After the home win against a favoured opponent in the first leg of the UEFA Europa League’s round of 16, Rennes went to Emirates for the return game versus Arsenal. Since the English team was big-time favourites in this matchup, nobody expected their 3-1 lose that took place in their first match. Unai Emery knew that his team needs to come up with some new ideas if they wanted to pass through by tough French squad.
Julian Stephan’s team came to England with the approach of protecting the lead they had from the first game, but they didn’t manage to do it because of the great gameplan that home team got prepared. This analysis will show you how Arsenal succeed to adapt their style to Rennes in order to get better of their opponent.
Arsenal started the match in the 3-4-1-2 formation with no surprises in the starting lineup. They needed to go into the game with an attacking approach, so the offensive trio which was made by Ozil, Lacazette and Aubameyang trio was a logical solution for Emery to start. Attacking part of the home side had the support of two very offensive-minded wing-backs, and also from Aaron Ramsey who played a huge role being the box-to-box midfielder.
Rennes tried to protect their first game lead using the 4-4-2 formation which was often transformed into the 4-2-3-1 when they had a ball. Their main plan was to threaten the opponents out of transition, depending on the creativity of their best player – Hatem Ben Arfa, who played as a second striker. In the game, he wasn’t as much as a striker as he had freedom in motion and played basically as the trequartista.
Arsenal’s wing play
Since Emery’s team had to chase Rennes’ lead from the first game, it was obvious they would go hard into the game and try to score in the opening minutes. Their attacks in the first game were not good enough, they seemed powerless, so they needed to make changes in their approach and start using modified patterns that will bring them a result.
The main idea of Arsenal was attacking through wings and letting the free roam for midfielders in the inner and central corridors of the pitch. Lacazette and Aubameyang tried to position themselves on the flanks at the start of the attack providing width to their team.
As we can see, Aubameyang stays in the outer corridor dragging the defenders’ focus on him which empties the space between the Rennes’ lines. Also, Maitland-Niles’ role is very important, because he as an option for the attack to progress must be guarded. Bourigeaud does it badly enabling Ramsey to pass the ball to either one of his options and to run into space afterwards.
After he gets the ball, Aubameyang (or Lacazette if the attack is going by his side) passes the ball to the midfielder and runs inside engaging the defender and frees the room on the wing for Maitland-Niles (or Kolašinac on the other side) to overlap.
Kolašinac and Maitland-Niles tended to attack those spaces which were left non-guarded and from those situations came a lot of good opportunities for Arsenal. Stephan’s team was confused by the 2v2 situations Emery wanted to create and they were often going for the striker with the ball and weren’t paying as much attention to the overlapping wing-backs.
When the Gunners were in transition, strikers didn’t have enough time to position themselves as they used to when they are in positional attack, so Lacazette and Aubameyang were trying to be as close as possible to each other and to bind defenders to them. That made things happen for Arsenal since their attacking duo linked four of Rennes’ defenders which made the spaces next to the sidelines free.
Strikers’ key role in the transition
Arsenal scored in the early phase of the game so that meant for the Frenchmen they could get in trouble if they allow them to score once more. In order to protect their aggregate lead, Stephan’s team went into the high press because they wanted to keep the home team as far as they could from Koubek’s goal.
Rennes’ pressing wasn’t that good so Arsenal’s defensive line managed to cope with it quite easily. If there were no passing options in the middle, Arsenal defenders went with long passing towards their strikers who were positioned at the half-way line in the left or right inner corridor.
Since Arsenal was defending in the central block with the 5-3-2 formation, the key to their attacking progress after winning the ball was the pass to their strikers. That pass usually meant that they broke the counter-pressing of their opponent and that they were in a good position for their attack to proceed.
The role of Lacazette (and sometimes Aubameyang) was crucial in those situations. The French striker was always near the action providing the support for his team-mates and being an option for the attack to progress if they won the ball. His positioning in those parts of the field was confusing opponents who didn’t know who will guard him so Arsenal could often rely on him when they get in transition.
Both of the Gunners’ strikers tended to come lower on the pitch in order to pull the defender out of his comfort zone. That emptied space for Ozil, Ramsey or the other striker to run in behind his back and led them into the good position for scoring or assisting.
Arsenal won the half-space battle
Rennes had big issues with Arsenal positioning in the final third. Their defending wasn’t well-organised and that came out of the bad communication of the midfield and defensive line. Attackers of Emery’s team used that as their advantage and managed to find spaces between those two lines.
Since there was a lot of free space, Ozil and company rotated in the final third and confused defenders so they didn’t know how to defend half-spaces. The attacking part of the home team, including Ramsey and sometimes even the wing-backs, searched for the gaps on the edge of the box. That worked for them pretty well due to a poor defending of the French team.
After Iwobi and Mkhitaryan went in for Ozil and Lacazette, Arsenal got two fresh players who were searching for the pockets and emptying the flanks for the wing-backs. The English team then played in the 3-4-3 formation with Armenian and Nigerian as the inverted wingers.
Stephan’s team kept losing sight of the home team’s players and that got them three goals behind. Good passing and ball protecting by Ramsey made it possible for Emery’s idea to succeed. The Welshman played a key role in breaking the passing lanes and providing the ball into the pockets in which his team-mates were.
Arsenal’s midfielders and strikers managed to win the battle of the half-spaces against Rennes’ defenders and midfielders and that made it easier for them to get in good situations in front of the opposition’s goal.
Emery’s team succeeded in their intention to come up with some new attacking patterns and to get better of their opponent after losing in the first leg. The French team couldn’t cope with Arsenal’s idea which was realized very good. Stephan’s boys had issues with protecting the half-spaces and they didn’t know how to defend in the situations on the flank which were projected by the Spanish coach.