Many younger Arsenal fans had never actually seen a change in manager at their club. So when Arsene Wenger announced his departure from the Emirates, an unusual situation developed in North London for many Gunners fans. A unanimous board decision decided the man who impressed most in the interview process, and the man who could restore the glory days at Arsenal was Unai Emery.
The former Valencia, Sevilla and PSG boss, now 46 arrives in North London with the task of restoring the Gunners’ to English football’s elite.
Emery arrives with an entourage of trusted aides such as Juan Carlos Carcedo, Pablo Villanueva and Julen Masach, all of whom have worked with the Basque-born Emery previously.
Emery favours a 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 shape to his teams, playing out from the back, creating situational advantages and pressing are all components of this blueprint.
Something within the current Arsenal squad which can give Emery confidence is the number of players with good technical ability who will be able to adapt to his demands fairly quickly. There is a strong emphasis on a holding midfielder dropping into the last line of defence, allowing the full backs to play forward, creating numerical situations down the sides with the wingers.
Perhaps important for Arsenal is the fact the new man has tried to address what many fans feel has been missing for years.
The signing of Bernd Leno, who will become an important ballplayer distributing to his central defenders and allowing them to build attacks from deep.
Lucas Torreira, arguably the dogged holding midfielder that Arsenal have lacked for a few years. Torreira will take on a similar role to that of Thiago Motta during Emery’s time in Paris. The Uruguayan is a player who will most likely keep things simple in the middle of the pitch for Arsenal, using short passes and interceptions to allow the team to create and be in control of the ball. He was amongst the top tacklers in Serie A last term, this is an area where many fans will feel the club have lacked a dominant figure of this type in so many games.
In a 4-3-3 shape, the holding midfielder allows the other central midfielders to join attacks or support attacks down the sides. In possession, both wide players will drift inside creating space for the advancing full backs. This then resembles more of a 3-4-3 structure.
Emery’s PSG last season, Neymar drifting inside to receive a pass, allowing a numerical advantage to develop with the left fullback overlapping.
Attacking in this fashion will see the left fullback and right fullback positioned high up the pitch, with the two wider players, presumably Ozil and Mkhitaryan, drifting inside to create pockets of space, and allow the full-backs to get themselves into strong positions down either side.
Use of the flanks will be permitted in Emery’s system, if absolutely necessary, however, he will have less of a probing approach, differing slightly to Arsene Wenger.
Crosses into the box will be encouraged if the middle of the pitch is narrow and difficult to play through. In Paris, he had Edinson Cavani who was more than capable of being on the end of any ball into the box.
Unless the new man opts to fit Lacazette and Aubameyang into the same starting line up, whichever one of those two starting as the number nine will be expected to be able to do a similar job to that of Cavani in previous seasons.
Emery will always look to employ an intense press looking to quickly win the ball back with counter pressing when possession is lost. However, he also favours defensive organisation and being able to compact the space, block passing lanes and remove options for the opposition when they have the ball. In his structure particularly at PSG, the team would at times fall into a 4-4-2 shape when pressing, with almost always Edinson Cavani pressing along with the nearest wide player, Kylian Mbappe or Neymar.
Usually, Marco Veratti would position himself further upfield, as to join his teammates in pressuring the opponents with the ball.
In some games though, PSG deployed a 4-5-1 without the ball giving the opponents the ball in wide areas, confident in the knowledge that if they did manage to get any kind of cross into the penalty area, his central defenders such as Thiago Silva or Marquinhos were more than equipped to deal with the cross.
PSG set up without the ball in a 4-5-1 shape, Mbappe ready to track back the way if Madrid play the ball over to the left side of the pitch.
First glimpse of the Emery style
Arsenal fans got a first look at how the new manager would set his team out tactically, albeit at Boreham Wood in an 8-0 demolition.
The starting eleven sprung a few changes due to it being the first pre-season friendly, it was a 4-3-3 shape for the Gunners, which saw a mix of new faces, young players and some regulars of last season.
A couple of stand out performances were in the midfield trio, Joe Willock as the deepest lying of the three, Ainsley Maitland Niles and Emile Smith Rowe, who roamed freely in attack were particularly impressive in the win.
Expect to see far more of Maitland Niles this term, a player who will be a real star and will likely shine under Emery. His position previously was deeper in the midfield but as shown in this game, he was impressive further forward and can expect to be given an opportunity in a similar role this season.
Aubameyang playing to the side of lone number nine Lacazette is potentially an area where Arsenal can get both into the team this season, using Aubameyang as an inside forward rather than an out and out wide man. Areas like this as where hallmarks of Emery style come into play as we saw Reiss Nelson drift inside at times also.
A difficulty in preseason is determining whether the manager is experimenting with certain things, and then of course actually seeing his strongest eleven play together for the first time.
One thing which is certain though is that this Arsenal squad, even without any new arrivals, are capable of implementing the Emery way and being a success with this type of approach. Steven N’Zonzi speculation continues to persist in North London and he is a player who knows the manager exceptionally well, will fit into his style of play and add an extra bit of quality into the Arsenal midfield.
One major criticism of the Arsene Wenger later years, was his inability to effectively defend against the bigger teams at home and away, both domestically and in Europe.
Emery is probably well suited to Italian football given he spends a lot of time on the defensive phases of the game, and how to counter opponents effectively. This is something which I believe will help The Gunners’ style of play but also ensure they can compete against the bigger sides in England and in the Europa League, a competition he has won three times.
The new man has the experience of winning a League title in France with PSG, although realistic with Arsenal it will probably take time, and major investment, given the way Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City will improve again, Pochettino at Tottenham will improve them again, as he does each year and also Manchester United are expected to close the gap on their ‘noisy neighbours’.
He will need to address Arsenal’s poor away record in the Premier League, but this is something Emery has had issues with in the past, not winning a single away game in a year with Sevilla.
It will be fascinating to see if Unai Emery enjoys the same relationship with Sven Mislintat that he did with Monchi at Sevilla, and even more fascinating to see how this astute coach fares in the relentless Premier League.