On May 23, 2018, Unai Emery gave his first full comments to the press after Arsenal announced his appointment as the successor to Arsene Wenger. In that interview, Emery talked about his vision for how he wanted Arsenal to play:
“MY IDEA IS TO BE PROTAGONISTS,” HE SAID. “THE HISTORY HERE IS A TEAM THAT LOVE PLAYING WITH POSSESSION AND I LIKE THAT PERSONALITY. WHEN YOU DON’T HAVE POSSESSION, I WANT A SQUAD THAT ARE VERY, VERY INTENSIVE WITH THE PRESSING. THE TWO THINGS ARE IMPORTANT FOR ME TO BE PROTAGONISTS – POSSESSION OF THE BALL AND PRESSING WHEN YOU DON’T HAVE THE BALL.”
In the wake of Arsenal’s last game of the season, it’s time to look back and assess Emery’s first season and measure it against his desired style of play and whether or not his team showed any progress towards improvement as we look ahead to next season.
An Identity Problem
When Unai Emery arrived at Arsenal we took a look back at how he liked to play. We examined his time at PSG, Sevilla and Valencia for clues on what we could expect. The team he inherited at Arsenal was already talented enough to play in one of two of his preferred systems of play – 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 and the hope was he would utilize that shape to get the best out of his players.
A 4-2-31 covers the entire pitch especially in the midfield where Arsenal tend to be stronger than most teams. Additionally, in attack, it provides more options in the final third and overall in possession promotes creativity. The 4-3-3 formation promotes almost the same identical opportunities for a team that uses it – it creates plenty of attacking options, it is dynamic off and on the ball and it’s the perfect formation for teams with a plethora of attacking options.
First, let’s take a quick step back and differentiate between style of play and system of play. Why does this bare going over? Because I can’t tell you how many people on social media confuse the two.
Style of play is simply how you want your team to play – possession-based, direct, defensive, counter-attacking, etc. The system is their overall team shape – 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3, etc. Both style and system are dependent on the type of players available to you as a coach.
What Emery inherited was a team that is good on the ball and good going forward. In Wenger’s last season, they were the third best team in the league with 58% possession vs Emery’s first season which saw them drop to 56% and fifth best. A modest decline but a decline, nonetheless.
Additionally, the passing success rate of the team declined under Emery. In Wenger’s last season (arguably his worst of his 22-year career) his team had a passing success rate of 84% to Emery’s 83% both aren’t good but Wenger’s last year was his worst. Emery’s was his first and he was looking to impose his philosophy on the team.
Things got worse and as the season went on, it became more evident that there was no clear idea how Arsenal were trying to play. The technical quality wasn’t there and the overall playing style and shape was inconsistent.
When you watched Arsenal, especially in the last five league games of this season, you looked at the team and wondered what it was the team were trying to accomplish in each game? There were no discernible tactics and the team just looked devoid of any ideas.
A good part of that has to be Emery’s consistent tinkering with the shape of the team.
In the last 5 games of the season, Emery altered the shape of his team 11 different times. Averaging 2-3 changes per game. One time even changing 4 times. He opted for a shape from a 3-4-1-2 to 4-2-3-1, to 4-4-2 to 4-4-1 and 4-3-2 and a couple of other variations. It could be argued that these adjustments were driven by the opposition. That could be true if it was maybe 1 shift per match, but as mentioned he was shifting 2 maybe 3 times per match. That shows more a lack of knowledge about the opposition and preparedness on the part of the coach.
The Pep and Klopp Comparisons
When you talk about the lack of identity in Emery’s side, people inevitably talk about Pep and Jürgen Klopp’s first season and how they were unable to do anything.
That’s kind of misleading because of this simple fact each manager, came into their respective club and from day one had a blueprint with what they wanted to do with their team and they started trying to get them to deliver on it right away.
I remember watching Liverpool in their first matches under Klopp and seeing right away that he was trying to get players (not his own) to play his Gengenpress style. It wasn’t that effective, but the basic structure was there.
In fact, as @TheMightyGambon point out on twitter, Klopp in his first 30 games, with no pre-season and no transfer window was able to improve performance levels with a poor squad that were not his players.
Conversely, with around £70m spent and a full pre-season behind him, Emery hasn’t improved performance levels of this team.
Lack of Defensive Improvement
If there was one area Arsenal supporters were looking for Emery to improve it would have been the teams defensive set up. In terms of attacking talent, the Arsenal he would inherit from Wenger was already chock full of talent. It just needed a stable defence behind it.
The summer of Emery’s appointment, Arsenal brought in a goalkeeper, a new centre back and a defensive midfielder. All three signings pointed to a defensive rebuild.
As with all things that need to be rebuilt in football no one expected a miracle. Especially after years of defensive decline. However, like all things, there was an expectation of modest improvement.
Yet, at the end of the season, we are actually worse off defensively than we were last season.
In terms of goals allowed, last season Arsenal let in 51. This season, that number is identical. However, even with the 51 goals conceded to close out Wenger’s tenure, they still managed 13 clean sheets to this season’s 8. And the team didn’t get its first away clean sheet of the season until two-thirds of the season had passed.
In 2018-2019 Arsenal allowed 493 shots (not including penalties) for an average of 13.2 per game and an increase over the previous season of 71 in Arsene’s worst season (422 shots allowed averaging 11.1 per game.)
From a coaching perspective, there were no individual player performances across the back 4 that you could hold up and see any sign of definitive improvement. In fact, the same old individual issues we saw with players previously under the old regime were still visibly prevalent. To compound the issue, the newest member of our defensive corps was making similar mistakes.
Finally, one of the key components people advocating more time for Emery are keen to point out, is the pressing part of the game we’ve employed. Yes, we are pressing more, but it may be the most lackadaisical press you’ve ever seen.
When Arsenal engage their press, it is in the Spanish style of pressing looking more to cut off passing lanes than come at you with the ferocity of Klopp’s gegenpress. However, unlike some of his Spanish counterparts, Emery’s press at Arsenal is usually slow to develop and leaves an easy option available for the opposition to play out through. It is a press but not one that’s effective.
The metrics don’t matter, Arsenal have slid backwards
Whether it’s attacking or defending metrics, Arsenal are playing worse than they were previously. People want to point out to the improved table position and the Europa League final as a sign that this isn’t true.
Those people will typically scoff at stats but stats, while not the only indicator to measure a team, they are quite effective at showing trends and where things have improved or in the case of Arsenal, not improved.
As a team Arsenal overperformed their xG through the beginning of the year. The collapse at the end of the year worked to level things out. Take that combined with the mediocre performances of the teams around Arsenal in the table and you have an unexpected (and unwarranted) top 4 push.
Occam’s razor is the problem-solving principle that essentially states that “simpler solutions are more likely to be correct than complex ones.
What’s easier or simpler to believe that the stats lie and we’re better off than a year before or that we simply are sliding further away from the top 4?
We’ve laid out an argument based on stats to show how Arsenal have not improved under Unai Emery. But maybe there is a more visceral way to judge his performance as a coach.
Ask yourself this question about Arsenal – did you enjoy watching them play? Did you see a team play the game “the Arsenal way.” Go back to his first statements about being a protagonist with and without the ball. Did you see that?
Maybe for the total of one game and a half (win versus United and win at home vs Tottenham), we played that way but there wasn’t enough evidence that this was the norm and in fact, it seemed more the exception. Simply put Emery has sucked the life out of Arsenal. But don’t take my word for it. Let’s leave Phillipe Auclair to have the final word as far as 2018/19 is concerned:
“THIS IS AN ARSENAL SIDE WHICH HAS LOST ITS WAY FOR WHAT, TWO MONTHS NOW? SOMETHING LIKE THAT. WHICH LOOKED EXACTLY HOW IT HAD LOOKED AGAINST BRIGHTON AND CRYSTAL PALACE AND ALL THOSE GAMES IN WHICH, HONESTLY, THE NOTION OF PLEASURE HAS BEEN TAKEN AWAY FROM FOOTBALL BASICALLY. IT’S BEEN EXTRACTED SURGICALLY BY UNAI EMERY AND HIS PLAYERS.”
On to the new season and it might well be argued that Unai Emery has no more room for excuses. The manager has overseen a complete transfer window and while the team wasn’t going to be overhauled overnight, Arsenal’s owners gave the boss a significant war chest in which to tinker with the squad.
Emery’s policy seemed to be one of safety first – if ‘safety’ is a word that can be associated with David Luiz. The former Chelsea man was joined by Celtic’s Kieran Tierney while Gunners fans were particularly pleased to snatch loan signing Dani Ceballos away from rivals Spurs.
William Saliba was also picked up and immediately loaned back to St Etienne while Nicolas Pepe, at £72 million, was the eye catching deal of the window. Completing the picture was Brazilian youngster Gabriel Martinelli who, seemingly, was going to be one for the future.
After the opening ten games of the season, Arsenal find themselves in fifth place but, following a disappointing 2-2 home draw with Crystal Palace, the Gunners are now four points behind Chelsea who occupy the final Champions League slot.
And the problem? Goals – or rather a lack of them. In those ten matches, Arsenal have found the net 15 times. That’s at least eight less than any side in the top four and it’s the same return as Aston Villa who sat in 15th place.
All of the issues listed here have resurfaced again in 2019/20 as Gunners fans sit through a diet of turgid football. Ironically, the Europa League side is far more attractive to watch. They’ve been chaotic at times but Pepe, Martinelli and the Thursday night Gunners provide some thrilling football and many forecasters are suggesting that the team can go one better and lift that Europa League trophy this season.
It may well be the only chance of silverware and while Unai Emery may be set to steer Arsenal to a respectable league finish, it’s another diet of dull and uninspiring football with little in the way of entertainment in store for the remainder of the 2019/20 camp.