The Spaniard set his team up in a system which did nothing to suggest he had studied Saturday’s opponents as rumours regarding his future grow louder
It’s as you were in the Premier League title race, though both Liverpool and Manchester City left it late to record come-from-behind victories on a dramatic weekend in the English top-flight.
Pressure continues to build on Unai Emery, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Mauricio Pochettino as their sides again failed to record victories, allowing Leicester City and Chelsea to pull clear in the race for a top-four finish.
But what were the main tactical takeaways? Goal breaks down how the key coaching decisions impacted the weekend’s action…
1) Emery gets it all wrong yet again as Arsenal slump goes on
Against Wolves on Saturday fans witnessed yet another example of Unai Emery’s bizarre tactical decision-making.
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His diamond 4-4-2, with Mesut Ozil at the tip, meant Arsenal were far too narrow to face a team with such dangerous wing-backs and inside forwards.
That should have been obvious to anyone who has watched this resurgent Wolves side in recent weeks, and yet it took until the 73rd minute before Emery changed shape to a 4-2-3-1.
Wolves dominated the flanks as Arsenal’s widest midfielders, Lucas Torreira and Dani Ceballos, failed to get across to help; the visitors consistently found themselves in two-on-one situations when counterattacking out wide, confusing Arsenal by doing so in two distinct ways.
On one side Adama Traore hugged the touchline as Matt Doherty underlapped, with Traore bursting clean past Kieran Tierney, and on the other Diogo Jota drifted into the half-space as Jonny Otto overlapped, with Calum Chambers getting lost as he tried to close down both players.
Presumably Emery’s plan was to swamp Wolves through the middle, creating a four-on-two in central areas that would allow them to dominate possession, but Jota, Joao Moutinho, and Ruben Neves put in superb performances that prevented the hosts from finding a rhythm.
Remarkably, Emery said afterwards that he felt his team’s tactics were correct. The fact that Wolves had 25 shots to Arsenal’s 10 while Jonny and Doherty completed seven dribbles and seven key passes between them, suggests not.
2) Solskjaer’s lack of tactical instruction laid bare at Bournemouth
For the first 10 minutes at the Vitality Stadium, Manchester United made good use of the gaps in Bournemouth’s too-wide and decompressed 4-4-2, with Daniel James and Marcus Rashford spinning in behind as Andreas Pereira and Anthony Martial (dropping off the front) looked to quickly play through balls to the wingers.
But all of a sudden the tactic ceased, and for the remainder of the contest Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side looked completely aimless.
This was partly because Pereira performed badly in the No.10 role, rarely showing himself between the lines for Fred or Scott McTominay – who were consequently forced into sideways passes that did not trouble Bournemouth.
Things mildly improved when Jesse Lingard came on, although he was not much better at finding runners.
When Solskjaer eventually matched his side up against Eddie Howe’s, Martial and Rashford began to make more intelligent runs on the outside of the two centre-backs and United grew into the game, though it was only a very minor change, and over the 90 minutes the two forwards were scarcely in contact.
This tells us a lot: United’s players are not given in-depth tactical instructions, and instead appear to be expected to problem solve on the hoof.
It is no surprise this means stuttering football against a defence as organised as Bournemouth’s – Steve Cook and Nathan Ake were outstanding – because without serious positional work on the training ground it is too easy for defenders to track individual runs and shuffle across to close the gaps.
3) Cross-heavy Man City go back to basics
Man City have been crossing the ball a lot more this season, largely because of Kevin De Bruyne’s new altered position in midfield. The Belgium international generally drifts out to the right flank to whip a ball in, rather than weave in the half-spaces as he predominantly did during the 2017-18 campaign.
But against Southampton on Saturday, with City trailing 1-0, Pep Guardiola went harder on crosses than ever before.
He brought Gabriel Jesus off the bench and switched to a 4-4-2 formation, packing the box with two strikers, instructing his team to hit early balls into the penalty area whenever possible.
They attempted an incredible 62 crosses, per WhoScored.com, with left-back Angelino hitting the most – 18 from open play.
PIC: Man City crosses vs Southampton (Green=successful)
The simplicity of the tactic goes against our view of Guardiola as an obsessively complex tactician, but it was clearly the right thing to do; with Southampton holding firm in a 5-3-2 shape, the two corners of the penalty box were the only areas that were not overcrowded.
Eventually Saints buckled under the pressure and City scored twice from crosses.
4) Rodgers should consider Leicester system switch
It was a solid 2-0 win at Selhurst Park for Leicester City on Sunday, but nevertheless their performance was stilted enough to concern Brendan Rodgers, and as the players went down the tunnel at half-time with the score 0-0 it was easy to see why Leicester sit 13th in the table for xG.
When at their best, Leicester’s quick vertical passing through the centre of the park is a joy to behold, but at times they are too slow – particularly against defences as organised as Roy Hodgson’s.
The problem was both Youri Tielemans and James Maddison were too far ahead of the ball, sitting behind the wall of Crystal Palace midfielders; Leicester’s centre-backs and Wilfried Ndidi were left without an incisive forward option and frequently resorted to sideways passing.
The Foxes broke the deadlock thanks only to a good dribble by Ayoze Perez down the right wing, winning a corner. Rodgers will not want to rely on individual moments like that to win matches.
One solution could be to switch to a 3-4-2-1 earlier in the game, rather than reserve the system for when trying to hold onto the lead, as they did here.
The re-jig meant Tielemans was now in a deeper role alongside Ndidi with two inside-forwards – Maddison and Demarai Gray – to feed in front. This allowed them to break the lines more easily, culminating in a superbly worked second goal.
5) Bruce banks on West Ham’s high line to expose Irons’ defence
There was something about the urgency of Newcastle’s long balls forward, the work put into the sprints from deep in their own half, and the speed of thought in picking out the runs, that told us Steve Bruce had been working on a deliberate tactical strategy to hurt West Ham this week.
On numerous occasions in the first half the visitors got in behind the defence, and they really should have been 4-0 up at half-time.
The first goal came from Federico Fernandez unusually attempting a long through ball in his own half, finding Miguel Almiron making a run that the centre-back spotted long before the forward was even near the West Ham back line.
Almiron won a free-kick and Jonjo Shelvey, presumably picked because his distribution would assist Newcastle’s tactic, crossed for the opener.
Allan Saint-Maximin was then twice put clean through on goal, the passes from Jetro Willems and Ciaran Clark again unusually early, but the Frenchman could not finish. Newcastle went on to score a second goal when another charging run from Almiron, this time down the left, won a corner from which Fernandez scored.
West Ham play a dangerous high line on home soil and, with Pablo Zabaleta the furthest man back during attacking set-pieces, Newcastle had obviously done their homework.