On paper, a 1-1 draw with Manchester United, at a ground Arsenal haven’t won on since 2006, is fairly promising.
The result, confirmed by a 58th minute Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang strike given after VAR overruled a rather quizzical offside decision, gives the Gunners 12 points from their opening seven fixtures, in which they’ve played three of their five ‘big-six’ counterparts.
Arsenal are fourth, a point ahead of Spurs and Chelsea, with fixtures against Bournemouth (H), Sheffield United (A) and Crystal Palace (H) to come, with two relatively straightforward home Europa League fixtures sandwiched in the middle. On paper, it looks pretty rosy for Unai Emery.
So, has it been a good start?
Well not exactly. Arsenal, yet again, have punched above their weight when results are compared to performance. A 1-1 draw at Old Trafford was not completely fortune’s will, but if there was a side that was going to win that game, it was Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side.
It was a similar story away at Watford and arguably at home to Spurs, while home wins over Aston Villa and Burnley and an opening day 1-0 win at Newcastle haven’t inspired confidence in Unai Emery or the side.
While the goals have flowed relatively easily, they are currently coming mostly from a singular source, Aubameyang, and there’s no sign of Arsenal stopping them going in at the other end. It’s an unsustainable brand of football, with Arsenal loose at the wrong end of the ground, and too tight at the other.
The balance of the side needs quick improving
Frustratingly, the Spaniard appears committed to a ‘nearly’ side, a side with just one or two improvements required to bring the balance Arsenal fans desire.
To address the lack of goals, one of the centre-backs, Sokratis or David Luiz, must make way for Rob Holding, a calm presence at the back.
While the Englishman may not be the most outwardly talented of defenders, or even necessarily more valuable than the aforementioned two, he will provide the cover and balance the current pairing of two ‘proactive’ and progressive centre-backs badly lack.
The 23-year old would allow one of Sokratis and Luiz to play with the freedom they desire, expressing themselves on and off the ball in the knowledge that an error is far more likely to be mopped up than it is at the moment.
Less tinkering in the middle
Further up the pitch, Emery appears to be struggling to work out what his best midfield combination. In a manner symptomatic of his first-season struggles, the Spaniard has continually altered his midfield combination, but without ever arriving at the right balance.
Against Spurs earlier in the season, and again against United last night, the midfield trio of Matteo Guendouzi, Lucas Torreira and Granit Xhaka was too defensive, ceding the tempo to United and failing to provide an adequate link between midfield and attack.
Emery has tried different combinations in other games, yet his insistence on pairing Guendouzi and Xhaka together at the expense of Torreira has left the Gunners lacking cover in transition, and exposing an already vulnerable defence.
Emery has deviated from a three man midfield once, against Liverpool, but a diamond midfield left Arsenal in no position to defend Liverpool’s world-class fullbacks and saw the side’s only defeat of the season.
The other combination, of Guendouzi, Dani Ceballos and Joe Willock, saw the side win 2-1 against Burnley. The victory was somewhat fortuitous, with the midfield too attacking and failing to prevent Burnley from dominating large periods of the game.
The solution to Arsenal’s problems linking midfield to attack, defending the defence and being appropriately mobile, all while having an element of Emery’s core deep progression-principles, seems to be a combination of Torreira, one of Xhaka or Guendouzi and one of Ceballos or Willock (leaving out Mesut Özil as a realistic chance at regular selection here).
A midfield based around a mobile defensive player, a deep, static playmaker and a press-resistance and mobile link player appears to be the answer to Arsenal’s problems with their midfield, yet we have not seen such a combination at all this season.
Emery’s obsession with overloading areas of the pitch with a single quality is proving costly, as Arsenal develop clear and beatable weaknesses.
Credit where it’s due: in attack
Emery has been bold with his attacking selections, particularly since his hand has been forced with the absence of Alexandre Lacazette since the draw with Spurs.
His decision to play Buyako Saka at Old Trafford speaks volumes of his trust in the 18-year old, and he was repaid with an assist and another solid performance, to go with the one against Aston Villa eight days prior.
While Saka and Reiss Nelson have shown promise and readiness for at least some first-team football, Emery’s tactical use of his wingers is not getting the best out of record signing Nicolas Pepe, who has scored just a solitary goal (a penalty) so far at Arsenal.
Emery appears to be shoehorning his wingers in the half-space on either side of the pitch, which suits Saka as his dribbling style gives him flexibility and his left-footedness means he’ll likely look to go outside a defender on the left wing. However, for Pepe, freedom is key. The Ivory Coast international is more of an inside forward than a winger and thrives on space.
If Emery wants a genuinely reliable goal alternative to Lacazette or Aubameyang, giving Pepe more freedom to drift wide and dribble inside, or move through the centre, will help him find his feet in the Arsenal XI.
Time is running out
Arsenal have to get their combination right soon. Following a relatively straightforward next month, trips to Liverpool (in the League Cup) and Leicester, along with a home fixture against Wolves, loom large.
Arsenal need points now, as they face a nightmare Christmas period, with games against West Ham (A), Manchester City, Everton (A), Bournemouth (A), Chelsea (H) and Manchester United (H) in a little over two weeks.
While the Gunners will need to pick up points in at least some of these games, they will inevitably drop plenty in this run, and risk losing touch with the top four.
If Unai Emery doesn’t get his team, his tactics and his style right soon, the harmony and balance required for Arsenal to make the Champions League will never come to fruition, and nor will the Spaniard be manager much longer.