Arsenal, Mesut Ozil make statement in comeback win, but Unai Emery wants more
LONDON -- Before Arsenal's 3-1 victory over Leicester at Emirates Stadium on Monday, Unai Emery raised concerns about the Gunners' constant sluggish opening to games.
"We are starting the matches with maybe less intensity than we want," he declared. "It's one thing we need to get better at in the next matches -- starting tonight against Leicester."
Emery's Arsenal did no such thing. For the seventh league game in a row, Arsenal drew the first half and won the second half, and if anything, this was an even starker contrast than ever: outplayed before half-time by a Leicester side who surprised them tactically, then genuinely sensational from 40 minutes onwards, almost solely courtesy of Mesut Ozil's best performance under Emery, in his first-ever game as Arsenal's captain.
But first, Arsenal's struggles. Leicester boss Claude Puel switched to a three-man defence for the first time this season, with Jamie Vardy and Kelechi Iheanacho starting up front and drifting into wider positions when Leicester were defending. The game plan was obvious: hit the ball into the channels for the forwards to chase when Arsenal's full-backs found themselves high up the pitch.
Iheanacho was particularly dangerous, prowling the right-hand channel. After a couple of minutes, he had a shot deflected over, then he forced Bernd Leno into a fine save and then he sent a through-ball just beyond Vardy. Arsenal couldn't cope, and the swiftness of Leicester's breaks meant they were forced into fouls. Granit Xhaka was forced to cynically pull back James Maddison and was later booked for a clumsy foul on the same player. Rob Holding pulled back Iheanacho for his yellow and was fortunate not to concede a penalty for a handball.
And then came Leicester's goal, when Ben Chilwell suddenly burst forward down the left and raced onto Wilfred Ndidi's through-ball, and his attempted cross deflected off Hector Bellerin and trickled home. It was a fortunate opener, and yet, tellingly, also felt entirely deserved.
As the game approached half-time, this looked like being Emery's first serious tactical test as Arsenal manager. His side were being completely outplayed by weaker opposition, using a shape he wouldn't have anticipated. How would he reshape? Do Arsenal have the capability to revert to the three-man defence they used this time last season under Wenger? Should he start by introducing Aaron Ramsey to burst forward from deep or Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang as a second striker? Should he keep Ozil, anonymous thus far, as the No. 10?
And then, just as Emery was pondering his options and composing his half-time team talk, Arsenal equalised from their first incisive passing move of the night. Ozil dribbled forward through the centre, slipped in the overlapping Bellerin and arrived in the box to provide a typically delicate finish with his left foot, deftly steering the ball in off the far post. Suddenly, it was a different game, a different tactical battle. Suddenly, there was no need to panic. Suddenly, it was The Mesut Ozil Show.
This was, slightly surprisingly, only Ozil's second start in his favoured No. 10 role this season. Ramsey has generally been favoured there, with Ozil drifting inside from the right, because Emery generally prefers the midfielder at the top of his midfield trio to be a blend of a central midfielder and a No. 10.
Ozil is more of a pure No. 10. But in the second half, he set about proving he can play the role Emery wants, turning matches in Arsenal's favour with two pieces of magic.
Arsenal's second goal arrived, like the first, from Ozil combining with Bellerin -- whose overlapping runs have been the most consistent tactical feature of the Gunners' play under Emery. Ozil needs speedy teammates like him to thrive; he needs willing runners to meet his incisive through-balls, and that's precisely what happened after 63 minutes.
Ozil is generally an assister rather than a pre-assister, providing the final pass rather than the penultimate pass. But here he took up a deeper position in an inside-right position, and a perfect passing lane presented itself. There was the left-sided duo of Chilwell and Maddison, and also the left-centre duo of Jonny Evans and Ndidi. Between them was around seven yards of space, and Ozil slipped the ball perfectly through that gap, his left-footedness ensuring the ball curled into the path of the overlapping Bellerin. His task was easy, squaring the ball into the six-yard box for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who converted with practically his first touch.
Three minutes later, Ozil contributed to Arsenal's third goal in even more spectacular fashion. Once again, it's worth reiterating that Emery wants an advanced playmaker who can contribute in both conventional midfield positions and between the lines. So what better demonstration of Ozil's talents than this third goal?
Here were three magic moments in one move. First, Ozil received a forward ball from Lucas Torreira in the centre circle, nonchalantly back-heel volleyed it into the path of Matteo Guendouzi and continued his run. Guendouzi played in Bellerin, who seemingly knocked the ball into Ozil.
Except it wasn't into Ozil, because Ozil's dummy allowed the ball to run onto Lacazette, who read the script and sent a first-time return ball through to Ozil, seemingly running through to finish. Except he didn't finish. In absolutely archetypal Ozil fashion, he selflessly squared to Aubameyang for an open goal.
It was almost like Ozil felt desperately left out of Arsenal's brilliant team goal at Fulham, rounded off by Ramsey, all one-touch flicks and tricks. This was a similar goal, yet dependent upon one player, Ozil, who allowed Arsenal to cut through the opposition by linking play in midfield, dummying between the lines, then flicking the assist after running in behind. He contributed everywhere down the spine of the pitch, acting as No. 8, a No. 10 and perhaps a No. 6 at the start of the move too.
This was Arsenal's No. 10 -- their 10th win a row -- and felt like the most significant. A fine atmosphere, a confident comeback, a starring performance from their most talented player.
Emery, though, opened his postmatch news conference by reiterating that Arsenal "need to continue improving in every match in the first 10 to 15 minutes, when we are suffering more than we want." Supporters will go home delighted, but Emery, ever the perfectionist, still wants more.