Arsenal head coach Unai Emery was brought into the club for one reason- to get the club back into the Champions League. His Europa League pedigree at Sevilla, having won the competition in three consecutive seasons, suggested that he was perfectly suited for the task in mind. His performances since joining the club however, suggest otherwise, and with him at the helm, there is a serious risk that Arsenal will miss out on a top-four finish once again this season. Here is why.
Perhaps it would be more apt to title this lack of tactical philosophy. Upon being appointed, Unai Emery revealed that “two things are important for me to be protagonists – possession of the ball and pressing when you don’t have the ball”. On the face of it, this philosophy conjures thoughts of Liverpool under Jurgen Klopp or Guardiola’s Manchester City.
The truth of the matter, however, is that this simply has not been Emery’s philosophy. Until yesterday’s game against Aston Villa, Arsenal had been outshot in each of their games this season. The Gunners are simply not coached to, or not able to, press high up the pitch as Emery claimed he wanted to. This failure means that Arsenal often find themselves on the back-foot in games, struggling especially against lower sides.
This was no different against relegation-candidates Aston Villa, who looked far more threatening than Emery’s side for the majority of the 90 minutes yesterday. The players themselves have looked confused for periods of the season, not sure of their roles in a forever changing formation. Unai implied in his first press conference that he would give Arsenal an identity, yet this simply hasn’t happened.
Here we come to the crux of the issues surrounding Emery’s reign. Arsenal’s defence has been poor for the entire 14 months of his managerial stint, conceding 61 league goals in that time. This in itself is a huge issue, averaging out at 1.4 per game. The bigger issue however, is the complete lack of improvement defensively.
In fact, the side has got worse. Conceding record numbers of shots in the Premier League, Arsenal players surely go into a game knowing that they will need at least two goals to claim anything from it. David Luiz was brought in as an upgrade but has been a complete liability alongside Sokratis. In some regards. Emery can point to the fact that three of his first-choice defenders have suffered long-term injuries, but the same problems over and over suggest a complete lack of defensive coaching for individuals who are far better than they are showing currently.
To the relief of Arsenal fans worldwide, Hector Bellerin, Rob Holding and Kieran Tierney are back training with the first team. It will be interesting to see if the trio can stop the defensive rot, or whether they will also be the victims of tactical naivety.
In his many system changes, Emery has flirted with a midfield trio, a double pivot and a diamond. Truthfully, none of these have really had the desired effect. Perhaps the most promising looked to be the double-pivot consisting of Granit Xhaka and Lucas Torreira through most of the 18/19 campaign. However, this pivot cannot do what Emery asks of it in terms of pressing. Whilst Torreira is agile and fast, Xhaka’s lack of mobility really hinders the type of football that Emery aims for, yet confusingly Emery continues to play him. It all seems illogical.
Take yesterday as an example- Xhaka partnered Matteo Guendouzi in a double pivot. Both were poor in the first half, and the Swiss was lucky not to be sent off in the second before finally being substituted. He was replaced by Academy graduate Joe Willock, who together with fellow substitute Lucas Torreira, turned the tide of the game in Arsenal’s favour.
Personally, I remain confused as to why Torreira is left out of the starting XI, as I thought he was very promising last season. With more energy in the centre of the pitch, Arsenal began to win the ball back higher up, simultaneously becoming more threatening and preventing their defence being exposed as much. The problem is, it happens so rarely that it does not seem to be what Emery is trying to do, which begs the question. What is it he wants from his side?
As odd as it seems, Emery’s job may be saved by the individual brilliance which the players provide, masking his tactical flaws. Much of this is down to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who again bailed out his coach. After offering penalty duties to new signing Nicolas Pepe, he took responsibility into his own hands and scored a wonderful free-kick.
His goals have won Arsenal every single one of their eleven points this season. The man has an importance to the club that cannot be overstated. Looking back at Sunday’s game, a special mention should also be made for Matteo Guendouzi, who after his poor first half ran the show in the second, hitting the post and winning the crucial penalty. It is often easy to forget he is only 20 years old, and he is surely a captain for the future.
A big decision
It is easy to look at the league and claim that Unai Emery is not doing a bad job at Arsenal. This league position has been largely down to the brilliance of Alexandre Lacazette and in particular Aubameyang. However, there have been, and will be, days where individual brilliance just won’t cut it, and it is in these games where I fear the top four may slip away from Arsenal. Emery seems tactically naive, scared and fundamentally confused about what he wants his team to do.
With an ever-improving Chelsea, and Tottenham surely about to come out of their terrible slump, questions have to be asked. It may be premature, but it is better to sack him before a poor run of results than after. The question is whether the senior staff at the club will be the protagonists that Emery wanted to be, or whether they will trust the Spaniard to see out his contract. Time will tell.