Back in May when Unai Emery was appointed Arsenal manager, many fans were left less than enthusiastic with the appointment. The Spaniard had just left PSG after two seasons which saw the French club fail in achieving their ultimate goal, winning the UEFA Champions League. However, Emery did win both a double and a treble, proving to be a domestic success for PSG.
What stuck out for most fans when Emery finally took charge of his first pre-season fixtures at Arsenal was that he was looking to implement a more extreme version of what we already called ‘Wenger-ball’. This involved the same pass and move tactics Arsene Wenger had brought to the club back when he was appointed back in September 1996, however, players were tasked with starting these plays from Petr Cech going forwards.
So how has this style of play proved so far? And will it prove to be a long term success, as Arsenal look to, once again, conquer England and Europe for the first time?
Passing Out From The Back
In short, Arsenal look quite susceptible when passing out the back in the first coupe of months of Emery’s short reign. The back five, including goalkeepers and defenders, haven’t quite got to grips with what Emery has demanded from them. However, it is early doors, and even the great Pep Guardiola struggled in his first full season as Manchester City manager, albeit with an extremely larger budget.
As many others have reported, Petr Cech is the weakest link in Emery’s new style of play. The veteran goalkeeper has seemingly struggled in picking out passes with the ball at his feet and has made key mistakes in matches including Manchester City, Cardiff and Newcastle.
Despite the mistakes, Cech came out firing at his critics claiming that they were only focusing on ‘two passes out of the 166 he had played’, back during the September international break. Statistically speaking, Cech is right, and his short distribution is proving quite successful. Cech hasn’t posted a passing rate below 90% in the six Premier League games he has played.
However, the problems come when Arsenal, and Cech in-particular, are being pressed, it then becomes alarmingly obvious to all who watch Arsenal that Cech is indecisive in where to actually pass the ball. This is backed up by statistics in Cech’s long passing, where the 35 year-old looks seemingly lost when asked to pass further forward than his own back-four and defensive midfielders.
The most obvious examples of his lack of awareness and ability to play the ball long is in the two images annotated above. Against both Manchester City and Cardiff, Cech has misplaced passes due to pressure from the opposition attackers. This has led to attacking opportunities for both sides in both games.
However, Cech isn’t alone in being poor on the ball, with all of the back-four and midfielders also struggling to find passes further forward. The needless passes back to Cech, rather than moving forwards or clearing the ball creates the panic within Cech. Panic passes back to Cech is a theme of both the images above, with both Mustafi and Guendouzi guilty of such acts.
Solving these issues will prove to be a sticking point for Emery, as i feel he won’t achieve his long term targets if he doesn’t sign the right personnel, both in goal and at centre back. Bernd Leno seems the obvious choice for Emery should he want to introduce a calmer influence in goal. However, given the fact Emery trains with and refuses to start Leno, and continues to start Cech in Premier League matches, you can start to wonder whether the German is the long term solution for Arsenal.
At Centre-back the issues become much more problematic. Where do you find defenders who are good on the ball and can provide solid defensive foundations for winning major trophies? In the short term and long term both Mustafi and Sokratis remain unable to both defend and pass the ball out the back, however the latter has put in astute performances at centre-back, he remains unable to pass the ball out of the back to a high enough standard to achieve Emery’s long term goals. Emery would have to look to the transfer market if he is to achieve his long term vision of winning major trophies whilst playing his brand of football.
Losing The Ball In Midfield
Playing and passing the ball in midfield is something Arsenal became accustomed to under Wenger, with many knowing it as a key strength of the North London club. However, over the last few seasons, with players like Granit Xhaka, Arsenal have lost that trait with losing the ball in midfield becoming a regular occurrence for the Gunners.
The introduction of players like Xhaka and Matteo Guendouzi in midfield this season has seen Arsenal lose the ball quite often in Midfield and therefore increase the pressure on the back-four. When playing together in the first five games of this season the pair have lost the ball a combined 89 times. Considering the midfield duos Arsenal have had over the years and the way the club were known for playing, that is a quite remarkable statistic.
Since arriving at Arsenal almost three years ago Xhaka has been prone to losing the ball in midfield often seeing Arsenal concede goals during key moments in matches. This has continued into the 2018/2019 season with Xhaka primarily at fault for the first equaliser conceded against Cardiff, with the Swiss international playing a square ball in midfield which inevitably led to the cross for the goal.
A solid midfield duo is high up on Emery’s list as a problem he has to fix as soon as possible, and he may have just the solution, with Lucas Torreira proving to be a eloquent solution. The Uruguayan’s dogged nature and want to win the ball back, and crisp and clean passes are a good combination that has proved successful when played next to Xhaka.
In the little time Torreira has spent on the pitch, Arsenal have scored 10 goals and conceded just two, as opposed to scoring just five goals and conceding nine without Torreira on the pitch. Furthermore, Torreira was crucial in victories against both Cardiff and West Ham, where his assist and pre-assist respectively led to Arsenal gaining the victory and therefore earning four more points in the process.
Overall, Emery’s style of play has looked suspect over the course of his short reign at the Emirates so far. Emery will need time, and more importantly have to lose his ignorance in his continued faith in Cech if he is to progress and achieve his targets over the long term. More importantly, Emery will need to sign better centre-backs than Mustafi and Sokratis as both look lost with the ball at their feet when under pressure.
However, there remains optimism in midfield with a partnership of Torreira and Xhaka looking promising going forward for Arsenal. Both possess the necessary qualities to win major trophies whilst passing out of the back, as they compliment and bring the best out of each other. Torreira’s combative nature provides Xhaka the perfect opportunity to play his forward passes with knowledge he has protection behind him.
It remains to be seen how Arsenal will progress in the long term with Emery’s style of play as they look weak and vulnerable in the short term. Hopefully Emery finds the right balance in his team selection and implementing his style of play, when trying to achieve his long term goals of winning major trophies.