On Thursday night Eintracht Frankfurt welcomed Arsenal to the Waldstadion in the Europa League. Last season’s finalists Arsenal came into the game under pressure from their fanbase following their disappointing 2-2 draw with Watford on the preceding weekend. Frankfurt, semi-finalists in last season’s competition, also experienced a disappointing weekend beforehand. They were dealt their second loss of the season at the hands of Augsburg. Adi Hütter’s men were looking to bounce back with a win in front of their home fans. This tactical analysis will look at the tactics used by Unai Emery and Hütter as their sides were pitted against one another.
Frankfurt fielded a 3-4-1-2, with Danny da Costa and Filip Kostić given the roles of playing as attacking wing-backs. David Abraham, Martin Hinteregger, and Makato Hasebe formed their back three, whilst Daichi Kamada sat behind their front two of André Silva and Bas Dost. Arsenal used a 4-2-3-1, with academy players Joe Willock, Emile Smith-Rowe, and Bukayo Saka playing as an attacking trio behind Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Calum Chambers also came in for his second start of the season, following his loan spell at Fulham in the 2018/19 season.
How Arsenal’s deep shape frustrated Frankfurt in attack
Arsenal were compact throughout the game as Frankfurt enjoyed the majority of possession with 56% of the ball. Emery was content to let Frankfurt build attacks and use the pace of his front four to break quickly once they had retrieved possession. This was particularly the case in the second half when Arsenal sought to defend the one-goal lead they had earned with Willock’s 38th-minute strike. In the second half, Frankfurt had 61% of possession despite having only ten men for the last 11 minutes.
Frankfurt took eight more shots than Arsenal, with a staggering 24 shots. Yet they only registered one more effort on target than the Gunners, with seven shots. Their lack of accuracy was largely down to Arsenal’s deep shape which prevented Frankfurt from creating clear cut chances. However, new signings Dost and Silva looked short of match fitness and will not be the striking force that Sébastien Haller and Luka Jović were last season.
Nine of Frankfurt’s 24 shots came from outside the box, whilst Arsenal also blocked six of their attempts on goal. To put their lack of accuracy into context, although Arsenal only attempted 13 shots, seven of these were on target.
Frankfurt were also incredibly unsuccessful in their crossing attempts. Only nine of their 35 crosses met their target. Kostić took just under half of all of their crosses, but his accuracy was at an appalling 6.3%. Arsenal’s deep and narrow shape was perfect for dealing with crosses, and they registered 22 clearances over the game.
Arsenal’s punishing attack and Frankfurt’s poor defensive shape
Playing so deep, and soaking up so much pressure meant that when Arsenal attacked they had to make it count. And that they most certainly did. In a closely fought first half, it was their quick movement and direct passing on the counter that put them ahead.
As Bukaya Saka drove forward with the ball, both Willock and Aubamayeng moved from central positions to move to the outside of two of the Frankfurt centre-backs. This occurred whilst the third centre-back pressed Saka. Saka was able to play the ball into the path of Willock, as Arsenal found themselves in a 2v2 situation, as the analysis below shows.
With Willock receiving the ball this created space between the two Frankfurt centre-backs which Saka looked to move into. By making this run it created time for Willock to get his shot away on goal, which put Arsenal 1-0 ahead.
For their second goal, Arsenal again created space with a third-man run as Saka was able to drive inside and shoot due to Maitland-Niles’s overlap. His run meant Frankfurt’s defence were unable to press Saka with any real conviction, which gave him time to get his long-range shot away.
Frankfurt were generally poor defensively throughout the game-winning 47.4% of their duels. Abraham, Hinteregger, and Dominik Kohr were dribbled past ten times between them throughout the game. However, their biggest issue was how easily Arsenal broke down their back three on the counter. They did this with their movement and ability to break forward quickly in numbers and overload Frankfurt defensively. With Hütter opting to have his wing-backs push forward in attack to provide the width in attack, Arsenal were able to break forward swiftly and occupy the vacated wide areas, drawing Frankfurt’s back three out of position.
In the 87th minute when Abraham was unable to deal with the long ball, and lost possession, it was noticeable how Arsenal had four players in attack so quickly. Despite the fact Aubameyang capitalized on this error and scored himself, Frankfurt’s poor defensive shape meant he could easily have passed the ball either side of him to his onrushing teammates. It was the final nail in the coffin of a poor defensive performance from Frankfurt.
The story of the day was certainly Arsenal academy product Bukayo Saka. He scored his first competitive goal for the club whilst also providing two assists for Arsenal’s first and third goals. Saka excelled in attack for the Gunners completing 66.7% of his crosses, and 50% of his dribbles. He also attempted more dribbles than any other player on the pitch.
He further influenced the game by dribbling past Kohr, who stuck out a leg, bringing Saka down. Kohr received his second yellow, putting Frankfurt down to ten men. With the score 1-0 at the time, Arsenal put the extra man to use, winning 3-0 in the end.
Saka was influential throughout the game, with 47 touches. That was more than any other attacking Arsenal player. It was his first start for the Gunners, and it would be incredibly surprising were we not to see him feature heavily in the near future for Emery’s side.
The game was decided by the ruthless finishing of Arsenal’s attacking players, which was a stark contrast to Eintracht Frankfurt’s. Although Frankfurt had far more attempts, Arsenal were able to soak up the pressure and put Frankfurt’s back three to the sword with their fluid and purposeful attacking movement in the final third. It could have been even worse for the home side had Sead Kolašinac’s free-kick gone in rather than striking the woodwork.
With Standard Liège and Vitória S.C. making up the rest of Arsenal and Frankfurt’s group, it’s fair to say that this away game to begin their European campaign was likely Unai Emery’s toughest game in this group. They passed the test with flying colours, and Arsenal fans can expect to continue to see the likes of Saka and Willock throughout the rest of the campaign. Smith-Rowe, however, looks as if he needs a little more time to develop before being thrust into the starting lineup once more. But nevertheless he should be given more playing time in the Europa League group stages. If Thursday night’s performance is anything to go by, Arsenal could well make a deep run into the competition once more.
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