Monday, January 24, 2022

The end of October will tell us much more about Unai Emery than the start of August

There was an interesting piece on Monday Night Football last night in which Jamie Carragher and Gary Neville discussed Arsenal, Unai Emery and the style of football he wants to play.

The former Liverpool man felt that the Spaniard needed to adapt his style to players he has, while Neville was adamant that he should continue with what he’s started because if you give in and meet players halfway, they’ll be both confused and take advantage because it gives them a way out of making the difficult decisions the manager wants them to make in a game.

I have to say I’m much more on Neville’s side on this. If Emery has a clear idea of how he wants his team to play, then he should stick with it. I know there were flaws exposed in during our opening two games, but as I said after the City defeat, what better way is there to learn than from your mistakes? I think it’s also really important to look at the results in the context we keep talking about: that the opening two games, after just 6 weeks in charge, were against the best team in Europe and then a very strong Chelsea side.

Imagine if we’d played two of the Premier League’s lesser lights and beaten both of them, looking comfortable at the back – bar one or two inevitable errors – and using our attacking quality to win both games. There wouldn’t be any debate about Emery’s methods or style. In fact, given how extreme opinions become so quickly, I guarantee you people would talking about what a breath of fresh air he is, how he has reinvigorated a team that had gone stale, and hey it might be optimistic but why can’t Arsenal challenge for the title this season?

Yes, there’s a need to be pragmatic now and again, but if you’re a coach trying to drill the fundamentals into new players, then you have to be consistent, and you have stick to your guns. Neville’s point about Emery finding out which players work with his methods and which don’t is the most interesting one to me – even if I am slightly less sure about his assertion that the club will simply replace the ones who aren’t up to the job.

That’s how it should work, no question, but I have a feeling over the course of this season we’re going to discover quite a few of this squad can’t do what he wants as well as he wants, and that may well require a serious level of investment, but that’s me getting ahead of where we are now.

If Emery is as much a stickler for detail as people say, then he’ll make his squad watch the two games and in particular the goals he conceded. Each of the three at Stamford Bridge was preventable in my opinion. They were caused by lapses in concentration at key moments and they were more or less unrecoverable mistakes, but it’s easy to see how to avoid them in the future.

The City game was the same, you can see how we could have defended better for both goals, and this is where I think Emery’s biggest challenge is. He’s got to drill something into these players that goes beyond tactics, technical work and all the rest. It’s awareness and concentration. Maybe it’s a case that if you drill them enough on scenarios based on the game it becomes second nature.

So, if Mkhitaryan sees Bellerin go infield, he immediately drops to cover, thus not allowing Alonso space to run into. If we’re on the halfway line and Mustafi sees an attacker about to run off the back of his central-defensive partner he both lets him know and drops off to snuff out the danger. Lacazette, don’t play the ball back into trouble when there’s a man free outside you etc.

In many ways, I think we need to write the first two games off and we’re really not that much further behind where I thought we’d be. I didn’t see any chance of us getting a result from the City game, and I’d have taken a draw from Chelsea, giving us one point from six. No points from six is hardly that different, but it’s what happens from here that I believe will give us a much better idea of what Emery’s doing and how capable these players are of doing it.

Here’s the Premier League fixture list between now and the end of October:

West Ham (H)
Cardiff (A)
Newcastle (A)
Everton (H)
Watford (H)
Fulham (A)
Leicester (H)
Crystal Palace (A)

Of course there are Europa League games in the mix too, but in terms of the league those games represent a great chance of getting some serious points on the board. Not only that, if we can take what we’ve learned from playing two very good teams, it’s not unreasonable to think that we’ll be more comfortable when facing sides of varying quality. Which isn’t to take anything for granted, you simply can’t do that in this league, but if we really want to to see where we are, I think an assessment after ten games, based on performances and how many points we’ve won is not an unreasonable first point to do that.

Two games in, with all the context of a new coach, new players, new style, and everything else, is just far too small a sample size to make sweeping judgements about what Emery is doing and how. From the little we can glean, we can see he’s not a man afraid to make brave decisions when it comes to team selection, he’s not afraid to haul off players who aren’t performing – regardless of their seniority, and if that’s a common theme throughout this season then I’m all for it because I’ve had enough of comfort zones and players not being pushed out of them (or out of the club if it doesn’t suit them).

Ultimately, there’s no other way for Emery to do it. If he believes that this is the way the game should be played, he needs time to implement that, and the only way to discover who can do it or not is to keep playing the football he wants. And if the club are truly behind him, they’ll back him when it comes to player recruitment and player sales because otherwise his job will become even more difficult.

I know things haven’t been perfect, and when you lose at the start of the season it’s understandable to get a bit antsy, but the next two months will tell us much more than the first two games.

For more discussion of Chelsea, our defensive issues and the positives from Stamford Bridge, check out yesterday’s Arsecast Extra.


This Arsecast Extra was recorded with ipDTL

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