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How Unai Emery needs to shed his pragmatism for creativity at Arsenal

Published 04 Sep 2019, 00:01 IST
04 Sep 2019, 00:01 IST

Liverpool FC v Arsenal FC - Premier League
Liverpool FC v Arsenal FC - Premier League

The approach of Arsenal under Unai Emery has been a rather curious tale. When he first arrived at Arsenal, he was known for playing a 4-2-3-1 with emphasis on quick vertical passing, rapid transitions and playing out from the back. In the first few months of his tenure he tried exactly that, but to varying degrees of success.

Implementation of his philosophy was not helped with early defeats to Manchester City and Chelsea. Although some labelled the Chelsea defeat as unfair, their poor finishing and defence cost them the game.

Most of his matches thereafter involved a slow first half, with a substitution and formation change resulting in an effective comeback.

Examples of this include when Arsenal were trailing to Liverpool until the introduction of Alexandre Lacazette at the Emirates, and changing to a diamond with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Lacazette up top along with Aaron Ramsey at the apex of the diamond against Spurs.

Inheriting a squad from Arsene Wenger which was not suited to his approach, Emery then looked to forego his base philosophy and tailor his side to the opposition rather than playing the ‘Emery way.’

The major turning point for Emery in terms of adopting a more pragmatic approach to his game was the game against Liverpool at Anfield. After getting battered 5-1, Emery decided that he would adopt a more conservative approach which would cancel the opponent’s strengths, rather than trying to implement his philosophy on the game.

At the next big game against Chelsea at home, rather than going with his usual formation, Emery opted for a 4-4-2 diamond, with Ramsey at the base of the diamond. This formation was meant to man-mark Jorginho at all times, thus severely limiting his contribution to the Chelsea build-up.

This turned out to be highly effective, with Arsenal winning 2-0 and being comfortable at the back.

Arsenal FC v Chelsea FC - Premier League
Arsenal FC v Chelsea FC - Premier League

At that point in his tenure, Emery was being praised for his pragmatic approach to the games, as they were delivering results. Adopting such a pragmatic approach, Emery enjoyed further success in the season with an away draw at Tottenham Hotspur and a 2-0 victory against United at the Emirates.

Towards the latter half of the season, Emery tried to protect his defence by using a 3-5-2 formation, with the wing-backs joining the defence to make it a back 5. They often relied on Lacazette and Aubameyang to bail them out with their partnership and individual moments of quality.

The general post-season consensus was that Emery had to adopt his pragmatic defensive approach as he had to protect his porous defence and he did not have a suitable player who could provide width and flair in attack, in addition to scoring goals and providing assists. In this transfer window, Arsenal tended to those problems brilliantly by signing Nicolas Pepe, who was behind only Lionel Messi in terms of combined goals and assists in Europe’s top 5 leagues.

He was seen as the record signing who would provide width, dribbling flair, goals and assists. David Luiz was bought in to provide experience to the back-line, and Kieran Tierney was bought in as the left-back who would provide energy and width down the left-hand side. It was assumed that this season Emery would revert to his favoured formation with a back four, as he finally acquired the personnel to do so.

Nicolas Pepe vs Tottenham Hotspur
Nicolas Pepe vs Tottenham Hotspur

His first big game against the top six came away at Liverpool. At Anfield, Emery surprisingly opted to go for a diamond 4-4-2 formation with Aubameyang and Pepe up top. This formation, although it crowded the central areas, afforded too much time and space to the best full-back pairing in the league in the form of Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold.

Emery’s approach to this game was yet another defensive approach with hope on the counter-attack. It did not work as Arsenal were overrun in the wide areas and lost 3-1. Although the game was over by then, the introduction of Lacazette and a change to a back 4 did improve the build-up of Arsenal and resulted in Lucas Torreira snatching a goal back.

The same pragmatic approach followed in the home game against Tottenham. Emery decided to unleash his front three of Aubameyang, Lacazette, and Pepe, but his midfield three afforded too much respect to Tottenham.

A midfield three of Torreira, Granit Xhaka and Matteo Guendouzi did not provide much creativity and the front three were often left to conjure chances alone. Out of a midfield three, at-least one midfield player has to be capable of linking the play and providing the final ball to the front three to feast on.

Quite why Emery did not start Dani Ceballos or Joe Willock is a mystery to many. One of those two would have been able to dictate the play and link the midfield to the forward line effectively. As such, it was Tottenham who controlled the midfield with Christian Eriksen and Erik Lamela.

The stirring comeback in the second half was bought about by the rise in intensity of play and the introduction of Ceballos, who immediately controlled the midfield and created opportunities, reminiscent to his man of the match performance against Burnley two weeks back.

The loss of 2 points at home once again demonstrated the errors of Emery’s pragmatic approach to the game, with Emery getting his starting line-up wrong and having to correct it in the second half yet again.

Arsenal FC v Tottenham Hotspur - Premier League
Arsenal FC v Tottenham Hotspur - Premier League

There will be more games to come, and more points to be won. But there is a feeling at times that Emery respects the opposition far too much and selects a very conservative line-up, with an emphasis on defence and limiting the opposition strengths, rather than playing to the strengths of Arsenal, which is their creativity in midfield and fire-power up top. Emery must realise by now that his defence is still his weak point and he cannot set up a team to just defend and nick a goal or two on the counter, even against the best teams.

To do so would be to completely ignore the brilliant front three that Arsenal have assembled and concede control of the game right from the starting whistle. Emery must look to impose his philosophy and approach right from the starting whistle.

Otherwise, Arsenal might have to play catch-up in the race for the Champions League spots yet again. 

Modified 21 Dec 2019, 00:22 IST
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