Assessing Unai Emery’s first season in charge of Arsenal is more difficult than I had anticipated back in August. He’s been more flexible than many had expected, though there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that flexibility has been detrimental and, at times, a little bit random.
There has been a lot of talk around changing the culture of the club and building a new project. Including from Emery himself, who set some high expectations in his first press conference 12 months ago.
“My idea is to be the protagonist all of the match. The history here is one thing – they love to play in possession of the ball. I like this personality. But when you don’t have possession, I want a squad that is very intense in pressing. These two things for me are very important.
I don’t promise we will win but I can promise you we will work hard, work together.
That sounded good and it played out that way during pre-season.”
Now, friendly games are nothing like the real thing, but Arsenal played some serious opponents before the season started and there were real signs of Emery’s ideas being put in place very early on. The team was aggressive, especially after losing the ball. At the back, there was an emphasis on patience as Arsenal looked to suck teams in before cutting them open and playing in the space behind the press. There was also a degree of flexibility when it came to the shape he fielded his players in.
Speaking while he was still in charge of PSG, the Spaniard professed his preference for a 4-1-4-1 shape:
“What I like is provoking the opponent. It’s a more aggressive idea, which exposes you more. Bielsa’s style, Guardiola’s style. When you lose the ball, you win it back as quickly as possible. Anywhere the ball may be, the team has to position themselves to press and win it back. If play stops, everyone goes back to their position. If the ball is in play, we press, all while remaining organised tactically.
Those are my two outlooks from a defensive point of view. If the ball is in play, you press. If play stops, you reposition yourself. For me, the 4-1-4-1 is the system which facilitates that type of pressing. The 4-4-2 is designed more and more for zonal positioning. It’s less aggressive, but is more difficult to get past.”
So it was little surprise to see Arsenal line up in that 4-1-4-1 for the majority of pre-season. It was, however, soon abandoned, with Emery seemingly deciding he didn’t have the right players for the system despite the additions of energetic midfielders Lucas Torreira and Matteo Guendouzi, plus the impressive pre-season form of Reiss Nelson, who was then curiously sent out on loan at the end of August even though the squad suffered from an obvious lack of natural wide players.
Nonetheless, Emery’s principles remained in Arsenal’s early season endeavors. The team selection was consistent in a 4-2-3-1 shape and players insisted on playing out from the back, often to the dismay of the Emirates Stadium as Petr Cech troublingly wrestled with the new approach on the opening day.
Regardless, Arsenal continued, sticking to the same shape and the same basic principles as Unai Emery figured out his team. The 4-2-3-1 often looked liked a 4-2-2-2 as players moved around, but the intention couldn’t really be mistaken – Arsenal wanted to chase after possession after losing it, they wanted to combine in wide areas, they wanted to build patiently out from the back. These looked like the building blocks Emery was going to work with, the foundations of a playing style.
The team lined up in 4-2-3-1 in 11 of opening 12 games, Fulham being the exception, with some recognisable patterns. One was the combinations on the flanks – firstly Bellerin and Mkhitaryan, then Iwobi and Kolasinac after the Bosnian returned from an injury.
Another was the build up, where the goalkeeper played short passes to an extreme and one of the CMs would drop to the left of the CBs, in the space vacated by the left-back as he pushed forward. This quasi back three in possession provided width in case Arsenal lost the ball, making sure the centre-backs weren’t isolated, and the roaming left-back was covered. However, this meant the remaining central midfielder was left with a lot of space to cover.
While form remained strong in terms of results, Arsenal were riding their luck – the underlying numbers strongly suggested that the good results would not keep on coming – and Emery clearly wasn’t happy with how exposed his defence was left on the break.
Instead of looking to tweak the team, he made a rather drastic and sudden change to a back three at Bournemouth. It wasn’t the only change that day, either. Having completed over 75% of his passes in his first five Premier League starts, Bernd Leno completed just 42.9% of passes at the Vitality Stadium, despite having three centre-backs to find.The German would, peculiarly, go on to complete under 75% of his passes in 16 of the remaining 25 matches.
Emery, nonetheless, justified his switch and managed to at least maintain the fruitful relationships Arsenal had built up on the flanks. When asked to explain the change in formation, he said:
“It was an opportunity for us to find our best performance, best system and best combinations. For example today there was Sead Kolasinac and Alex Iwobi which is a very interesting combination. Also when we are pushing with Hector Bellerin wide we need some players for balance. The most important thing for us is finding balance in the defensive moments because we are conceding more goals than we want, but we don’t want to lose our good performances in attacking moments with scoring and the players performances. But we need to improve and we need to do more.”
Arsenal did improve and did so quickly. The next game, at home against Tottenham, was Emery’s best performance of his debut season. The derby turned into a true chess match between the two managers as they looked to wrestle control from one another and Arsenal relished the challenge. A furious midfield display early on won the momentum, then two half-time changes and a switch to a diamond saw Arsenal stretch the Spurs backline after going behind. The superb front two forced Pochettino to move to three at the back, then Emery reacted quickly to add another midfielder and seal off the middle of the park.
The performance was superb and this was the true potential of Emery’s ‘chameleon’ – Arsenal owned the game and adapted to its challenges, with everyone rising to the occasion. The superb energy from the midfield in particular, which had also been shown in the Liverpool game, did a number on the idea that this squad is incapable of being energetic, aggressive and physical. The squad is not necessarily built to play football like that but those two performances showed they absolutely have it in them.
Unfortunately, the intensity on show that day was short-lived.
Up to and including the season’s first north London derby, Arsenal won fewer than four tackles in the opposition half in just one of 14 Premier League games. In the remaining 24 fixtures, they won fewer than four tackles in the opposition half on 14 occasions.
The head coach had made a point of playing first team regulars in Europa League and League Cup games as he looked to make a point – no game is too small for anyone, every game is important, no matter when you lose, it should hurt like hell. However, those exertions took a toll and Arsenal lost some players to injury, while others completely lost form through the winter months.
Other than the anomaly against Chelsea in January, where Arsenal had a clear plan to stifle the opposition, the team seemingly lost all intensity. As that happened, Emery leant more and more into chopping and changing in the hope of finding a formula that worked. As that went on, his players started looked confused at best and unconvinced at worst.
Without Arsenal harrying them in the early stages of games, teams found the Gunners easier to cope with as games went into the closing stages. Emery’s substitutions, which had changed the game on a number of occasions early on in the season, stopped working and looked increasingly like rolls of the dice in the hope of stumbling across something that worked. That impression was only added to by the fact the Spaniard’s early season continuity had gone out of the window.
Leeds United boss Marcelo Bielsa – one of Emery’s inspirations as a coach – spoke to reporters in August:
“To transmit a style to a team, you need time to do that. To integrate a style, to assimilate a style, you need time. Sometimes it happens in a short time, sometimes you need more time to assimilate the style”
The Argentine was asked why he hadn’t thrown on an extra striker when Leeds had trailed at Swansea, but instead decided to take a striker off for another one, keeping to his original gameplan. He explained:
“In order to convince people, I have to believe in what I’m saying. Because the footballer only believes something that he truly believes in. When the footballer finds out that the head coach was trying to convince you and doesn’t share the point of view they were trying to transmit to you, he just abandons you.”
With Emery now changing formation and personnel in almost every single match, Arsenal looked increasingly lost and you do have to wonder if the players were rocked by the boss himself not steadfastly sticking to his original plan. A plan which, while performances were sometimes rocky, had seen Arsenal embark on a 22-game unbeaten run.
Any automatisms – including the wide partnerships – which had been built up early in the season were thrown out of the window as the team started in a diamond shape against Burnley and Brighton. That was quickly ditched after one and a half matches, at which point Alex Iwobi was introduced on the south coast and had to ask a team-mate what formation the team was playing in.
Emery subbed on a player without telling him what formation they are playing in lmfaooo pic.twitter.com/KKr6mnPl24
— A (@__AJ72) December 26, 2018
For the remainder of the season, Arsenal’s success rested on the shoulders of their stars. Aaron Ramsey’s return to regular football boosted the season from January until early April and without that run of form you wonder how things would have ended up. Ramsey announced his re-arrival against Chelsea, when he making just his third start in 16 Premier League games, despite having no injuries in that time.
The entire team performed well and the dual roles of the midfielders wide of the diamond and the two fullbacks were fascinating, as I detailed here. It was Ramsey’s performance, though, that set the tone for Arsenal. The Welshman marked Jorginho, Chelsea’s chief playmaker, out of the game, and then stretched the Blues as he made runs off the ball, a crucial feature of the match as Arsenal lined up with no natural width.
Over the next two months, Ramsey showcased not only his importance to Arsenal but also his brilliant versatility. The 1-1 draw with Tottenham at Wembley saw Ramsey score. His work-rate playing off Alexandre Lacazette in a 4-4-1-1 typified Arsenal’s performance on the day, which was, to my mind, the most typical Emery performance to date. Ramsey once again set the tone for the team to play compact, with energy in defence before pouncing on the break.
A week later, he took up a completely different role in the defeat of Manchester United, playing alongside Granit Xhaka behind a front three of Ozil, Lacazette and Aubameyang. Again, the Welshman was brilliant defensively and again he was the link between defence in midfield. In a team that is full of players who always want to be on the ball, Ramsey’s bursting runs create and exploit spaces.
His influence shone through again as Arsenal beat Napoli in the Europa League quarter-final first leg but his run in the side came at a price and he would miss the final month or so of the season.
With Ramsey sidelined, it was down to the enigmatic strike partnership that is Aubameyang and Lacazette to fire Arsenal across the finish line. With Ramsey sidelined, they couldn’t. The team had lost any ability to control games and Emery’s early season principles – controlling possession, building up patiently, pressing with intensity after losing the ball – had completely disintegrated by mid-April.
The loss of Ramsey left the front two on an island, completely cut off from the rest of the team. They managed to single-handedly fire us into the Europa League final but we fell short in the Premier League, even though Aubameyang scored five in his last five league appearances to propel an otherwise lifeless Arsenal over the line. When the strikers were starved, as they were in Baku, and couldn’t deliver a moment of magic, the team had nothing. Lacazette was excellent in the latter stages of the Europa League but failed to score in his last five Premier League appearances, when the team was more reliant on him than ever. If he wasn’t conjuring up a solution, nobody was.
Where does all that leave us? Arsenal’s early season approach at least resembled a plan, a project, and some direction. It wasn’t quite clear what the path was yet but you could make it out. As Emery became increasingly desperate for results and his squad became thinner, though, more points were dropped and the early season principles were abandoned.
“I want us to be a chameleon team, able to play in possession, in static attack against close opponents, or to counterattack,” the boss told El Mundo ahead of the Europa League final.
But which one does he want Arsenal to be best at? How will Arsenal play when it is up to them to define a match? We are chasing three teams who can all counter-attack, play in possession, press teams. Teams who can hold on to leads or blow teams away. But they still have definable and distinct traits, areas where they excel.
Man City dominate with quick possession, extreme positioning, they pin the opposition in with counter-pressing and tactical fouls. Liverpool are the kings of the counter-press, of finding an extra gear to take the game beyond an opponent, of killing you on the break. Tottenham make games ugly, they attack with directness. While these sides play with purpose, Arsenal often look infuriatingly ponderous.
Above all else, these three teams have all found a philosophy that suits them that they can use to make the opposition look uncomfortable. In big games and small ones. Even when players are missing, they retain a sense of style. That style gives a sense of purpose, it gives fans something tangible to buy into and, crucially, it aids recruitment.
Performances in big home games deserve a lot of credit but Arsenal play 28 other Premier League games a season that aren’t against ‘top six’ sides. Of those, 14 are at home, and we’re the big favourites in all of them. Those three teams mentioned, you can predict how they will approach games against those other 14 teams in the league – their formations, their lineups, their approach. But with Arsenal you can’t.
While Arsenal continued to muddle through the season, it became clearer that we don’t actually know what we want to be. Perhaps Unai Emery does know that, but if so he has struggled to transmit it to his players. The early season patterns and principles have not been carried through to the business end of the season, even though Emery says he does have the support and patience to build a project in north London.
Building one requires a shared vision, though, and the fans can only buy into what they see on the pitch. The club’s first priority must be to define how an Arsenal team will look moving forward. Without that, recruitment becomes impossibly difficult in an environment where Arsenal are already playing catch up. A tangible identity buys time from a fanbase that is beyond tired of feeling left behind.
Even a chameleon has a default colour and Emery appeared to have one in mind when he arrived at the club. Over the course of the season it escaped him. The boss will need to be able define Arsenal’s style early on in 2019/20 if he is to earn the chance to stay on and deliver the project he has spoken about.