Arsenal’s draw at Old Trafford continued a run of satisfactory results but underwhelming performances. Their plan appeared to be to sit back and hit Manchester United on the counterattack. While the satisfactory result suggests the plan worked, they struggled to counter effectively. This exposed an issue that has manifested itself in a few different ways this season; Arsenal don’t have a good link between their midfield and attack.
Arsenal ended the match with 45% possession and 10 shots, three of which were categorized as big chances by Opta. None of those big chances came from counter attacking. Two of them, Lucas Torreira’s wayward volley in the 52nd minute and Bukayo Saka’s blocked shot in the 60th, came from sustained possession. The third, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s goal, came from an errant pass from Axel Tuanzebe in United’s final third. So Arsenal’s counterattack was not particularly potent.
The Gunners 4-3-3 set up against United left a gap between the midfield three of Torreira, Matteo Guendouzi and Granit Xhaka and the from three of Saka, Aubameyang and Nicolas Pepe. This was also an issue when they tried to counterattack against Liverpool and in the second half of their match against Watford. They played a 4-4-2 diamond in those matches and had a similar gap between their midfield and attack.
Unai Emery played Joe Willock as the number 10 against Liverpool and Mesut Ozil in the position against Watford. Willock struggled to link the defense and attack the entire match, while Ozil struggled to do so once Watford turned up the pressure in the second half. Emery changed the system against United and had Torreira, one of his three midfielders, to attempt to bridge that gap.
The box-to-box midfield role Torreira was asked to play is not his natural position and it showed. He attempted only nine passes, according to Whoscored, and was taken off after 54 minutes. While that is not Torreira’s natural position, Emery has discussed playing him there regularly.
“He was able to go box to box and I want to use his quality,” Emery said in his press conference after the Frankfurt match.
That indicates that Emery is struggling to find a place for Torreira, struggling to find a player to fit that role or both.
Whether it’s Torreira, Ozil, Willock or Dani Ceballos Emery will need to find that link player. It’s an issue that has already affected them this season and will continue to do so if they don’t find a solution.