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Unai Emery must put faith in Arsenal’s DNA


“I’ve got to praise the three players involved in the first goal. It was real tiki taka; almost like they were playing PlayStation! It was an unbelievable goal.” 

– Mesut Özil

If Jack Wilshere’s goal against Norwich in 2013 came to mind, you would be right. It was heralded as one of the finest goals ever crafted in the Premier League. More importantly, it signified the complete antithesis of what Arsenal Football Club was capable of under Arsène Wenger.

Creative, expressive, and full of personality; that was Wengerball. Featuring players the likes of Dennis Bergkamp, Cesc Fàbregas, Santi Cazorla, and yes, Mesut Özil, Arsenal have been at the forefront of attractive football in England. An analysis of the Wenger era has been conducted many times over but the story remains the same.

As the Wenger years crept to the end of the line, one thing that never changed was our creativity. Our structure at the back wained, and our ability to compete truly suffered. None of this can be denied. Despite that, you knew how we would play when on the ball. Being positive was always at our core, even when we weren’t at our best.

The bigger the club, the more attractive the brand of football that can – and should – be demanded. It is an opinion seen across Europe’s top leagues, from Bayern Munich, PSG, Barcelona, Real Madrid, and many others.

Managers have been sacked for not adhering to this line of thinking, despite winning the league. Carlo Ancelotti comes to mind. So too, does Unai Emery.

In true Arsenal fan base fashion, we are now divided. One camp feels Emery should be sacked after failing to achieve what we assume he was brought in for; winning the Europa League. Others feel that the Basque headmaster needs more time to “clean up Wenger’s mess.”

Regardless of where you land, it’s hard to think this season was a resounding success.

Unai Emery’s first year summed up

Unfortunately for Emery, certain criticism’s he has received in the wake of this season is justified.

Many make the argument that the table speaks the absolute truth. We finished with more points than last season and made a major European final. On the surface, it’s hard to argue against. However, it’s not that simple.

Underneath the face-value nature of the season, the data always told a different story. Even during our unbeaten run with Unai at the wheel, it was a wheel that wobbled and warned of coming unhinged.

In comparison to the previous year (Wenger’s last), Arsenal registered fewer shots per 90-minutes, fewer chances created per 90-minutes and registered a lower xG. In addition, our chances allowed and shots allowed increased, while we saw no defensive improvement in the number of goals we surrendered.

We may have finished seven points ahead of the last term, but little else has improved. In fact, most things have gotten worse. This also includes our brand of football.

You would be hard-pressed to find an Arsenal supporter who can correctly describe exactly what brand of football Emery has intended for us this season.

Emery’s insistence on pressing decreased as the season progressed. Our ability to be creative through the spine with key players such as Mesut Özil and Granit Xhaka was abandoned for a willingness to over-rely on running play through our wing-backs. We weren’t a team that could regularly dominate in possession, but we also weren’t a team that could defend in depth and is ruthless on the counter.

Perhaps the easiest way to succinctly describe Emery’s first year at the Emirates can be found in one word; carried. Carried by his best players in a system built for utilitarianism and not expression.

PSG and Emery; a cautionary tale

Unai Emery will forever be known for his brilliant work at La Liga clubs Valencia and Sevilla. Bringing along both David Villa and David Silva during his time at the Mestalla is laudable indeed. But it was his time on the touchline at the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán where he made his name, creating a Europa League dynasty.

His success Andalusia netted him a move to the top echelon of European football with French giants PSG. He immediately won a piece of silverware in his first match in charge, a 4-1 thrashing of Lyon in the Trophée des Champions. You could not have given him a better start to a new challenge.

Two years and seven trophies later, Emery left PSG without an exercised option on his third year. Despite his trophy haul, he is largely mocked in France in the wake of his tenure.

French Football Weekly‘s Kris Carpenter was happy to summarize the feeling around Emery regarding his time along the Seine;

  • Suffered much criticism regarding his tactical acumen; negative and lacking expression.
  • Attempts at alienating Neymar. Wanted Edinson Cavani’s work-rate in the team more-so than Neymar’s technical prowess.
  • Pragmatic; disciplined, structured, and organized to the point where it became a detriment and not an inhibitor at times.
  • Questionable in-match management; struggled to adapt and make changes when things were not going according to his plan and would fold. Would make changes for the sake of doing so, but without actual direction.
  • Strong in preparation and drilling during training. Relationship with Juan Carlos Carcedo was key. Much of the work on the training ground revolved around mental prep and not just tactics. Would ask questions and demand his players offer up answers and solutions to different scenarios.
  • Happy to work within financial means set down from the top. Would never demand funding to do his work.
  • Industrious and a servant of the philosophy that the right work rate will close the gap.
  • Overall assessment: A good manager, but one who is made for the middle tier. A Europa League manager in a Champions League sport. The right manager for Arsenal at current, but should not be expected to take them much further than he already has. 

Sound familiar at all? I’ll let you decide.

A return to expression at Arsenal

One of the reasons the Arsenal fanbase took to Alexis Sánchez was his industry. A very gifted footballer he was indeed, but his attitude on the pitch and willingness to work won over the Emirates faithful. A throwback to a different era.

The irony that we lost the Chilean sparkplug before Emery came to north London probably shouldn’t surprise anyone. This is Arsenal, after all. He would have been perfect, but it is also not strange to suggest that he would have struggled as well.

A workhorse, Sanchez still relied on his ability on the ball, his combination player with others, and certainly would color outside the lines when the tactics on the day weren’t working. By all accounts from France, this is something that Emery tries to reduce as much as possible. He doesn’t want drones, but he does want his plans to be followed to the letter and without question.

If it was an ideal world, Wenger an Emery would morph into a brilliant manager. A blend of technical football with a better structure and emphasis on the extra five percent. Wenger had faith in his players to problem solve on the pitch when the going got tough. While this backfired in the end without some overall direction from the touchline, the premise is a strong one.

As for Emery, too much instruction and not enough leeway to make regular snap decisions on the pitch when things go poorly represents the polar opposite problem. Countless times we have seen our players intentionally overlook options when on the ball for the sake of keeping to Emery’s instructions of utilizing the overlapping runs from the wing-backs.

It has become predictable; a notion we wanted to strive to forget as we moved on from Wenger. While we played more attractive football under the Alsatian, we failed to achieve flexibility when we were up against it. That same issue now remains under Emery, in a form far less pleasing to the eye.

The argument should never be expression over work ethic. You need both. Pep Guardiola and Jürgen Klopp – and even Mauricio Pochettino to an extent – are the prime examples in the Premier League of what you can do when you blend quality and effort. A well-drilled side who can press and defend cohesively, and who can carve you apart when in possession. To get to this plateau, Emery has a lot of work to do.

Reputation demands quality

In the wake of Arsenal‘s capitulation in the Europa League final, the Guardian’s Philippe Auclair gave a scathing assessment of the club’s performances under Unai Emery that saw them miss out on Champions League on two fronts.

“This is an Arsenal side which has lost its way for what, two months now? Something like that. Which looked exactly how it has looked against Brighton and Crystal Palace, and all those games in which, honestly, the notion of pleasure has been taken away from football basically. It’s been extracted surgically by Unai Emery and his players.”

It was a damning indictment of a manager who much of the fanbase remain happy to fully support, but what has gone largely undiscussed is the very nature of the sport.

Unlike other sports, football is one where athleticism and work ethic can only get you so far before it is not enough. There is a reason why, on average, the same clubs and national sides get to the latter stages of the Champions League, World Cup, and European Championship.

Grit and hard work will only carry you so far before the lack of that extra bit of quality comes home to roost. Not just quality in terms of available players, but quality in the level of your approach.

The bigger and more reputable the club, the greater the expectation of results being entertaining. Not just for style points, but because those on the same high level will demand the same. Even Atlético Madrid know how to turn on the sauce when they need to.

The worry for Arsenal and Unai Emery is not that clubs around them (and ahead of them) will spend in the market at a competitive rate, but that the brand of football on offer at the Emirates will fall behind.

When you consider the likes of Wolves, Everton, and Southampton (now under Ralph Hasenhüttl), as their spending power grows, so too does the quality of their players. That, coupled with brilliant managers like Hasenhüttl and Nuno Espírito Santo, it is fair to suggest that the Molineux, Goodison Park, and St.Mary’s may soon feature a brand of football that surpasses what is on offer in N5.

No one is sure what the plan is moving forward for Arsenal under the guidance of Raúl Sanllehí and Vinai Venkatesham, but if Unai Emery is to remain at the club beyond next season, it must be pressed upon him that finding a balance between industry and progressiveness on the pitch is vital to the short and long-term success of the club.









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