For a time, there was an infectiously positive vibe surrounding Unai Emery and Arsenal after a summer of exciting acquisitions, but following an ugly second half in a disappointing draw at Watford, it seems to have already vanished into the ether. A squad that looks on paper to be more than capable of top-four qualification and a head coach now in his second season had many expecting tangible gains over last season’s tumultuous close.
The opening two matches against Newcastle and Burnley were a positive first step, and the Gunners earned six more points than they had in their first two matches last season. However, stiffer challenges awaited, and a 3-1 loss to Liverpool in the third quickly exposed old wounds and reminded fans of the inherent fragility the team has displayed when challenged in its own end of the pitch.
Following Sunday’s calamitous blown victory with a two-goal capitulation in the second half, that easily could have seen them fall out of the points altogether as Watford smacked Arsenal back onto their heels in the dying minutes, smelling the blood of wounded prey ripe for the taking. While the Gunners escaped before throwing away the final point on offer, the aftermath of the match saw Unai Emery face the most intense scrutiny of his Arsenal career. Once billed as the man to bring order to the chaos that was the Arsenal defence in Arsene Wenger’s last few seasons, as well as improve the fighting mentality of a team that at times seemed to lack it, Emery finds himself more than a year later with many of the same problems, including some that have atrophied even further.
With a break clause in his contract after the season that could see Arsenal part ways with him without financial penalty before he sees out the third year of his deal, Emery will be feeling the pressure to right the ship soon before the calls for his job grow even louder. Luckily, with a track record of success in his career and a genuinely talented squad at his disposal, improvement should not be an impossible ask of the Basque head coach.
Pick it and stick it
When looking around at some of the top managers in the sport, there is plenty of variety in the style of play they employ, but all are united by one thing: a fully realised philosophy that they instil in their teams. These managers may introduce match-specific wrinkles to their tactics as a means of neutralising an opponent’s strengths or attacking their weaknesses, but the over-arching fundamentals of their style of play remain intact.
Unai Emery is a little bit different. While there tend to be formations he prefers over others, like the 4-2-3-1, and certain hallmarks of how he likes to play, such as building up down the flanks or pushing the formation as wide as possible in possession to play through, Emery likes to match his tactics and formations to the opponent. Even if it means moving away from something that had worked in the previous match, or doesn’t particularly fit the players at his disposal, Emery is not afraid to make those changes.
In theory, his idea makes sense: countering your opponent’s tactics can help limit what they like to do and add a sense of unpredictability as they prepare to face you during the week. Over time, the squad should become well versed in all manner of styles, giving Emery plenty of options with which to set up and attack- Chameleon football, as he has called it in the past.
In reality, these methods have not had the desired result. Despite Emery’s reputation for meticulous film study and energetic training sessions, the players often take the pitch looking unsure of where to defend, where to attack, and where support is coming from, if at all.
While he should never move entirely away from tailoring tactics to opponents, the Gunners would benefit massively from a bit of consistency. Thus far this season, Arsenal have used 4 different formations in 5 matches and had at least one change in the starting XI for every match. Allowing the players to work in more simply defined roles for consecutive weeks would help to lay a solid tactical foundation that Emery can then build his house of “chameleon football” on. A team familiar with its responsibilities and positioning can spend far less time thinking about what they are supposed to do and more time reacting instinctively to situations on the pitch.
Defensive disarray and individual errors may be stealing most of the headlines in North London as the fans and pundits alike wonder what has gone wrong so far this season for the Gunners, but the expensively-assembled attack has also underperformed massively this season. Through five Premier League ties, the Gunners have a goal difference of nil, having scored and conceded eight times each so far. This is far from ideal for a side with top-four aspirations, but Expected Goals (xG) make for even uglier reading with Arsenal having an xG of 6.21 and an xGA of 9.21. This means that Arsenal have scored more than the balance of play has suggested they should, while also surrendering fewer than expected, in part due to the Herculean efforts of Bernd Leno.
When also considering the Gunners have only kept a paltry (for a possession side) 54% possession and conceded on average 6.2 shots per match more than their opponent (13 for, 19.2 against) it is clear that not only are Arsenal struggling to generate regular attacking opportunities for themselves, but they are struggling to control play through the middle phases as well.
Possession football has been around for decades, but seldom in history has it been so commonly practised by the overwhelming majority of the best teams in Europe. Managers like Pep Guardiola and Arsene Wenger have long been massive proponents of creating passing triangles throughout the formation when their teams are in possession. This ensures that a player on the ball will always have an outlet to pass to, particularly when the opponent is playing a high pressure defensive tactic.
One of the most obvious changes Unai Emery made when arriving to replace Wenger was to focus far more on spacing in the build up phases. This means that not only is the team spread as wide as the space will allow but forwards are pushed well up the pitch to occupy the opposing defenders. If the opponents mark players closely, this opens up massive channels of space for the team to play through.
When this works, it can be brutally effective, as seen last season during some of the Gunners’ highlight reel goals where the ball fizzed rapidly between the players as they cut through the defence at pace. However, when it doesn’t, and players are not moving into space to give the back six passing options, the formation is almost split in two, with the defenders and central midfielders almost isolated from the forwards. This leaves little option but for the ball to be recirculated back towards goal, or for a speculative long pass over the top. The middle of the pitch is seldom utilised when this happens, and the Arsenal attack becomes extremely predictable by consequence.
Giving his rearguard more support in buildup could go a long way towards helping to minimise the bad mistakes and costly turnovers that lead to goals that kill momentum and cause winnable points to be dropped. In the past, Wenger’s Arsenal might have been accused of being too reliant on the beautiful combination play through the heart of the pitch. Today, Emery’s Arsenal would be well served to dust off a bit of the old style and incorporate elements back into the way this team currently plays.