In Defence of Unai Emery
Before I begin, I would like to clarify my own position; I do not like Unai Emery, nor do I feel that he is the right man to lead the club. I do, however, feel that he is being unfairly criticised for the defeat on Saturday evening against Leicester City.
Like many Arsenal fans, I went into Saturday’s encounter with few expectations, a fact evidenced in my captaining of Jamie Vardy in my Fantasy team. A 2-0 loss was actually not as punishing as I expected- my prediction saw us conceding 3-4. However, I do not think that Unai Emery can be blamed as much as he has been for the result at the King Power Stadium, an argument that I shall make in this article.
Starting with the team selection, and I have been very critical of the Spaniard in the past, particularly for sticking with Granit Xhaka and Sokratis. Neither of these players found their way into this side, either for disciplinary reasons regarding the former or, in Sokratis’ case, just being dropped. In fact, when the line-ups were announced, I was not immediately furiously penning my thoughts on what could be done better.
I had just one change that I would have made, and that would have seen a clearly not match-fit Alexandre Lacazette replaced by Ivorian winger Nicolas Pepe. I thought that Pepe had been showing shoots of promise in his last few games, and this would have offered an opportunity for him to continue it. All in all, however, it was not the disaster which Arsenal team sheets have tended to be in recent history.
A double pivot of Lucas Torreira and Matteo Guendouzi did not fill me with hope, especially as I correctly predicted Torreira’s role in man-marking James Maddison. Against Leicester’s trio in midfield, I would maybe have matched their system. However, this would have left us more open at the back, and the only real defensive option would have been Calum Chambers. We would all love to see Torreira re-deployed at the base of midfield, but Emery clearly has other ideas. It appears ill-advised since the Uruguayan seems lost every time he reaches the opponent’s box, but it is simply a fact that the fans will have to get used to under Emery.
Going into the game, then, and Arsenal’s strategy was clear from the off. Mesut Ozil was deployed as a false 9, whilst Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette were deployed as wide forwards, in the same system which had been used against Liverpool. This was not a bad strategy- it had almost worked against the league leaders, and there was no reason that it would not bear fruit against lesser, albeit still very good, opposition.
Liverpool are probably the side closest to Leicester City with regard to their full-backs, both relying on the defenders to provide width, which in turn leaves gaps behind them. Indeed, the flanks were where Arsenal found most of their joy, with Mesut Ozil unsurprisingly at the heart of everything good that was produced. Had Lacazette not left his shooting boots in North London, the scoreline could have been very different early on.
Then we come to Leicester’s chances; the majority of these opportunities were created through Arsenal mistakes, normally as a result of trying to overplay out from defence. Hector Bellerin endured a tough return to action, whilst Rob Holding appeared off the pace. Leicester’s two goals were of high-quality, chances after they had cut the Arsenal defence to ribbons. The fact that this high-quality was needed is encouraging though; the Gunners will not be facing this level of opposition on a weekly basis.
A word on Leicester then- this side is clearly lacking in some areas (wide positions immediately spring to mind), but they are a side containing multiple players who would simply walk into the Arsenal starting XI. This is not entirely Emery’s fault. To be sure, many Arsenal players are underperforming, but ask me whether I would rather have an in-form Granit Xhaka or an in-form Wilfried Ndidi, and I would pick the Leicester man 99 times out of 100.