and Mane tucked in and Robertson and Alexander-Arnold pushed right up the pitch, the midfield interiors for Liverpool do a sterling job of covering the flanks and protecting Liverpool from counter attacks.

In Torreira and Guendouzi, Arsenal potentially have two players capable of performing a similar job. I am less convinced that Granit Xhaka and Dani Ceballos are tailor made for this kind of detail. It is a very physically demanding task and that’s why Klopp rotates his midfield so readily. He treats the season like a sprint relay for those midfielders. Arsenal cannot play an entire season with just two midfield players assigned such a role.

In any case, I am not yet convinced that Emery sees replicating Liverpool’s strategy as his Plan A. For the majority of pre-season, the coach has reverted to his preferred 4-2-3-1 shape. As Anam observes in his piece on the Newcastle match, Emery likes his wide forwards to move in-field and create a box shape with the midfield double pivot, while the number 10 behaves a little like a decoy.

Pepe could fit that style, Aubameyang less so if played from the left. I also think Arsenal lack firepower when Aubameyang is not playing, Lacazette is an effective foil but I’m not fully convinced he is the guy to lead a front line on his own. He likes to move backwards towards play, the Gunners lack presence in the box without their Gabonese striker.

That said, Emery has played Aubemayang from the left often enough to know that he is not suited to playing the role as Nelson and Mkhitaryan did at St. James’ Park. Emery said as much during pre-season, “Aubameyang can play like a striker alone, like a striker with two and can play as a winger on the right or the left.

When we are deciding to play with another player maybe they are more of a one-to-one winger or a player like Mesut, a player who goes deep to take the ball and keep our possession with him in the pitch. It’s different in each moment and each match. But above all, with Aubameyang, we can take different options with him.”

Pepe’s participation in the African Nations means that the coach has not had time to work out how to integrate him with Aubameyang and Lacazette and Auba’s own musings (“when you have a good team it is like that and you have to make choices”) suggest it’s not yet been discussed in a defined way. If Emery is to use all three of his record signings at once, he might have to work it out on the hoof.

He could chance upon a similar 442 shape to the one deployed by the 1997-98 Double team, with Pepe playing a kind of Overmars role from the right. In that team, Ray Parlour shifted in-field from the right flank to form a midfield three with Vieira and Petit, freeing Overmars to break into inside forward positions. It is conceivable that Ceballos could do something similar from the left and form a three with two of Xhaka, Guendouzi and Torreira.

Emery might favour the Liverpool approach, of course. That he played with a 4-2-3-1 for the majority of pre-season and for the game at Newcastle might simply be a reflection of the players at his disposal. Arsenal fans will be understandably excited to see a PAL (Pepe Aubameyang Lacazette) front three, it might take some time to find the right balance, assuming that balance exists at all.

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Geez, Luiz

David Luiz, eh? I bet you didn’t see that coming. The circumstances in which he arrives at Arsenal are uncannily similar to the ones that saw him return to Chelsea in 2016. Having unsuccessfully cased Kalidou Koulibaly all summer, the Blues desperately needed a centre-half going into the last 48 hours of the window and David Luiz arrived back at Stamford Bridge, well, out of the blue.

Luiz is part of Kia Joorabchian’s stable of Brazilian players and this was significant in his unexpected return to Stamford Bridge. Chelsea reluctantly took Alexandre Pato, another one from the Kia rolodex, on loan at the tail end of the 2015-16 season. Within a year of that anomalous looking loan deal, Luiz had arrived at Chelsea and two more Joorabchian players, Ramires and Oscar, were sold to China for satisfactory fees.

Joorabchian has close links to Edu Gaspar dating back to his time at Corinthians, which I explained on a recent edition of the Arsecast. Kia’s friendship with Edu and closeness with Raul Sanllehi probably made this deal a relatively hassle-free affair for the Gunners. With other options exhausted, the deal makes some sense for Arsenal who are getting an experienced, Premier League ready centre-half.

At 32, Luiz is at the tail-end of his career at the top level but having spent £27m on 18-year old William Saliba this summer, one can appreciate the logic of an experienced short-term option. It is fair to say Luiz has divided opinion during his career, he is widely regarded as a player that veers between brilliance and catastrophe and that reputation is not without foundation.

In a system suited to his strengths, the Brazilian is an imperious player. Indeed, since returning to Chelsea in 2016, he has been largely excellent. As the central ‘pin’ in a back three, he thrived under Antonio Conte as the Blues sauntered to the league title. When Maurizio Sarri took over from his compatriot in the Stamford Bridge dugout, he reverted to a back four and Luiz was just as comfortable alongside either one of Rudiger or Christensen.

Luiz clearly enjoyed the tactical stylings of ‘Sarri-ball’, “I think his philosophy is amazing, it’s trying to play football,” Luiz said back in April. “It’s the way I love football, the way I enjoy football not just playing but watching and I think I love his philosophy.” Luiz loved Sarri-ball because it allowed him to express his strengths, not least his outstanding range of passing.

The Brazilian is far more than a line breaking passer, he is genuinely one of the Premier League’s most creative players. Luiz created 11 big chances in the Premier League last season, more than any Arsenal player. These are incredible numbers for a centre-half. Luiz’s stunning passing range allowed Chelsea to wean themselves away from Cesc Fabregas and Nemanja Matic, whose lack of speed in transition held the Chelsea midfield back.

While it is true that Gunners fans will be more preoccupied with his defensive abilities, his distribution adds another dimension to the team. It might even allow Arsenal to manoeuvre Granit Xhaka out of the midfield in favour of more mobile options. As a defender, Luiz’s career shows that in the right setup and with the appropriate defensive partner, he can be a colossus.

His partnership with Thiago Silva for Brazil and Paris Saint Germain was the best in world football at the time. However, when Thiago Silva was suspended for the 2014 World Cup semi-final against Germany, well, we all saw what happened. Luiz’s international career fizzled out thereafter. Firstly because Silva fell out with the newly appointed Dunga and, without his teammate at his side, Luiz’s rash side crept to the surface.

Luiz spent a year in international exile, before being welcomed back into the fold in late 2015, when Silva’s relationship with Dunga had disintegrated to the point that he was no longer called into the squad. Luiz quickly violated that trust. First, because he was sent off in the dying minutes of a 1-1 World Cup qualifying draw with Argentina in Buenos Aires for a needlessly poor challenge. He followed this up with a rash performance against Uruguay in March 2016.

Brazil took a 2-0 lead in Recife before Luiz self-destructed. He allowed Luis Suarez to take him apart and the Uruguayans overturned the two-goal deficit. Dunga never trusted him again. He has made one Brazil squad under current coach Tite, but he was unused for those games. His penchant for petulance and his inability to function without Thiago Silva by his side made him disposable. Silva has since been reintegrated into the team.

This reputation for rashness has followed him throughout his career, in 2011 Gary Neville memorably described him as “playing like he is being controlled by a ten-year old playing the Playstation.” It is a comment Neville has since expressed remorse for and one that stuck in the public conscience. Despite his misgivings at international level, Luiz’s club career has remained on an even keel since signing for Paris Saint Germain in 2013.

Even when he left Thiago Silva behind to return to London, Luiz has looked comfortable in both a back three and a back four with multiple partners. He has been largely excellent during his second spell at Chelsea, demonstrating signs of maturity that were previously missing from his game.

That said, he was briefly exiled from the team towards the end of Antonio Conte’s reign after falling out with the Italian. He is far from the only player to fall foul of Conte’s perma-scowl, but then Luiz can be, shall we say, ‘expressive’ when he is unhappy. This might explain why Chelsea are willing to sell him to a direct rival.

Arsenal’s defence is in disarray and they need a shot of calmness and organisation. The question is whether Luiz can be that calming presence and a lot will come down to how well he gels with Sokratis. Defence is all about partnerships and you would imagine that those two be entrusted with plugging a porous back line. Aged 32 and 31 respectively, both are experienced performers, allowing space and time for Holding and Saliba to gradually replace them.

Luiz is generally considered to be a good character in the dressing room. He is known for his upbeat disposition and generosity. He has regularly showed a common, affable touch with fans. Luiz credits his happy go lucky outlook to his strong Christian faith. He has also been a strong advocate of the Chelsea Women’s team. He turned up unannounced at their Champions League match against PSG last season and mingled with fans and players alike.

Whether he can bring the same sense of lightness to an Arsenal defence that has looked incredibly stressed remains to be seen. As a short-term option, he makes sense for the Gunners. Luiz has had a complicated career, but he’s not a complicated character, when he is happy, he is good and when he is unhappy he is bad. Time will tell whether he can find happiness in North London.

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It’s Going To Be A Big 2019-20 For…

Following on from last week’s column, ‘It’s Going To Be A Big 2019-20 for…Youth Edition’, this week, I will assess three of the more senior players for whom this season represents a decisive one.

In pure personnel terms, it’s difficult to argue that Arsenal’s defence has improved ahead of this season. Laurent Koscielny was unlikely to be able to play the same volume of games he managed in the second half of last season anyway, but his imminent departure weakens the Gunners back line. Rob Holding should return to fitness soon which is great because it ought to mean less Mustafi.

However, we should be cautious about expecting Holding and Bellerin to come in and rescue an Arsenal defence that has conceded 102 goals in its last 76 Premier League games. In short, Leno is going to need to have a shit hot season. In fairness, he performed a reasonable impression of a one-man resistance during the second half of last season.

The worry is whether he can continue to defy metrics and perform above his career average thus far. In this Statsbomb post @MoeSquare writes, “The fear is that Leno’s performance this season was such an outlier compared to previous ones, that it’s more likely he experiences a decline moving forward. If Arsenal’s defence doesn’t improve, anything short of a repeat performance from Leno could spell further trouble.”

Many Gunners fans were ready to move on from Petr Cech last season and it was obvious that Leno was a much more modern goalkeeper when it came to distribution. It took a little while for him to emphatically win over the Arsenal fan base but nothing earns you the adoration of the Arsenal crowd quite like a breath-taking double save away at Tottenham.

The hope is that he can maintain that form going into this season. Tim from @7amkickoff pointed out the disparity between Leno’s stats away from home compared to games at the Emirates in a March episode of the Arsecast. It’s difficult to explain the discrepancy but, not unlike the team itself, Leno might have to spit on his gloves a little more for away fixtures. He quickly forged a good reputation with Arsenal fans in the spring, but he could just as quickly lose it if that spell proved to be a statistical outlier.

Xhaka is in a curious position as the most likely player to inherit the captain’s armband from Laurent Koscielny, but I think there is a fair chance that he is on trial this season. Mind you, given Arsenal’s recent history with the armband, perhaps it would be more curious if his medium-term future were not under question.

Xhaka’s good attributes are useful to Arsenal, but his all too frequent brain fades are, to put it lightly, inconvenient. There is a suspicion that the Swiss is just ill-suited to a league high on the drug of pressing. His passing is very good, but it takes entirely too long for him to collect the ball from the defence, turn and distribute on his favoured left foot.

Were I the manager, I would lean very heavily into making Guendouzi and Torreira my preferred partnership. I think that’s a duo that has a lot of upside and carries out a lot of the duties you would expect from a high functioning double pivot. Xhaka is embroiled in a battle not to become obsolete, much like high street retail.

Even if he manages to convince Emery (assuming Emery needs convincing) that his skills are what Arsenal require going forward, he still has other puzzles to solve. Most urgently, Granit needs to rid of his game of the kind of brain-dead errors that make you want to put your fist through a wall. In fairness to him, Xhaka managed to amend his disciplinary issues after three red cards in his debut season.

He turns 27 in September and is about to enter his prime years. The propensity to panic and self-destruct has to exit his game immediately. Xhaka is a bit of a control freak as a player, once he loses control of a situation, he has an unpleasant habit of switching into meltdown mode at the flick of a switch. It’s the same reason his disciplinary record was so poor in his debut season.

Xhaka has entered a phase where there can be no more excuses for his impetuousness. He often has three centre-halves behind him, he often has Lucas Torreira next to him, he can’t ask for much more protection. I suspect Emery still really likes to have Xhaka in his team because of his ability to spread play into the half-spaces and to find the wing-backs. That is useful to Arsenal, but he needs to repent for his sins in 2019-20 and show he can keep a cool head.

Özil has a very generous contract with two years still to run on it. He has retired from international duty having already won a World Cup and he enjoys life in London. In pure employment terms, Mesut is in an exceptionally comfortable situation. In career terms, he is under greater pressure and scrutiny than ever- and he has endured a lot of scrutiny throughout his professional life.

I think Özil’s recent malaise is down to several factors that have intermingled into an unpleasant soup. I do think that, frankly, his motivation has been lacking since he signed onto his current terms in January 2018. His retirement from international football may have fed into that sense of ennui as he has one less motivating factor.

I don’t think we can ignore the psychological toll surrounding the bitter end to his Germany career and the fallout from it. That has to have an impact. I also believe that he is just fundamentally not suited to the football Emery wants to play. In fact, Özil is slowly becoming a relic, because not many teams play with this kind of out and out number 10 any longer.

The physical demands of the position have changed and the likes of Mesut and James Rodriguez have found their careers dwindling with the fashion for high-pressing. It puts one in mind of the move from goal hanging ‘fox in the box’ strikers to channel running grifters in the centre-forward position some 15-20 years ago.

Yet Özil’s legacy is under pressure. If he continues to play as he has for the last 18 months or so, his story will be viewed as one of wasted talent, of an ethereal playmaker that did not apply his skill as much as he ought. Whether or not Mesut is motivated by that challenge remains to be seen, but after the mud that has been slung in his direction recently, there must be some willingness to cock a snook at the haters.

Arsenal cannot shift Özil as they would undoubtedly like to for obvious reasons and the player himself, understandably, doesn’t want to leave for a lesser contract. The two parties are stuck in an uneasy marriage, but it would be in both of their interests to try and revive the love affair they once enjoyed. Whether or not he is a “tactical fit”, Arsenal with a firing Mesut Özil is a far better team. His reputation is very much on the line.

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Column: Nicolas Pepe is a game changer for Arsenal

Arsenal broke their transfer record for the third time in three years yesterday, signing Nicolas Pepe from Lille in a deal worth £72m. What will he bring to the team, and what kind of a player is he?

Phil Costa @_PhilCosta reports.

Following their failure to secure Champions League football via two different avenues, the immediate future at Arsenal looked bleak. Exciting transfer links quickly turned into Ryan Fraser and Yacine Brahimi, extreme cost-cutting measures were relayed from above and apathy began to set in.

But after a slow start, Gabriel Martinelli, William Saliba and Dani Ceballos all made their way to Emirates Stadium in what already look to be shrewd deals. Then from nowhere, a club-record fee was reportedly agreed for the signing of Lille forward Nicolas Pepe. Amid competition from Napoli, the deal was completed and his arrival continues to generate excitement among fans. But who is the Ivorian, what will he bring to Arsenal and why is he costing the best part of €80m?

After a disastrous spell under Marcelo Bielsa between June and December 2017 – which left Lille in the relegation zone – former Saint-Etienne manager Christophe Galtier took over and quickly transformed their fortunes. The rest of 2017/18 was about ensuring survival, while the following season saw Les Dogues finish second as one of Europe’s most entertaining sides.

Playing an offensive 4-2-3-1 formation that thrived in transition, Jonathan Ikone, Jonathan Bamba and Rafael Leao would terrorise defences on a weekly basis. Their ability to counter attack was unrivalled and not even Paris Saint-Germain – highlighted by their 5-1 defeat in April – could handle them at their best.

The star of the show, however, was Pepe who elevated his game to an elite level and ended 2018/19 as Ligue 1’s second-most productive player (22G, 11A) behind Kylian Mbappe.

At face value, Pepe displays traits of a typical wide player having averaged 2.8 dribbles, 2.4 open play shots and 1.5 key passes per 90 minutes last season. He is high volume, high risk – which instantly adds to his unique selling point in north London. Arsenal scored 73 Premier League goals last term but number-wise, were shot shy and outperformed their xG model by 13 goals, often relying on unsustainable finishing from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette to see them through games.

The Gunners were also one-dimensional and conservative in attack, with Alex Iwobi – who lead the side in dribbles per 90 (1.4) – finding himself behind Leicester defender Ben Chilwell in the overall league rankings. Many have questioned the decision to spend big on another forward but the 24-year-old addresses a sizeable issue within the squad. Since losing Alexis Sanchez, Santi Cazorla and even Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, unpredictability and a willingness to force the game have been qualities sorely lacking.

In contrast, only seven players in Europe completed more dribbles than Pepe (102) last term and no other Lille player had more shots on target (61) than he did, which hints to a significant upgrade in those areas. From previous experience, Arsenal fans understand that individualists like Alexis can frustrate, but having players like that – who aren’t afraid to take risks and try something different in the final third – can often prove valuable in crucial moments.

Looking beyond the transparencies in his game, Pepe also excels on a creative basis. His 79% pass completion rate hints at occasionally careless play, but again that refers back to his high risk/high reward style. The Ivory Coast international never shies away from difficult passes and keeps one trademark play in his locker – disguised through balls between left back and centre back – which so often proved productive for Lille. There is a certainty and care to his final ball, with only Memphis Depay (72) creating more chances from open play than him (61) in Ligue 1 last season.

Nicolas Pepe in action for Lille

Physically, the 24-year-old is slight and willowy in frame which has cast some doubts over his transition to English football. But he shields the ball well in tight areas and is extremely fleet-footed, using quick touches to escape defenders and buy himself a yard. Once in full stride, his acceleration is impressive and watching full backs gradually lose ground on him is extremely satisfying. He does, however, have a tendency to hold onto the ball for too long – a habit which he will need to curb in England.

Unai Emery also likes his forwards to work hard and press whenever possible, which may require a slight change of mindset. Pepe made 137 ball recoveries last term – more than any other Arsenal forward – but his direct duels flatter to deceive. He made just 0.5 tackles and three defensive actions (interceptions, challenges, fouls) per 90 under Galtier which highlights room for improvement. Looking to his new strike partner Lacazette, you don’t need to be a bruising defensive midfielder to contribute defensively. Timing and enthusiasm can serve you just as well.

“I quickly fell in love with him,” said Lille sporting director Luis Campos, recalling the day he identified Pepe. “I was at an Angers game to watch a Rennes player, but I couldn’t take my eyes off him.

“The day he is in a big club, he will kill everything and explode.”

And that explosive potential is what Arsenal have invested so heavily in. The 24-year-old saw his stats inflated by penalties last season and has only truly enjoyed one prolific campaign. He also arrives in north London as a club-record signing, but is far less of a guarantee than both Aubameyang and Lacazette before him who were consistent goalscorers over numerous seasons beforehand.

But what the Gunners do have is an extremely talented player who is firstly, still improving and secondly, heading into his peak years. His base numbers are strong, his underlying numbers are impressive and crucially – the intangibles make an impression as well. Pepe referenced his emotion at signing for the club and how ‘it had not been easy for him’ during his youth to even reach this stage. That desire and determination will only benefit him moving forward.

Simply put, this is a game changer for Arsenal. They have shown that despite difficult times they are still an attractive proposition for elite talent and through that, have taken a considerable step to rebuilding fan trust. The Gunners are famous for talking a good game and seldom delivering, but Emery, Raul Sanllehi and others have undoubtedly delivered with this signing.

And heading into a season where margin for error is at a minimum, everything points to Pepe making a difference.