Aubameyang and Leno come to Freddie’s rescue as Arsenal drop more points despite improvements: By Alfie Cairns Culshaw
Norwich 2-2 Arsenal
Ultimately a disappointing result in Freddie’s opening game as a Football manager, but the immediate improvements in his system were encouraging. Whilst we almost certainly have two individuals to thank for picking up a point, and for picking up a large majority of our points this season, it was a team performance that contained much greater control over the game, some fluid attacking football, and a greater fighting spirit and positive attitudes.
Ljungberg opted for a slightly unconventional starting 11, which unsurprisingly provoked animosity online. Sead Kolasinac, Skodran Mustafi and Granit Xhaka’s inclusions in particular, as well as Kieran Tierney and Nicolas Pepe’s omissions sparking outrage on Twitter as #FreddieOut began trending. Another example of the AFTV rage culture infiltrating an increasingly toxic fanbase.
One must assume Tierney was left out due to playing two full 90 minutes in quick succession, whilst the inclusions of Mustafi and Xhaka were perhaps to reintegrate them back into the side and thus “bring smiles back on faces.”
Whilst the formation appeared to be a diamond on paper, it soon became apparent Ljungberg was opting for a narrow 4-3-3 with Ozil and Aubameyang as inside forwards, with the onus on the full-backs to provide the width. This worked early on, with Calum Chambers in particular providing a constant outlet down that right-hand side, effectively linking up with Aubameyang on a number of occasions.
Mustafi, David Luiz and Xhaka sat deep and kept us ticking with their technical capabilities on the ball, which allowed us to maintain stability in possession, and Norwich struggled to attain any sort of control or authority. Joe Willock and Matteo Guendouzi’s dynamic runs from deep to support Lacazette proved to be a threat, and led to our first real opportunity, with Lacazette forcing Tim Krul into a reflex save after the Frenchman scuffed the ball into the ground following a smart run from Willock. This offensive threat remained throughout the early periods, as we penned Norwich back and decisively cut though them.
Chambers and Mustafi both had headers cleared off the line, whilst Xhaka wasted a good opportunity to play in Lacazette after winning the ball up high up after intensely pressing. This co-ordinated press was another positive feature of our first half performance, with Freddie clearly utilising his limited time with the players in training this week to introduce this system.
However, whilst our offensive play may have shown signs of improvement, our defensive deficiencies look far from being eradicated. Whilst in this first 45 minutes we inhibited Norwich to very little (evident in their mere 0.22 xG in this period), our passiveness when defending the edge of the box was as present as ever. Teemu Pukki found himself on the edge of our box, 20 yards from goal, and was met with Luiz and Mustafi dropping off him and allowing him to get a shot away. Whilst there was an element of luck about the deflection, the lack of responsiveness and urgency to close down the shot was a concern. This was again evident in Todd Cantwell’s goal later in the half when Chambers was caught up field and Mustafi switched off, allowing Cantwell to slot past Leno.
Sandwiched between this was another VAR controversy, which saw us equalise through Aubameyang’s retaken penalty. Norwich can have no complaints about either the awarding of the penalty or why it was retaken, with clear encroachment denying the Gabonese under the letter of the law.
Our second half display was far less convincing. Our control over the game withered as Norwich’s confidence grew, and we ultimately had Leno to thank for some outstanding reflex saves. Aubameyang’s emphatic finish from a set-piece marked the end of our dominance territorially and from that moment onwards Norwich sprung into life.
Leno superbly tipped Kenny McLean’s shot onto the post, stopped well with his foot from a Pukki drive, and reacted astutely after a shot deflected off Torreira and was diverted towards the top corner. However, Norwich’s efforts remained largely opportunistic and speculative, evident in the 0.88 xG they had managed by the full-time whistle.
We weren’t without our own late chances. Ozil had a flick blocked off the line, Torreira had a brilliantly connected half-volley blocked and Saka had a deflected cut-back flash across the face of goal. The underlying metrics suggested we were very unlucky not to pick up all three points (with our xG amounting to 2.42), although the media will fail to identify this as the scrutiny around the club builds day by day. Sky demonstrated their usual incompetence in the aftermath, with the pundits collectively agreeing we were lucky to pick up a point, despite having these same metrics available to them on a big screen to their right.
I can talk about these positives but the negative aspects of our game are too prominent to ignore. We remain awful when defending in the transition, with Norwich easily countering us when losing the ball on countless occasions. The lack of athleticism in our side, particularly in central areas, seems to contribute to this, but there is undoubtedly a structural issue there and one that could be fixed with a coach insistent on implementing a gegenpressing system. Thankfully, unlike Emery, Freddie acknowledged this problem in his post-match interview, stating that “we must work on the defensive transition.”
We lack decisiveness in wide areas going forward, although this issue does seem to be down to a matter of personnel. Ozil and Aubameyang aren’t your conventional wide players, and with Saka and Nelson developing, Pepe still settling and our first choice full-backs missing, I’d expect this to improve when the new coach settles and starts implementing his philosophy.
Overall, a strange day. A difficult result to take, given the implications of dropped points, but it was refreshing to talk tactically once again, rather than addressing the ongoing problems off the pitch and about the incompetence of our former manager. Freddie will have learnt a lot about the life of a manager, with this experience hopefully helping him in his future endeavours. For now, the board must move quickly to replace Emery, with more points likely to be dropped while this role is vacated. Vamos.
I’m sure you all already know Alfie from his previous reviews and podcasts, but now I am pleased to call this one a guest post, as this talented and astute young man has now started his own Arsenal blog. Please checkout WeLoveYouArsenal. You won’t be disappointed!