In the second leg of the round-of-32 matchup between Arsenal and BATE, the North London club produced a powerful performance to overcome their 1-0 deficit and ease into the next stage of the Europa League. The Gunners returned to winning ways after their shock defeat to the Belarusian domestic champions a week ago on their (BATE’s) home turf.
Arsenal reverted back to their 4-2-3-1 and made three changes, Stephan Lichsteiner came in for Ainsley Maitland-Niles, and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang took Alexandre Lacazette’s place up top as the latter had been shown a red card in the previous match. However, the most interesting change was the return of Mesut Özil to the starting Xl (with Sead Kolašinac making way), after a semi-exile from the team since last December.
BATE Borisov made just one change to their lineup from last week – Slobodan Simović came in for Alexander Hleb the former Arsenal midfielder, who came onto the pitch in the 58th minute as a substitute.
Arsenal’s offensive structure: Asymmetrical tactics
Even before the game began, it was strongly suspected that BATE Borisov would adopt a defensive approach, seeing that they were already one goal up in aggregate – which turned out to be true. Hence, Arsenal enjoyed the majority of the ball in possession, 68% precisely.
To make good use of the possession, Arsenal lined up in their well-known 4-2-3-1 which turned into a 2-4-4 when they were in the initial phase of the build-up. The full-backs would push up and wide and join the midfield line of Matteo Guendouzi and Granit Xhaka. Özil would drift out wide, usually to the left, and Aubameyang would stay with the opposition centre-back – Egor Filipenko.
On the left-hand side, Alex Iwobi would hug the touchline, while Nacho Monreal would overlap. However, on the right-hand side, the dynamics were different insomuch as it would be Henrikh Mkhitaryan who’d stay in the inside of the full-back and due to his inward positioning, Lichsteiner could afford to move higher.
This resulted in two commonly used build-up mechanisms for the Gunners. The first plan was to find Iwobi on the touchline usually via the left-sided centre-back – Laurent Koscielny or the left midfielder, Granit Xhaka. Upon receiving, he’d drive at his full-back Aleksey Rios, while Nacho Monreal would overlap on the space created down the flank. This created a 2v1 and led to a cross or cut-back into the box. If the BATE right winger Maksim Skavysh was also supporting Rios, Özil was the one who’d move in to support on the edge of the box. Sometimes, one of the deeper midfielders would move in as well to either aid ball circulation, or to switch the play quickly to the opposite side.
The other drill was for Mkhitaryan to move inside as explained before. The erstwhile-Dortmund midfielder’s movement attracted the full-back as well as the winger on the right side – Igor Stasevich. From there, he’d quickly drop to play a one-time pass to Lichsteiner who’d then be in acres of space. The general idea remained the same, create overloads out wide and then quickly cross to the striker, far-sided winger (or even the fullback) or cut-back for the incoming midfielder – Özil. For the most part, the plan succeeded in creating chances as they ended up taking 15 shots from inside the box before the final whistle.
Emery’s structures are rigid for the most part with elements of positional play and that evening in London was no different. Hence, Özil became the key to keep the attack ticking along. He was usually occupying the left half-space but he’d move from flank to flank to offer half-space support. During fast breaks, he’d usually linger around the edge of the box for the cut-back or play the final ball himself. He’d often drop deep as well – particularly in the second half – at his own discretion. His positioning out wide helped in creating overloads.
Özil looked very sharp that evening. Although he mis-hit a few shots, his passing left little to be desired. He completed the highest number of passes in the final third (57) and boasted a passing accuracy of 90%, with the second highest pass volume of anyone on the field – bar only Granit Xhaka.
His movement constantly created spaces for his teammates and his general spatial intelligence was commendable. He also played a lot of passes into the box which didn’t result in shots. None of these is measured by the statistics but they go on to show the effect he had on the overall quality of Arsenal’s play.
Change in structure: 3-4-2-1 to 4-2-3-1
Emery tweaked the Arsenal structure from last week in Belarus which paid rich dividends. In his formation from the first leg, Arsenal had created 1.21 xG and taken only 13 shots while Thursday evening, they created 2.58 xG from 22 shots. The improvement in offensive value was mostly due to these tweaks.
In the 4-2-3-1, Arsenal constantly had someone occupying the half-spaces – Özil, or Mkhitaryan, or Iwobi. Sometimes, even Aubameyang would drop into the pockets of space. This, coupled with the fact that BATE sometimes left gaps in between the lines, meant that there was always someone to progress the ball in those areas. Either Mkhitaryan could play a wall-pass off Lichsteiner, or turn inwards to play it off Aubameyang, or even turn and drive forwards himself. In the three-man formation, it usually meant having the wide centre-backs and the wide midfielders in a straight line which didn’t open up the necessary angles for passing.
Additionally, either Guendouzi or Xhaka could also move forward to join the attack when the ball was in advanced zones. Having the double-pivot at a slant would then mean in case of ball losses, one midfielder was always ready to win it back. Although for most parts, they did remain narrow and in a flat line, opening up spaces on the wings.
The structure does leave out spaces on the wing for the opposition (as well as behind the Arsenal high line) to exploit but BATE’s attack wasn’t of the necessary quality to take advantages of those spaces. They did try though. Long diagonals via Stasevich to Skavysh were one of the few highlights of the BATE offence. But for the most part, Arsenal were able to cope just long enough for Monreal to track back and complete his defensive duties.
BATE Borisov’s defensive structure
BATE defended in a strict 4-5-1. The striker up top was Nemanja Milic (and Bojan Dubajic later on) while the two wingers would join the midfield line. They made frequent midfield interchanges; shuffling and rotating positions and man-marking duties. After a few false starts, Alyaksey Baga made the necessary changes to avoid his side getting overloaded on the wing. When the ball was on a particular side, the winger on that flank would cover the opposition full-back and the far-sided winger would shift over to zonally protect the area around the half-space. This left Mkhitaryan and Iwobi for the respective full-backs.
BATE would hardly press the centre-backs or even the midfield pivot. They focused on minimising spaces centrally so that play could shift to the flanks. However, Emery let Baga do that because Arsenal can play on the flanks so this played into Arsenal’s heavily wing-oriented plans. Arsenal focused on finding their attacking midfielders via the full-backs rather than vertically.
Hleb coming on in the 58th minute meant that some control returned to BATE Borisov’s midfield. However, it wasn’t enough to do any damage in terms of goals to the home side.
BATE also left quite a bit of space in between the lines sometimes. Their lack of vertical compactness meant that Arsenal could constantly access dangerous areas on the pitch. This, coupled with Aubameyang’s and Özil’s movements, constantly left the central midfielders Simovic and Stanislaw Dragun in two minds – whether to guard the space or guard the man.
BATE’s defence during set-pieces was woeful. They opted for a zonal defence of the six-yard box during corners with the others man-marking the opposition. However, they conceded twice from corners as both of the Arsenal centre-backs, Shkodran Mustafi and Sokratis Papastathopoulos, were successful in shaking off their markers, jumping above Baga and the goalkeeper respectively, and connecting firmly with the ball in roughly the same fashion.
Arsenal needed this victory more than the Belarusians and after the early own-goal, BATE never recovered. The more important feature of the game was Mesut Özil’s return to the team and he did fairly well in proving that he deserves to start as much as anybody else. Arsenal still have issues to resolve such as the disconnection between the midfield but this victory was well-deserved.
Arsenal progress to the round-of-16 where they’ll face Rennes on 7 March, while BATE Borisov return home to play the final of the Belarusian Super Cup against Dinamo Brest at the Minsk Stadium on Saturday 23 February.
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