In an absurd afternoon of football, Arsenal were held 1-1 by Wolves at the Emirates.
This game should have been the Mesut Ozil’s homecoming game. The one where he showed up, led Arsenal to a win and then kickstarted their season. But it wasn’t that. In the end it wasn’t even close. Why?
Mesut Ozil had been out in the cold for a month, but given Unai Emery’s squad means he can only afford to ostracise one midfielder at a time, and that Granit Xhaka had already become the latest target for their fans’ baffling vitriol, Ozil had to return.
And the German was absolutely sensational midweek at Anfield, having a hand in four of the Arsenal goals scored, including a preposterous backheel assist to extend their lead, if you can believe such a thing could happen.
Thus, he got the start at the Emirates. A homecoming for the gallant German, and for the majority of the game it looked like being just that, kind of. Ozil was superb against Wolves, ducking and diving between the lines of the opponent’s defence, creating chances and generally being the figure that the Arsenal attack pivoted around.
With Ozil at the head of a diamond midfield, Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang found it so much easier to get themselves into spaces. So much so that Arsenal’s opening goal didn’t involve Ozil at all, although it wouldn’t have happened without him on the field.
The German and his two strikers drew so much attention in the middle of the pitch that David Luiz and Calum Chambers found plenty of space to raid down the flank and, through some grit and drive, force a low cross in that Lacazette picked up.
Lacazette turned and passed the ball across the box to Aubameyang, who was stood in space as the Wolves defence had too many bodies in the middle of the field to close down. Had the ball missed the Frenchman, Ozil was stood in acres of space at the back-post just waiting for another loose ball to clean up. As it happened, Aubameyang slapped Arsenal into the lead.
All good, right?
Well, not really. The goal came because all three superstars were on the pitch and in central areas, but beyond that it wasn’t exactly a planned-out attack. Luiz fashioned a cross from nothing on the right-wing, and from there Emery’s gamble to start all three men paid off.
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This wasn’t good planning. Hell, as much as the diamond made sense; this was yet another game with yet another system for Arsenal to play. This constant chopping and changing of the side dramatically impacts the player’s ability to dominate. Even Ozil, who was genuinely good to the point where he was receiving standing ovations as he went to take corners, couldn’t help the Gunners extend their lead.
Now, the diamond could deliver fantastic results for Arsenal. Particularly once they can deploy Héctor Bellerin at right-back and reintroduce Xhaka to midfield. But here’s the thing: how likely is Emery to stick with the shape? He’ll probably change this for the Europa League, right? And then again at the weekend for their trip to Leicester.
That is no way to build any sort of consistent rhythm. A team being versatile, having reliable Plan Bs and Cs is only a useful trait if their Plan A is rock solid and fully understood by everyone. Emery has never transmitted that he even knows what his Plan A is, let alone which players he’d like to play in it.
So he can play his superstars and Ozil can put in a great display. And sure, 1-1 isn’t the worst result (playing a diamond always weakens a side out wide and, sure enough, Arsenal conceded from a cross). But at the end of the day, they were out-shot 25 to 10. Wolves had eight shots on target in the second half, Arsenal had zero.
Arsenal have been limping along all season, relying on magnificent individual displays to carry them through. Today Ozil, Aubameyang and Lacazette all showed up and played well, but it wasn’t enough to even pick up a home win; forget about dominating a home game. At this point Emery looks like a man living his last days at the Emirates Stadium.
When your star players can’t save you, then you know you’re in trouble. And Emery is in big, big trouble.