Making sense of Unai Emery’s clouded vision
I, like many fellow Arsenal fans, now gain far more enjoyment watching the side on Thursday nights. So long a source of derision, the Europa League has now become the one area of hope proffered to Arsenal fans by Unai Emery. Convincing wins and expansive football are part and parcel, before the inevitable sense of dread sets in to watch another poor league performance. In this article, I will try to understand why this is the case, and why the team setup is so very different across the two competitions.
This is the first and most obvious reason for the significant differences in play style. Arsenal have found themselves drawn in a group with Standard Liege, Eintracht Frankfurt and Vitoria Guimarães. Of these, only Eintracht Frankfurt can claim to have any recent pedigree, reaching the semi-final of the competition last year, before losing to Chelsea on penalties.
They sit 8th in the Bundesliga at present, yet are just two points behind the league leaders, and have already taken points from Borussia Dortmund. It is fair to say that they are probably a similar strength side to someone like West Ham. Of the other sides, Vitoria and Standard Liege sit fourth and second in their respective leagues. A drop-off in terms of quality then, but nowhere near significant enough to justify a completely different, attacking system.
Unai Emery is known as something of a Europa League specialist- The Spaniard won the competition 3 times in a row with Sevilla between 2013 and 2016. Indeed, in his first season as Arsenal boss, he reached the final before being humiliated by Chelsea in Baku. The competition, therefore, offers a known quantity. Despite being in the Premier League for over a year however, it is clear to see that Emery is yet to understand it. He remains unsure of his best side, and often lines up far too defensively against weaker opposition, as demonstrated by his selection at Bramall Lane.
He has so far used a 4231 in the Europa League, with a crucial linking player at no.10 facilitating attacks. This has not translated into domestic selection however, as a 433 is preferred, often with little dynamism or creativity present. Whilst the European games cannot be described as gung-ho, they are certainly a far cry from the timid, insipid and boring football which we are subjected to on the domestic scene.
There appears to be a fundamental switch in mindset between the two competitions therefore, one which also provides hugely different results. Whilst expressionism seems encouraged in one, the other focuses on being compact and hard to break down, often playing players in unnatural positions. Emery will surely have to commit to one soon, and for his, Arsenal fans and football’s sake, I hope it is expressionism.
Competition for places
This season, Arsenal’s league side has been pretty predictable. Regardless of performance levels, the same central defensive pairing has been deployed, with new club-captain Granit Xhaka named in front of them. I am not suggesting for one minute that Gabriel Martinelli should be picked on form over Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, but the Europa League should offer players a chance to prove themselves to the manager.
Take Shkodran Mustafi as an example; before last night, the German was yet to concede a goal in his three starts, whilst Rob Holding has been equally impressive. Both are almost guaranteed to start in midweek games, but seem unable to break into the first team for the Premier League.
Knowing this, performance levels in the league can drop significantly, with some of the players seemingly assured their places. Oddly enough then, although Unai Emery doesn’t seem to know his best side, he seems certain that particular players form a key part of it, to the extent that it seriously hinders both performance and results.
How does Emery fix this?
It is honestly difficult, barring a miraculous turnaround, to see a way back for the Spaniard at the Emirates. Having spent almost eighteen months at the club, he is yet to find a system or philosophy which suits both himself and his players. More worryingly, he appears to be asking his players to use different systems in different competitions, especially damaging when one is clearly more effective than the other. Unless there is a fundamental philosophical change, results will deteriorate and the fans will continue to turn against Emery’s hyper-pragmatism. If things remain the same, Arsenal may be forced to look for a mid-season managerial change.