It’s just not going to happen for Unai Emery at Arsenal, is it?
Sheffield United at Bramall Lane was a massive test for the Gunners. Not by quality of opposition, for as disciplined as the Blades can be, this is a remarkably unremarkable side, especially in attack. It was a test of Arsenal being able to transition for poor performances but positive results, into performances that would produce more sustainable runs of form in the long-term.
At the crux of Arsenal’s issue coming into the fixture was whether they would be able to find a bite in attack that had been lacking in their stuttering start this season. The answer was a resounding no.
Arsenal looked lost from the start, unable to get into gear, and ultimately lost by the solitary goal they conceded in a tight encounter. It’s hard to measure what’s worse: the predictability of the defeat or the stubbornness of the manager, but either way, there are severe problems at the Emirates that the Spaniard simply isn’t going to fix.
Worse, they’re problems created by Emery himself.
Linking the lines
Arsenal’s attack was stifled by a well-organised and tactically flexible Sheffield United. The Blades’ evolution under Chris Walder can fly under the radar at times: they are a very progressive unit, evidenced by one of their centre-halves dropping into midfield without any apparent instruction for six minutes, as United required more midfield control.
A huge part of Arsenal’s toothlessness this season has been team selection: there are no linking players in Emery’s starting XI.
Last year, Arsenal’s most favoured formation was a 4-2-3-1, a formation with more natural links between areas of the pitch anyway, but Emery also favoured an attacking midfield of Alex Iwobi, Mesut Ozil or Aaron Ramsey, and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, all players whose job it is to transition the ball between midfield and attack.
It’s Iwobi’s qualities between the lines Arsenal most obviously miss, with none of their front three particularly adept at dropping deep and carrying the ball forward, leading to stifled attacks that break down before Arsenal can get into dangerous areas of the pitch.
The midfield selection is worse: Xhaka and Guendouzi is too immobile as a pairing, but Emery’s insistence on overloading his midfield with creativity from deep, at the expense of speed, flexibility and dynamism sees Arsenal become too predictable in the middle of the park, and able to be exposed at the back and in attack.
It’s not just the team selection that’s costing Arsenal, it’s their style of play as well. Arsenal are insistent on taking the ball wide when going forward but don’t seem to know how to transition the ball into the areas of the pitch that they can score, resulting in fewer chances being created.
This is also stifling the natural goalscoring instincts of the wingers by removing them from the channel between the central defender and fullback, a channel that gives them many options to move around.
Further, Arsenal doesn’t seem to have a particular identity on any part of the pitch. The players look lost at back both in possession and out of it, the midfield is immobile, unambitious and ultimately, fairly toothless in possession. It doesn’t press, and nor does the rest of the side, while the attackers aren’t able to utilise their pace.
Emery seems to view football as a highly individualistic game: a series of singular actions without context and consequence. Ultimately, this is resulting in overloads of certain ad-hoc qualities at the expense of all else in the Arsenal XI, leaving the team not only unbalanced in selection, but unbalanced in assets and weaknesses.
Self-fulfilling leadership vacuum
Emery’s view of Sead Kolasinac, as an example, was that he had done nothing to deserve to be dropped. If you think about it, this is remarkably self-fulfilling, exposing his lack of ambition as Arsenal manager.
Kolasinac is a reasonable player: he’s strong and gets into great positions on the left flank, but one with some obvious weaknesses as well: he’s poor in possession and in the final third, and suffers some blinding defensive lapses.
While he’s done nothing glaring to be dropped, Arsenal has an obvious upgrade on the bench in Kieran Tierney, a player who makes the team that little bit better. What’s more remarkable is Arsenal actually had four of these players on the bench at Bramall Lane: Hector Bellerin, Rob Holding and Lucas Torreira as well as the Scot.
The interesting similarities about these players are they all add leadership to the side: Tierney has captained Celtic, Bellerin is probably the next Arsenal captain and Holding has been spoken about in leadership terms by the club, while Torreira inspires players with his work ethic.
None of the players they would replace in the XI have been any worse than a five or six out of ten this season, but all these players represent obvious upgrades to Arsenal’s defence and fluidity in possession.
Emery’s insistence on continually selecting players he knows the strengths and weaknesses of and have a quantifiable record of failure, merely because they’re just collectively poor and not individually horrendous, speaks volumes about his lack of ambition or spine.
Ultimately, for all the Gunners failings, they have the playing squad to make the top four. An XI of Leno, Bellerin, Holding, Luiz, Tierney, Torreira, Ceballos, Ozil, Pepe, Aubameyang and Lacazette is pretty comfortably the third-best in the country, yet nothing close to this has played together so far.
Injuries were used as an excuse at first, but now the problems focus very clearly on one man. A manager who is clearly unable to impose a style on his players that drags them over the line in these games, or select a team that is cohesive enough to make up for the stylistic weaknesses in the Arsenal side.
History was always going to judge Arsene Wenger’s successor harshly, but when that successor makes his own bed, one can’t help but feel history will do this legacy justice.
It’s not going to work for Unai Emery at Arsenal, and the sooner this is realised, the more chance the club has of staying in touch with their rivals in the top six.