Driving Under the Influence

Unai Emery’s 7 months in charge of Arsenal have been a journey of mutual discovery. He is learning about Arsenal and we are learning about him. The squad is still in the ‘impressing the new boss’ phase and the mutual relationship between players and head coach has not yet been totally defined.

Even if the results show a pretty straight line since late August, the Spaniard has kept the journey interesting, shall we say. In the opening weeks of the season, the supporters grasped for a sense of playing identity or style as performances varied. Emery’s tactical tinkering has maintained a sense of mystery.

Gradually, I think we have learned that Emery’s ‘philosophy’, at least at the moment, is flexibility, which probably explains why we found his philosophy so difficult to grasp initially. Many players have either been benched, hooked at half time or not been played in their favourite position for abbreviated periods.

It seems as though Emery is getting a feel for his players and what they are capable of. Half time substitutions are a theme that emerged early on in Unai’s reign. At first, it seemed as though Emery was simply ‘unafraid’ to make a half-time change. There is certainly an element of him still getting to know his players.

However, as the season has chugged on, I am more convinced by the idea that a lot of the changes are pre-planned. In other words, Unai is not always correcting errors with his starting line-ups; I think he often has different micro strategies for each period of a game. Against Spurs, for instance, he asked Iwobi and Mkhitaryan to ravenously press the Spurs defence in possession. He must have known they would struggle to maintain that intensity over a 90 minute period.

With Ramsey and Lacazette, both high-energy players, in reserve, I think he always planned to replace Mkhitaryan and Iwobi early on. He is asking his players to run a lot more than they are used to, so gentle rotation is advisable in that respect too. Against Huddersfield at the weekend, the Gunners started in a notably conservative fashion, with three central midfielders, none of whom could be called attacking midfielders, and three centre halves.

At half time, Emery made a double change, removing his most ‘disposable’ centre-half in the process. I don’t know for certain, but I think not giving Huddersfield a cheap goal in the first half, as Arsenal did against Wolves, was part of the plan. I think he knew that, with a solid base, one goal would be enough to beat the Terriers and that breakthrough was more likely to come as Huddersfield tired. (There’s a chance I am retrospectively making the facts fit, of course).

Unai has inherited an unbalanced and possibly over staffed attack, rotating heavily between games and during games has, in my view, proved to be quite a neat way of handling the imbalance and sharing game time. Each player is assigned a specific role for a specific match and sometimes that mission expires after 45-60 minutes.

This very much puts Emery into the Pep Guardiola mould of micro-management. Being an elite footballer is a more tactically complex nowadays and coaches are asked to do more than ever to relieve some of that stress. Pep looks to lighten the load through choreography, until football becomes a case of muscle memory for his players. Guardiola rarely plays with a charismatic leader on the pitch, he likes subordination.

Jurgen Klopp draws heat from his players through his charisma. (Jose Mourinho used to do a lot of this until everyone finally realised that being a prick is not a substitute for a personality). Emery seems to like lightening the load by parcelling a game into chunks and having a Plan A, B and C at his disposal. He unsaddles his players through in game interventions.

Maurizio Sarri at Chelsea adopts a different approach, one very much from the Arsene Wenger college. He believes rigidly in one way of playing- that familiarity breeds belief and conviction. Because Emery is so different from Wenger, it is tempting to view his methods as automatically superior because of their distinct ‘not-Wengerness.’

Arsene’s methods worked pretty well for Arsenal for close to two decades and they may yet work very well somewhere else too. Nevertheless, the squad probably needed a different approach after his departure and that is certainly what they have. Yet it is worth considering the shelf-life of Emery’s tactically malleable approach. Predicting his starting line-ups or even his starting formations is like trying to guess lottery numbers.

This is very exciting for Arsenal fans at this early stage. @clivepafc pondered on a recent episode of the Arsenal Vision Podcast whether Emery might look to buy more multi-functional players, so that changing formation at half-time, for instance, does not necessitate using up two substitutions.

As with every approach, there are potential drawbacks to uber-flexibility over time. For a start, there is a danger that your players subconsciously ‘write off’ first halves of games as they become dependent on the drug of half-time overhaul. Having a flexible squad is desirable, yet there is a small but significant danger of your team lacking identity and becoming a jack of all trades but a master of none. (Of course, as we discovered with Arsene, stability is the midwife to stagnation).

At the moment, Emery is keeping everyone involved and everyone focused on short term goals. As a result, he is keeping players and fans on their toes. I do wonder if this philosophy will continue, or whether his interventions will become less radical as he gets to know his squad and has a few transfer windows to add his own players.

The half-time substitutions are clearly not intended as a tool to ‘shock’ or ‘punish’ players, whose occasional exiles are usually brief. After a while, I imagine the propensity to chop and change will confuse players and eventually, it will start to grate. There is a fine line between building tactical intelligence and confusing the ever-loving fuck out of everyone, as Brendan Rodgers discovered.

I don’t envisage Emery becoming a “11 players and 1 formation” coach any time soon and rightly so. Relatively speaking, we are in a sort of honeymoon period with the new boss. In the coming weeks and months it will be interesting to see whether the course steadies and Emery moves from the front seat to the back seat of his dugout shaped vehicle.

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Renowned Arsenal historians Andy Kelly and Mark Andrews and I have written a book about the tumultuous early years of Arsenal Football Club covering the period 1886 – 1893. ‘Royal Arsenal- Champions of the South’ is available to order here.