FootballPremier League

Is Unai Emery the right man at the wrong time for Arsenal?

September 17, 2019

IT didn’t take long for the pre-season optimism around Arsenal to dissipate. Viewed in the cold light of eight points from five games and a shambolic showing in a 2-2 draw at Watford on Sunday, it’s starting to appear as though Arsenal have pulled the same old trick of signing an expensive attacking talent towards the end of the transfer window while failing to address more fundamental issues within the squad, a situation exacerbated by the fact that the signing, Nicolas Pepe, is yet to score.

But Pepe isn’t the issue. He’s 24 and playing outside France for the first time. He’s entitled to patience as he adapts. And there have been flashes of promise from him, even if there have been times when he looks worryingly one-footed. By far the bigger problem is the fact that Arsenal have faced 96 shots so far this season, more than any other side in the division, and more than twice as many as Manchester United or Chelsea, the two clubs who appear as Arsenal’s peers in the battle for fourth. Little wonder Unai Emery looks so perpetually
stressed on the touchline.

Five league games this season have brought four different formations. In itself, that isn’t an issue. Emery is a pragmatist and tactical flexibility was key to his success with Valencia and Sevilla. But the overriding sense from the second half on Sunday was confusion and, perhaps even less forgivably, exhaustion. Watford were also guilty of that and a number of players spoke of the unusual heat. Perhaps that did catch both sides unawares so they didn’t pace themselves as they would in, say, Madrid in June but still it was bizarre, in Hertfordshire in September, to see the game degenerate into essentially a pair of five-a-side with a huge gulf where midfield should have been.

A draw flattered Arsenal but even that wouldn’t be such a problem if the issues were in any sense a one-off. The specifics arguably were but the underlying themes keep recurring. Both central defenders, Sokratis and David Luiz, are error-prone. They need protecting. In the first half at Anfield, when the three-man midfield sat deep and narrow, and Sokratis and David Luiz could concentrate on heading clear crosses, they looked good. But the problem with that was by setting up like that, Arsenal left the flank free and so there was an almost
uninterrupted stream of crosses. As it turned out, Liverpool’s opening goal came from a corner, but it was the 23rd cross they had put over in 41 minutes; eventually one is always going to find an attacking head.

But it’s not even that the midfield is especially reliable. Matteo Guendouzi excelled against Tottenham but he is young and remains inconsistent. Granit Xhaka is all too consistent, a wild challenge waiting to happen. Lucas Torreira has faded after starting so promisingly last season. Joe Willock is very young and inexperienced. Dani Ceballos looks technically excellent but playing him means Arsenal lose much-needed bite. Much the same can be said of Mesut Ozil, who remains Mesut Ozil.

And then there’s a forward line packed with talent that doesn’t seem to fit together. To last season’s issue of how to field Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang together has been added Pepe. Perhaps all three could play together, as they did in the North London Derby, but there then needs to be a compensatory defensive midfield – and if Ceballos isn’t there, then there is nobody to control the ball.

Over a year after he took the job, it’s very hard to say what Emery’s style is: what is he trying to do? There was talk when he arrived of enforcing a pressing game, but there has been very little evidence of that. Emery is not especially charismatic and there is evidence that fans are beginning to turn on him. But the deeper question remains: how do you play with this squad? What sort of football has it been constructed to play? There are a handful of extremely talented players but getting them on the pitch together means almost impossible
compromises elsewhere, particularly when certain areas of the team are so desperately in need of cover.

Emery may or may not be the right man to take Arsenal forward but the problems at the club extend far beyond the manager’s office.