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Unai Emery: The ‘Indecisive One’?

Rishit Grover
CONTRIBUTOR
Feature
03 Dec 2019, 15:48 IST

Unai Emery
Unai Emery

Arsenal had drawn five and lost two of their previous seven games across all competitions. Unai Emery’s record in his first 50 games with Arsenal was worse than Arsene Wenger’s last 50 for them. These damning stats showed that maybe Arsenal fans had a valid reason to voice their displeasure regularly, and Emery's tactics didn't seem to be making the situation any better.

It is well-known that teams can only go so far piggybacking on individual quality. In the longer run, players need to establish chemistry and understanding with each other to successfully implement the manager’s philosophy on the game.

Constant chopping and changing in terms of personnel and formations has never been a hallmark of the greatest teams. Football managers have been known to stick to their philosophies come what may, and with good reason.

If the going gets tough and the coach doesn’t believe in the philosophy himself, the players easily pick up on that and lose confidence. This particular feature had unfortunately been true of Emery’s time at Arsenal.

The Spaniard hadn’t been consistent with his personnel and the way he set up play at all. In terms of the number of different formations used before Emery got sacked (formations that were used for more than 50 minutes), Arsenal had been outnumbered by only one team in the league this season. That team was none other than Emery's last league opposition - Southampton, who had their own struggles to deal with.

As a rule of thumb, the more stable a team is, the better it does in the marathon league format. An extreme example of this is the Barcelona team of 2014-15 that used the same formation (4-3-3) over the entire course of that season. Their Expected Points (xPTS) tally for that season was the second-best Expected Points tally accumulated by any team in the top 5 leagues, in all seasons from 2014-2019.

Barcelona in 2015
Barcelona in 2015

In terms of formations used, stable teams usually tend to stick to a few different iterations over the course of the season. As an example, the screenshot right below shows the formations used by Liverpool in the season they finished with 97 points.

On the contrary, the second screenshot depicts those used by Arsenal in the same season.

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Formations used by Liverpool throughout the 2018/19 Season
Formations used by Liverpool throughout the 2018/19 Season
Formations used by Arsenal throughout the 2018/19 Season
Formations used by Arsenal throughout the 2018/19 Season

Now I know that comparing Emery’s team in his first year at Arsenal to the Liverpool team well into Jurgen Klopp’s third year is unfair, but the situation at Arsenal only worsened this season. Under Emery, Arsenal used six different formations (each of which had been used for 50 mins or more) this season, second only to the under-achieving Southampton team.

To put things into perspective, in the top half (in terms of total points) of the table this season, 8 out of the 10 teams have used less than or equal to three formations. The other two - Arsenal and Tottenham - have used six each, and Tottenham have just had their manager sacked.

Number of Points vs Number of Different Formations used in the EPL (2019/20)
Number of Points vs Number of Different Formations used in the EPL (2019/20)

Arsenal had their fair share of sagas during Emery’s tenure. Three of his captains - Mesut Ozil, Laurent Koscielny and Granit Xhaka - were all in the news for the wrong reasons, but Emery’s indecisiveness didn't help either. Uncharacteristically, the Arsenal Board didn't share Emery's indecisiveness and decided to part ways with the Spaniard only 18 months into his time at the helm.

There's no doubt that the Arsenal fans were desperate for change, and the change did come. Emery's early promise of being the "protagonists all match" didn't really translate onto the pitch.

At the time he signed for Arsenal, the combination made sense. The team needed a pragmatic style of play, one based on proper analysis of the opponents' strengths as much as their own, something they clearly lacked during Wenger's time. But at the end of it, that was all they were left with: no clear style of play and too much emphasis on the opponents.

Freddie Ljungberg
Freddie Ljungberg

In that sense, the appointment of Freddie Ljungberg is one the team needed direly. If Ljungberg's coaching style follows the pattern of his playing days, the team and their fans are in for a much-needed dash of colour in their lives.

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