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Arsenal’s attack is Emery’s best form of defence right now – time for him to free up his players

November 18, 2019

MANY Arsenal fans hoped that the international break would be met with a change of management with Unai Emery’s team going backwards in every conceivable metric (as well as the most important one – points) this season.

However, the Gunners top brass have made it abundantly clear that no such change is forthcoming just yet and that Emery will be in charge when the team takes on Southampton on Saturday. So instead, Arsenal fans are left to hope that the break has at least given Emery some thinking space – because it is clear that some kind of change is necessary to re-ignite the Gunners’ ailing season.

In my view, the team is in need of some short-term crisis management. Emery has made a habit of tinkering with line-ups and formations during his Arsenal tenure.He says he wants the Gunners to be ‘the chameleon team’, but during the current campaign they’ve looked more like the impala team – constantly nervous of predators. Tactical flexibility is a good long-term goal for a coach to have, but it needs to be built on a foundation of basics and Emery’s team are floundering in pretty much all of the fundamentals.

The players are short of confidence and when players (or people in general) are short of confidence, routine is vital. Emery has tried to be a little too clever this season, overcoaching his team with weekly re-imaginings of shape and tactics. Lucas Torreira has made it very obvious that he does not favour the role Emery has forged for him this season.

So allow him to play the role he is comfortable with in front of the defence, as opposed to asking him to be a shuttling quasi/false roaming number 6 / number 10 hybrid. Matteo Guendouzi has been playing Granit Xhaka’s role anyway, collecting the ball from the centre-halves and distributing from deep. So allow Torreira to shuffle away next to him, winning the ball back and then playing it simply.

Play Nicolas Pepe on the right and choose between one of Alex Lacazette and Pierre Emerick Aubameyang in the centre-forward role – it ought to be an easy choice between them at the moment. If Özil is to play, play him as a number 10 behind a centre-forward (which, to be fair, he largely has since his return to the team). But if Emery wants to play Lacazette and Aubameyang as a front two, play them as a pairing as opposed to as a pair of false wing-backs as they were asked to be against Leicester.

Emery has my sympathy because the squad is difficult to balance between defence and attack, it is top-heavy and all of the attacking parts don’t necessarily fit together in a uniform manner. However, games against Southampton, Norwich and West Ham give him the opportunity to lean into the strengths of his squad. No more dicing with the margins of a game and trying to nick it by a goal – possibly losing by a goal or drawing in the process.

Leaning entirely into the attack is not the absolute long-term solution, in time he, or another coach, will need to figure out the best way to achieve that defensive balance. But Emery’s philosophy of playing with an inferiority complex is not working, it is not adding to the team’s defensive stability and it is subtracting from their attacking talent. It offers the worst of both worlds.

The coach needs to stop putting results into the hands of Xhaka, Sokratis, David Luiz, and Sead Kolasinac and start entrusting them to Pepe, Aubameyang and Özil. The players need to rediscover their comfort zone again and work from there. The best route to defeating inferior opposition is death by a thousand cuts. Suffocate them with a high shot volume, pin them back with possession.

It will naturally leave Arsenal a little open, but they haven’t exactly been rock solid in any case. Emery needs to start again and rebuild the squad’s confidence piece by piece and allowing the team to play to its strengths is the first step in this process, in my view. Emery’s ‘rope-a-dope’ is coming up just plain ‘dope’ at the moment. A team needs to know its comfort zone before a coach can begin to take them out of it and teach them new methods. Right now, Arsenal have forgotten themselves.