Has Unai Emery really improved Arsenal?
If someone told you that one team had 31 shots on goal in the Watford-vs-Arsenal fixture, one's guess would be that it was Arsenal who ran riot. However, that was not the case at Vicarage Road on Sunday evening. It was Watford who were responsible for Arsenal conceding the most number of shots they ever have in Premier League history. In response, the Gunners had only seven shots on goal.
Such was the travesty of the occasion that most Arsenal fans considered themselves lucky to get away with a point despite being 2-0 up at the end of the first half. While the goals were simply down to individual errors, the overall performance that the away team put up was shambolic, to say the least. For a club that aspires to compete for the biggest honors in the game, this was hardly acceptable. Bear in mind, this was a Watford team that had only one point from four games before the encounter and were playing their first game under a new coach.
This performance is bound to ring alarm bells at the Emirates for more reasons than one. Firstly, it's going to cause concerns about their start to the season. Following a defeat at Anfield and draw to Tottenham, the North London club needed a victory this week to restore normalcy. Moreover, the performances are the bigger source of concern. Even in their wins against Newcastle and Burnley, Arsenal did not look entirely convincing.
Having been at the club for more than a year now, its about to time that some criticism reaches the desk of Unai Emery. While he was given a pass last season despite failing to make the top four, finishing trophy-less, and getting smashed in the Europa League final, it is unfathomable for the trend to continue this season. It's about time that Emery's work is looked at and some questions asked about some serious issues that are visible within the team and also ponder about what has really improved?
If one problem defined Arsene Wenger's final few years at Arsenal, it was their defensive issues. By the end of the Frenchman's tenure, the Arsenal defense had become a source of jokes and memes. Over the years, the problem just kept getting worse and worse and led to some humiliation for the Gunners.
Improving the team's defense was surely one of the biggest tasks of the new manager. However, under Emery, it does not seem to have got any better. The same vulnerabilities are still visible and a half-decent attack would fancy their chances against this Arsenal team. One does not need to look beyond the Watford game, where the Gunners gifted two goals to the hosts.
In the 2018/19 season, Arsenal conceded 51 goals. Only Manchester United (54) conceded more goals in the 'top 6'. While Chelsea and Tottenham finished only two and one point above them in the table respectively, they conceded 12 fewer goals. In fact, Leciester, Wolves, and Everton conceded less goals than Arsenal last season. So far this season, they have already conceded eight goals in four matches. Hand on heart, most Arsenal fans will concede that the defense is as bad if not worse as it was under Wenger
Another thing worth noting is that Emery has got a lot of defensive reinforcements since he signed. Since his arrival, Arsenal has signed two defensive midfielders in the likes of Lukas Torreira and Matteo Guendouzi and a couple of center-backs in Sokratis and David Luiz. Add to, that fullbacks Stephan Lichtstenier and Kieran Tierney (who is yet to make his Arsenal debut) and even goalkeeper Bernd Leno. With such a massive overhaul, one should expect a lot more improvement.
Style of play
The thing that is worrying about Arsenal's defensive problems it the fact that Emery plays with a more pragmatic approach. While Arsenal, under Wenger, took a lot of pride in the attractive brand of football they played, the new coach has more or less got rid o those principles. While a lot of people will argue the Gunners needed that change, the question arises is whether they are doing it right.
At the moment, as the defensive record shows, Arsenal is hardly able to execute the deep block to perfection. When they decide to sit back, they are not able to absorb the pressure and instead only become even easier to attack against. While the likes of Jose Mourinho, Diego Simeone, Antonio Conte, and Massimiliano Allegri are criticized for "parking the bus", if Emery wants to adopt this approach, he would be better off taking a cue from those managers on how to perfect it.
Further, it is hard to see a clear identity even after more than 12 months since the new coach took over. One can still see Arsenal's fan question what exactly is Emery's philosophy or what he is trying to do. Whether he wants the Gunners to be a possession-based team, counter-pressing team or a counter-attacking team is still anyone's guess. While the likes of Guardiola and Klopp too faced a tough time upon their arrival in the league, it was clear to everyone what they were building towards.
Further, one fails to see any structure or proper attacking routines in place. While Arsenal do try to 'play from the back', the players often seem confused and eventually you see mistakes that happened on the weekend. It was not the first team in the match itself that such an error took place and is slowly becoming a frequent occurrence.
Frequent change in playing 11 and formations
Another worrying factor has been that Emery frequently keeps changing his formations and playing 11. Last season, the Spaniard opted for a 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1, 4-4-2, and 3-5-2 on various occasions. While it was understandable that it will take time for him to figure out things at the start of his tenure, that is something that has not changed even now. Having started the season with a 4-3-3, Emery changed to a 4-4-2 for the game against Liverpool.
While the change in formations can still be justified, the more worrying factor is that he is yet to feature on what his best starting 11 is. Almost every week, one sees him tinker his line-up even if he is playing the same system and formation.
While the likes of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette have been nothing short of sensational in their time at the Emirates, it looks like Emery is yet to figure out how to best use them and give the team balance. The addition of Nicolas Pepe has added problem to the mix in this regard.
Not only pre-match but Emery is known to change things up even in between games. In 21 of his 63 games in charge at Arsenal, he has made a half-time change. On most occasions, it has not been due to an injury but a tactical decision. While it has worked a few times and got lauded as a "genius move", one is bound to question why does he have to make changes so early in a game and why he gets it wrong in the first place so many times.
So what is the future?
When things go wrong, blaming managers becomes the easy things do. Last year, the problems at Manchester United were pinned on Jose Mourinho's head but as time has shown, they were a lot more deep-rooted. Doing the same with Emery five games into a new season would be too premature. He still has three players yet to return from injury in his back-line and has quite a lot of new signings and young players.
However, one cannot blame Arsenal fans for wanting to see improvements in performances and results. There was a reason that there were such widespread calls for Arsene Wenger to leave but at the moment things do not look any better at the Emirates. On paper, the squad looks a lot stronger and its Emery's job for that to show on the pitch. While its still time for the 'stick or twist' question to come up but if there isn't visible progress in the next few months, one can expect the Spanish coach to face a lot of heat.