Unai Emery and Tactical Rigidity Cost Arsenal at Watford

Unai Emery

At half time at Vicarage Road on Sunday, Arsenal manager Unai Emery must have thought they had three points in the bag. They were two goals ahead against Watford and while the hosts had the majority of shots, the visitors had created the better chances.

However, by full time the scores stood level again. The Hornets kept the pressure up in the second half and took the chances which were presented to them. While individual errors directly lead to the goals, Unai Emery’s tactical rigidity created an atmosphere which facilitated the errors.

Tactical Rigidity Costs Arsenal and Unai Emery Two Points at Watford

Playing out from the Back

Arsenal are a team with some really terrific technicians. This means that when playing out from the back, they have the ability to bypass a high press and create excellent scoring chances.

This is exactly what Unai Emery wanted to do when he set his team out at Vicarage Road. However, when it was plain to see that such a tactic was simply not working, the Spaniard did nothing to change his plan.

To be fair, at the start of the second half Emery had no reason to think his tactics would not take his team the rest of the way. He should, however, receive blame for not changing his plan after Watford stepped up their press and made Arsenal uncomfortable.

Some warning signs of the first costly error, committed by Sokratis Papastathopoulos, came in the first half. During the opening period, Watford dispossessed their guests four times.

After the heavy pressing of the second period commenced, Arsenal gave the ball away on a further seven occasions, including said Sokratis slip up.

These turnovers in possession lead to many more chances in the second half for the home side, culminating in an afternoon which yielded 31 shots (ten on target). They also forced decisive errors from both Sokratis and David Luiz.

Trouble at Both Ends

The ineffectiveness of Arsenal’s playing out from the back also troubled them offensively. As the match progressed, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Nicolas Pepe and Mesut Ozil were all very isolated in attack.

Even when any of the three received the ball from a teammate, they often had no passing options. As a result, the Hornets were able to keep the ball in the attacking third for large portions of the second half.

It is also worth noting that both Aubameyang and Pepe are players with pace. Long balls over the top for them to latch onto were few and far between, another tactical failing.

Unai Emery, to his credit, did at least make his substitutions early enough to impact the match. Ozil wasn’t fit to play a full 90 minutes, so his substitution was sensible. Matteo Guendouzi had a bit of an off day so bringing on Lucas Torreira was, again, sensible.

Replacing Dani Ceballos, Arsenal’s best midfielder on the day, so early was strange, however. Especially considering that his replacement was a still fairly untested Joe Willock.

An observer could understand why Emery made at least two of these changes, but they didn’t really come good for the Gunners manager. The midfield became a bit disjointed with three new faces introduced so quickly.

All this meant that Arsenal could not create enough scoring opportunities to bag a third thanks to Unai Emery’s tactical rigidity.

Captain’s Quotes

Granit Xhaka, the heir apparent to the Arsenal armband, made some telling remarks after the match.

“No-one wanted the ball. In the end, we are happy to take a point. We didn’t show our game in the second half, we were too scared. Every team in the Premier League is strong enough to score but you have to keep calm, to show good character, to be mentally strong. We weren’t today.”

Putting the fact that a soon to be club captain admitted such a thing publically to one side, the most interesting aspect of these remarks is the fact that Arsenal were scared.

This betrays an inherent distrust in the tactical choices which were being implemented. Players don’t get frightened when they are comfortable. They also don’t get scared when they are confident.

How does a team with a two-goal advantage become uncomfortable and lose confidence? When the plan isn’t working. That’s when players make mistakes like gifting the ball away just yards from goal or committing a late challenge inside their own penalty box.

Unai Emery’s tactical rigidity was responsible for his players making these mistakes. Individual player errors should be pointed out and corrected in training, but so too should a manager’s tactical blunders.

Time will tell if Emery changes his system should results not improve, as he did last season. However, it is beginning to seem a necessity that Arsenal’s tactics do change.

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