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Premier League 2018/19: Southampton vs Arsenal

Arsenal could not extend their unbeaten run and got defeated for the first time in 22 fixtures. Southampton took advantage of the given opportunities and against the Londoners to head their new manager Ralph Hasenhuttl to his first Premier League victory. The ex-Liverpool player Danny Ings proved he has been a great deal for the Saints scoring two before being replaced with Charlie Austin who scored the winner. Their perfectly timed interventions resulted in making the Gunners‘ life miserable and exposing their defensive issues. Not a lot of positives could be taken out of this game but it’s still difficult to point a finger at a certain player or mistake that led to the defeat.

In this analysis, I’ll try to find the reason for Arsenal failing to keep the result after equalizing twice. And also how did Southampton manage to take the lead three times and win the game?

Was it just a matter of luck and tiredness or Unai Emery just didn’t find the right formula?

What went wrong for Arsenal and why?

Unai Emery is known for his adaptability to the opponents’ tactics and formations and this is part of why he has been this successful as a coach. He didn’t cheat on his instincts once again and went for a completely different (yet strange) squad against the Saints. But this time his instincts cheated on him. As that defeat is a result of far more complicated circumstances the starting XI and the 3-4-2-1 formation played a huge part in it. His in-game adjustments weren’t much of a help this time too.

Arsenal Southampton Premier League Tactical Analysis Statistics
Arsenal’s starting XI against Southampton

The manager decided to give a chance to the three-man defence once again. And I believe that was not the biggest problem, although going back to the “old” 4-2-3-1 could’ve been a better choice. The main issue was his player choice and individual positioning. That is what didn’t work out at all. And it wasn’t to blame it on the players’ individual qualities; it was just a matter of connection (and playing time).

Playing all three – Nacho Monreal, Laurent Koscielny and Stephan Lichtsteiner, in the starting XI might not be the strongest decision Emery has made so far. Not that he had any decent choices on the bench though. With Mustafi and Sokratis out due to suspension and Rob Holding missing after picking up a long-term injury, the Spaniard was given a hard time preparing for this game.

As it wasn’t bad enough, Kolasinac picked up a thigh problem during the training. This ruined Emery’s perfect plan for using the Bosnian and Bellerin as wing-backs, Nacho on his natural position as a left-back and Xhaka as Torreira’s partner in the middle. This forced him to change the whole organization and play Nacho Monreal and Laurent Koscielny, who only made their return to the first team on Thursday.

He decided to stick to his 3-4-2-1 plan but rather than putting Xhaka or Guendouzi on the left wing-back position he went for Monreal. This meant that Xhaka had to drop in the defensive line (as he did earlier in the season). Having in mind the team’s shaky defensive actions during the season it was quite expected that this won’t work out. Even though the Spaniard feels comfortable going forward and he put a solid performance it seemed like the defensive responsibilities weren’t properly shared and the connection was missing.

The struggle became real after both Bellerin and Lichtsteiner were forced out. Few players out of position, rushing players back from injury and changing the formation in motion resulted in a chaotic without-a-direction performance.

Arsenal Southampton Premier League Tactical Analysis Statistics
Bellerin would often position high (on the same line as the opponent’s defensive line) and that would allow Mkhitaryan to operate between the lines and contribute more inside. The same would happen on the other side with Monreal and Iwobi.

The strong decision-making was lacking, the leader in the back line too. Not to mention the lack of a right pairing. Even without so many players being injured or suspended, this is something that could turn into a stepping stone for the team with the upcoming schedule.

Don’t blame it on Xhaka

Granit Xhaka took the best out of this situation. Being forced to cover a few areas, with none of them being his common ones, he tried his best. His defensive responsibilities were expectedly his Achilles heel but taking care of both defence and midfield is a pretty difficult task.

Arsenal Southampton Premier League Tactical Analysis Statistics
Lichtsteiner won a loose ball duel whilst Xhaka was positioning defensively. Even though he was focused on his new defensive responsibilities Xhaka was ready to receive the ball, make a turnover and make a long-range pass to the final third. He found Bellerin on the right and sent a perfectly measured ball to him.

He made two interceptions, eight recoveries and three clearances. Adding 88% pass accuracy percentage, a couple through balls and a few accurate passes to the final third.

His absence in the midfield was noticeable as the Saints had plenty of freedom out there, despite it being “crowded”. Torreira and Guendouzi proved once again that they are far from the best duo in the central area, having struggles with their positioning and making successful combinations.

Arsenal Southampton Premier League Tactical Analysis Statistics
Armstrong (and Redmond) were dropping back on a few occasions so they could receive the ball whilst Targett (or Valery) take their responsibilities and cover the wide areas.

Xhaka (of course with the Uruguayan by his side) in a bit underrated this season. Most of the Arsenal’s second-half improvement thus far has come from the stability of the midfield. It was holding the pieces together and making the communication between the lines easier. With the Swiss switching to a central-back in a back-four during the second half but still trying to contribute to the further line, this result looks like a miracle. And he should be given a credit for his effort.

What led to Southampton’s goals?

The Saints didn’t give up until the end. They took advantage of their opportunities, used the given spaces and created chances. The all three of their goals were a result of a great positioning and flair but also lack of awareness and pressing by their opponents.

Arsenal Southampton Premier League Tactical Analysis Statistics
Arsenal’s defence could’ve prevented the opening goal. They didn’t put any pressure on Danny Ings and he managed to receive the cross form Targett right in the penalty area. This is a constant issue as the defenders rarely dive into more direct interventions against their opponents nor their pressing duels are strong enough.

Once a player manages to pass through Arsenal’s midfield he’s done it all. The players are given too much freedom in the final third and that results in the Londoners conceding all the time. Nathan Redmond, Matt Targett and Stuart Armstrong were left unbothered in the majority of the time, having to deal with poorly performed pressing duels.

Arsenal Southampton Premier League Tactical Analysis Statistics
Southampton’s vs Arsenal’s shots in the game. Despite the Londoners having more shots in total (13), only four of them were on target, compared to the Saints’ seven.

I don’t want to underestimate Southampton’s effort as they took the opportunities with both hands and that is something they’ve failed to do so far. With twice as less passes 317, compared to Arsenal’s 629, and 74% of them being accurate, the team managed to get the most out of the situation.

Not to mention that Danny Ings and his six goals so far might turn out as the perfect new addition to the team. His confidence in front of the goal was crucial against the Gunners and seems like it’s about to be in the future too.

Additional notes

  • Ozil’s impact – Mesut Ozil proved that his presence could benefit the whole performance. For the twenty minutes coming in as a sub, he sent 12/13 accurate passes with two of them being key ones.
  • Iwobi’s holding on to the ball issues – Alex Iwobi losing the ball is becoming a big of an issue lately. The youngster is having a hard time holding on to the ball. He lost the possession six times against Southampton, and three of them were in the own half.
  • Mustafi’s absence – As strange as it is, Mustafi’s absence was noticeable. He is one of the most improved players this season and has become an important figure in the back-line. His pass accuracy percentage has been high enough – 89.3% on average. He now sends more long balls in total, and more of them are accurate compared to the start of the season. He is making more interceptions too. From 2- 4 he increased them to 11 against Liverpool. When it comes to sliding tackles, he either has nothing or 100% of them are successful.

Final thoughts

The Gunners need a defensive boost as their issues may turn into permanent ones. The forward line won’t always be able to score as the midfield won’t always be able to get back the possession during a defensive transition. The team needs more stability otherwise things could go wrong. The Saints on the other side should show the same strive and concentration in the next few games and along with the Hasenhuttl’s different approach they might manage to stay away from the danger zone.

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