Four European Talking Points With Potential Premier League Impact
By Mac Johnson
Arsenal took a well-deserved sixth win from six games in their Europa League group, and now will look to advance further than the Round of 16 this season. Yesterday’s match, a 4-2 win over a poor Dundalk team filled with English League Two rejects, was the quintessential group-stage game for this Arsenal team: play the kids and the reserves, and dominate an inferior opponent. But in a league season filled with painful results, with few chances created or goals scored, our Europa League games are the only real beacon of hope as Arsenal fans these days. We play freely, create freely, and even though we can’t keep a clean sheet, these games are never in doubt. Because of the inferior quality of our opponents, our Europa League squad is ble to implement Mikel Arteta’s tactics, and play the way Arsenal should be playing in the league. Their dominance demonstrates the very issues Arteta needs to cover for domestically. Here are four talking points from our Europa League campaign that we need to start implementing in league play.
1. Line-Breaking Passes
Arsenal don’t cross much in the Europa League. Instead, they prioritize passes that break lines, creating overloads in the half-spaces to make space for a runner in behind. Regardless of the quality of the opponent, Arsenal cannot be Risk-Free FC anymore. Our league tactics prioritize wide overloads. Our central midfielders don’t press high enough, and we create a massive hole in the pitch, from the center circle to the edge of the 18. As a result, we allow teams to set up their low-lying blocks unhindered, and without tactics that disturb that defensive formation, we are physically incapable of creating chances. Playing Elneny, or a healthy Thomas Partey, or even a center-back (David Luiz anybody?), as a holding midfielder allows players like Dani Ceballos, and Joe Willock—and even the likes of Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Bukayo Saka if played centrally—to press higher, and operate in between the lines. This is where they feel the most comfortable and are in turn able to supply the front three with actual passes to their feet. Yes, it’s riskier, but you can’t score without taking risks. This type of system will be especially important if Arteta wants to implement a back-four. Arsenal have really struggled with a flat 4-3-3, and a 4-2-3-1, because our midfield doesn’t play high enough, and as a result the whole team gets bogged down.
2. The Kids are Alright
Arsenal have struggled for consistent hold-up play this season, and Balogun looks to have the raw physical profile to anchor a front three, something that can not be said for Aubameyang, or Nketiah. And if Arteta continues to play Alexandre Lacazette deeper, the youngster, born in New York, could provide excellent competition for the Frenchman. Even more crucial to Arsenal’s future is Emile Smith Rowe. Still only 20, he’s already the best creative player in the Arsenal squad. No, I’m not joking. He’s got a goal and two assists in three games, and is singlehandedly tallying 0.61 xG and 0.15 xA per 90. Those are ridiculous numbers, and yes it’s against lower opposition, but he was the Man of the Match in his full first start for the Gunners, playing in an unfamiliar left-wing position, before switching to the right flank and dominating there too.
Smith-Rowe is fast, tricky, and above all confident, and those are three things this Arsenal team is seriously lacking right now. Give the kid a chance. Ben Cottrell is a spectacular up-and-coming No. 8, Miguel Azeez is making headlines, and I haven’t even talked about Reiss Nelson yet. Nelson is arguably the player who we need most in the league squad at the moment, as Willian is useless, Martinelli is stil recovering from his long-term lay-off, and I still haven’t forgiven Pepe for headbutting someone. What a melon. Overall, our team selection can’t get much worse. Pull a Manchester United, or a Chelsea, and just trust the kids to do their job. At this point, I’ll take dynamic energy over experience any day. It might actually be fun to watch.
3. Cedric Soares Can Take a Throw-In
I’m only slightly joking. Five foul throws, come ON man. But this point is more about internal competition. Mikel Arteta seems to have some serious favorites—read Willian—but honestly isn’t rotating enough. Bellerin has lost a step, Kieran Tierney is underperforming, and Aubameyang really isn’t working at No.9. As we’ve found with Nicolas Pepe, sometimes demoting a player, or giving them competition to light a fire under their ass, is the exact spark they’ll need to step up their game a notch. And in the Europa League, that’s exactly what we get. The players we start in the Europa League are either competing amongst themselves to start in that competition, or looking for a Premier League place. I don’t think Mustafi, Maitland-Niles, Chambers, or Elneny want to play Dundalk every week. It’s incredible what a little motivation can do.
And this squad generally needs extra impetus to get going. Against Leeds, we were astronomically better after Pepe got the red card. It was like, as soon as we became the underdogs, there was a reason to play. It’s such an odd mentality, but one Arteta must exploit if Arsenal are to turn their season around. Playing players who are insecure in their place in the squad earned him exceedingly good results during his first six months. It won him a Community Shield and an FA Cup. Arsenal were the third most successful team during Project Restart, bar Manchester City and Southampton. Returning to it in the league, as he does in the Europa League, could be seriously helpful.
4. Vertical Movement is Key
Every leading coach in the world—Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp, Jose Mourinho, Hansi Flick— prizes dynamic, vertical runs and ball-movements above all else in their tactical schemes. It doesn’t matter who your fighter is in the ring, they all do it. Guardiola develops expansive schemes of play. Klopp jams the vertical space on the wings to free up the middle of the pitch. Mourinho sits deep and counters hard. Flick builds quickly through a series of staggered dummy runs. Arteta’s Arsenal pass sideways, and expect it to make a difference. They don’t probe, they don’t challenge. Like I said earlier, they’re Risk-Free FC. But their Europa League campaign highlights something totally different. Emile Smith-Rowe, against Dundalk, exploited vertical space wonderfully, whether running at an opponent or behind them. Through his aggressive vertical movement, he created loads of space for Maitland-Niles to run in to. Similarly, when Elneny scored the goal of his career, he was set up by Smith Rowe making vertical space. It’s not a coincidence. Cedric played the same way. It certainly wasn’t a perfect game for the Portuguese, but he created excellent overloads on the right side without cramping Pepe’s style, by making vertical runs. His counterpart, Hector Bellerin, finds his best attacking moments in the league when our midfielders slip him in behind the back line with a vertical pass to meet a vertical run. All of his assists have come from that exact combination, yet we just don’t see it enough. The only player who consistently works for vertical space in the league is Bukayo Saka, which is why he’s often our most promising creative option. This time last year, Aubameyang was causing terror for backlines by constantly playing off the shoulder of defenders, making runs in behind and threatening one-on-ones. Hell, that’s been his M.O. for a decade of professional play. For some reason, that doesn’t happen anymore. Bring it back. It works perfectly in conjunction with line-breaking passes, yet another reason we need to have more of it. In a word, this team needs more directness. By applying that to movement and distribution, we kill two birds with one stone. And the best part about all four of these talking points is, we have the personnel to make them happen. So let’s hope to God Arteta makes it happen.