Arsene Wenger’s 22 year reign drifted on for a few more years than it ought to have. As such, Arsenal fans have been starved of change for some time. Every detail of the new manager’s reign was always likely to be pored over in detail and each victory was going to be seen as revolution in bloom, which is entirely understandable. In less impressive displays, we clack our tongues and search fruitlessly for signs of revolution.
For the most part, change has been viewed very generously, which is hardly a surprise in this context and far be it from me to discourage Arsenal fans from adopting a cheery disposition after a few years of acidic griping and empty seats. I’m not sure I am entirely on board with the tuneful sentiment of the last couple of away games “we’ve got our Arsenal back”, (nobody sang this after Palace equalised), but frankly I’m not minded to psychoanalyse it to death. If your capricious toddler is suddenly happy, you don’t especially care why, you’re just happy for a few minutes of peace.
The reality, I think, is that change is happening incrementally, which is entirely to be expected. It is one almighty arse groove Unai Emery is trying to smooth out in the Head Coach’s chair. The Gunners have scored a few picture book goals this season, which have been held up as the fruits of revolution. But even last season, Arsenal did not lose their penchant for scoring the sort of one touch masterpiece that belongs in the Louvre.
I think my capsule review would be this; not an awful lot has changed (yet), but everything seems different (for now). The balance of the attack is an ongoing issue, yet scoring goals has not been much of a problem. So what has actually changed at this early stage of Unai Emery’s tenure? I think one of the most pleasing alterations has been the observation of some physical basics.
Arsenal are running further and harder, put bluntly. There are far fewer hands on hips and token jogs on the half way line as the defence comes under siege. In Unai Emery’s first Arsenal press conference, he said, “I want a squad that is very, very intensive for the pressing. It’s two things that, for me, are very important: possession and the pressing.”
When Emery spoke about ‘pressing’, many of us would have used Klopp’s Liverpool or Dortmund sides as our most immediate reference point. Against that measure, Arsenal haven’t played much ‘heavy metal football.’ But the Spaniard did say, more portentously, “I promise you one thing, we will work hard for every minute of every game.”
I think his promise has been borne out to this point, as seen with the improved away record (it could scarcely have gotten worse). I think it forms a part of the reason that the Gunners haven’t been punished more severely when their attacking approach has not clicked (basically, in the first 45 minutes of almost every game to date). I think a lot of Arsenal’s first half stasis has been down to consistently selecting an unbalanced attack.
I still don't think Arsenal are transformed (yet), what is pleasing is that the fundamentals are being observed more seriously. Honestly, I think Emery has got his starting XI wrong in pretty much every game other than Fulham.
— Tim Stillman (@Stillberto) October 23, 2018
Yet this is likely a short term symptom of greater democracy in the selection process. Emery is more inclined to leave out or substitute his big ticket players, which is of course not without its drawbacks when it comes to settling players into a new project. But rotation has been much shorter, Arsenal haven’t had the bifurcate starting XIs of previous seasons. Every game has a handful of changes, with some pack shuffling substitutions, as opposed to operating with separate starting XIs for the cup competitions.
There is a greater sense of inclusion, as seen with Emery’s approach to the goalkeeping situation, where Cech and Leno have both been rewarded for periods of good form. Emery’s starting line-ups have been difficult to predict- mainly in attack. An unbalanced forward line is an issue Emery inherited, Wenger did not leave him with answers on a post-it note in how to get the best out of a top heavy squad.
In January, Wenger sold Theo Walcott, Olivier Giroud and Alexis Sanchez and bought Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Pierre Emerick Aubameyang- adding to the summer arrival of Alex Lacazette. The domestic season was effectively dead in the water when most of that churn occurred, so the issue of how to balance the attack was fudged by Aubameyang’s ineligibility for the Europa League and the need to de-prioritise the league campaign.
Some players have really taken to Emery’s preference for 4231. Both Hector Bellerin and Nacho Monreal have been key features of the attack because the Head Coach does not really play with wingers, leaving the emphasis on full-backs to travel to the by-line for the cutback. As a result, Bellerin looks a little closer to the lightning teenager that burst onto the scene in 2015.
Likewise, Alex Iwobi and Alex Lacazette have improved immeasurably this season and Danny Welbeck looks as though he will be more difficult to replace than Aaron Ramsey at this stage. ‘Soft factors’ are often cited when this sort of improvement occurs, but I think the truth is that these players are playing in a structure more favourable to their strengths.
Iwobi and Welbeck have thrived playing in the half spaces where they are not asked to be out and out wingers, nor are they asked to play in congested central areas. Alex Lacazette more comfortably fits Emery’s ideal of a striker that both works hard to close down opposition defenders and drops back to stitch play together for his fellow attackers.
The mini catalogue of “back to front” passing moves ending in goals elucidates Emery’s preference for the team to attack as a unit, progressing the ball smoothly from back to front. Wenger loved a maverick in attack, but attackers reliant on inspiration and single mindedness, like Özil, Ramsey and Aubameyang, have not always looked entirely at home in the manager’s collective idea of ball progression.
On the pitch, Arsenal have somewhat mirrored their recent transfer activity. The attack is super talented, but overloaded and unbalanced and the defence still needs a lot of reconstructing. But in midfield, Arsenal have renewed pretty well with players more aligned to the new manager’s vision. Lucas Torreira has been a welcome shot of caffeine in Arsenal’s midfield, not just with his uncanny ability to hoover up loose balls like an anteater feasting on a phalanx of ants, but with his progressive passing.
Like Granit Xhaka, he has an eye for a line breaking ball progression (it’s Torreira’s forward pass that starts the move leading to Aubameyang’s second goal against Leicester). Matteo Guendouzi shares this preference for passing the ball between the lines into Arsenal’s quasi wide forwards. The midfield has been far from perfect of course, but Emery has been consistent in his preference for a fairly solid double pivot with players that like to progress the ball upfield. It’s easier to see a plan.
The Gunners spent a large swathe of last season partnering an overloaded Granit Xhaka with a faded Jack Wilshere, an ultra-conservative Mohamed Elneny, or Aaron Ramsey, whose attributes are of a much more off the ball vintage. Arsenal’s midfield is now slightly better manned and with players that have a little more devil in their ball delivery.
At Liverpool, Jurgen Klopp is just beginning to devise different methods of play during his fourth season in charge, “You have to develop, of course,” he explained recently, “It’s like a dog – if you don’t give him his favourite toy and you throw something else he thinks: ‘No, I don’t want that, I want the other one, I want to play high press.’ That’s how you develop, step by step, doing different things.”
Arsenal are still very much in the phase of teaching the dog not to shit on the rug; ‘fetch’ and ‘paw’ will take a little more time. There are plenty of kinks still to work out and probably some cosmetic surgery to do in the market, I wouldn’t say Emery’s vision has appeared before us in a revelatory sense, like a burning bush. But slowly, the Spaniard is beginning to get his feet under the table.
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