Unai Emery faces a significant test of resolve in the upcoming campaign, and after a season of understanding the strengths and weaknesses of his Arsenal side, a stable formation should be the bedrock of how the Gunners play in 2019/20.
The season shapes as a litmus test for Emery, whose fifth-place finish at the end of the last campaign was on par with where many thought Arsenal would place at the beginning of the season.
Ultimately though, it was a disappointing result as the club lost several damaging games towards the end of the season to virtually hand Champions League places to Tottenham and Chelsea.
Having been backed significantly in the transfer window despite reports of a limited budget, the pressure is now on the Spaniard to deliver Champions League football to North London.
Chopping and changing
A feature of Emery’s first season in charge was his willingness to change formation from match-to-match, even within games. While it made Arsenal difficult to play against at times, it also led to significant instability within the playing side, as consistent tinkering made it difficult to achieve the understanding required to play free-flowing football.
Part of this was down to the weaknesses of the players available to him and heading into the new campaign with significant additions, it is now critical for Emery to pick a system that he feels most suits him and his squad, and stick to it for the majority of the campaign.
The Arsenal manager has been clear that he sees four at the back as his preferred base for setting up his side, as he has used this for the majority of his career. Emery has played with the 4-2-3-1 at times – most notably at Sevilla and at Newcastle on the weekend – and the 4-3-3 that he used with PSG, as well as a 4-4-2 and 4-1-2-1-2.
However, for a number of reasons, it is the 4-3-3 he should pick, and stick with.
This set-up is now possible due to the return of Reiss Nelson from loan, and the signing of Ivorian Nicolas Pepe, and gives Arsenal the most balance, with a compact and stable midfield, dynamism and pace on the flanks. The 4-3-3 seems ideal to get the best out of likely captain Granit Xhaka, as it affords him the protection and athleticism beside him that he requires to shelter his inability to adjust to high-tempo opposition midfields.
It would also allow a front three that could potentially include all of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Alexandre Lacazette and Pepe, which would be in the words of journalist David Ornstein “a mouth-watering prospect.”
Other options: what about Mesut Ozil?
The other option is the 4-2-3-1. While this would allow the likes of Mesut Ozil to play more regularly, the formation presents a larger set of problems for Emery. It can isolate the two deeper midfielders as the number ten pushes up. This would make it difficult to field either Xhaka or Guendouzi, who find it difficult when outnumbered in midfield and cost Arsenal goals because of this last term.
Given Arsenal have sold Alex Iwobi to Everton, the options for playing on the wing are now all ‘genuine’ wingers, Henrick Mkhitaryan aside.
This would mean it would be difficult for these players to drop deep and involve themselves in Arsenal’s attack, as their game is based more in the final third. Arsenal require an extra central midfielder to compensate for this, again making the 4-3-3 the logical choice.
Further, the 4-2-3-1 removes an extra, deeper player to protect the back four when Arsenal fall into their mid-block. Given Arsenal lack a dominant, top-quality centre-back and Emery uses high fullbacks, this could isolate the central defenders and central midfielders, none of whom are particularly defensive anyway.
Again, an extra central midfielder provides the balance and protection Arsenal’s weaknesses require.
Ultimately, it seems logical that Emery would move to the formation which delivered him reasonable success at PSG: the 4-3-3. What he decides to do could decide Arsenal’s Premier League fate.
While there’s room for some tinkering, settling the squad into a system will create the stability needed to challenge for a Champions League spot.