Now is not the time to judge Unai Emery
It would be fair to say that there has been highs and lows in Unai Emery’s short Arsenal tenure so far.
There are definite improvements that need to be made for next season and Emery hasn’t been perfect as no manager will be.
Still too fragile
The big improvement was meant to be in our defensive output with Emery being perceived as a much more defensive coach than Wenger but unfortunately, that hasn’t been the case:
Arsenal goals conceded 46
Expected goals against 47.5
Goals conceded 51
Expected Goals against 48.1
The stats show that not only have our defensive woes continue but our performances away from home have continued to be poor, too.
Shots attempted versus shots faced away from home in the PL
City 252 v 116
Liverpool 228 v 167
Spurs 217 v 224
Chelsea 252 v 175
Arsenal 187 v 241
Man Utd 219 v 276
Only Arsenal and Manchester United have faced more shots than they’ve inflicted on opponents this season in the top 6 and that could be indicative of why we currently occupy the 5th and 6th place.
Struggling away from our own house
It’s well documented that Unai Emery once took Sevilla through an entire league campaign where they failed to win away from home in the 2015/2016 season and people will be quick to jump on that but we should remember that this is a long-term problem we’ve had and it was our away form that was the main factor is missing out of the top 4 in the last 2 years which points the finger more to the current squad and its deficiencies than the manager.
There’s a case to be made that the team has become over-reliant on Alexis Sanchez during away games – the Chilean had the most premier league away goals (33) and also had the most Premier League away assists (10) and since he left for Manchester we’ve only won 6 out of our 25 away games.
Alexis was always difficult to implement into a tactical system. You always got the impression that he could be given constant tactical instruction in the lead up before a game on what he should do, where he should be etc but as soon as he hit that pitch it all went out of the window – Alexis was an incredibly talented player who played the game through instinct.
For all of his faults, he was a player that took every game “by the scruff of the neck” and some like to say and a lack of that could be a contributing factor to why we’ve been so poor on the road.
The pro’s and cons of Unai’s first season
The major plus point of Emery so far has been a clear improvement in performances against top 6 teams in the league with 3 wins, 3 draws and 4 losses being a good platform that Emery will hopefully build on through next season.
Emery has also been praised for his brave, reactive substitutions that have saved us a multitude of points over the season. This can, and should, be viewed in two different ways – the first is it can only be positive that we have a manager that can quickly adapt to the demands of the game.
Modern day football demands this from the best coaches and you can see in any game that contains top-level teams that you can’t play one way throughout the whole game.
The other way this can be perceived is that Unai Emery’s starting teamsheets and tactics haven’t worked for us a lot of times and I believe this is also true. The lion share blame for the recent 3-1 loss to Wolves should be with the players who I believe didn’t put it what can be registered as a respectable performance in any way, shape or form but it was nailed on that Wolves would start with their 3-4-1-2 formation.
We knew Jota look to run at us and for us to move away from our recently fairly successful 3-4-1-2 or 3-4-2-1 to counter that seems like it was a deciding factor.
The main security the 3 at the back gives us is that when our wingbacks go forward, as has become a consistent feature in Emery’s play, we have players behind that that can cover the space with the wide centre-backs being able to drift into the vacated space and cover it while still having 2 centre-backs defending central areas.
Having our wingbacks still get forward at their normal rate without the cover behind them gave Wolves the wealth of the flanks to drive onto and constantly left Diego Jota one vs one with our centre-backs and by the 45th minute, the game had already been killed off.
True success takes time
The truth of the situation at Arsenal, however, is that this is going to be a long-term job. It took multiple years of clever but gradual team transformation that took Liverpool from 8th place (behind both West Ham and Southampton) to challenging for the Premier League and a minimum Champion’s League semi-final following a Champion’s League final last season.
During this period Liverpool has had a lot of issues they’ve had to fix including poor defensive issues, losing in multiple cup finals and poor FA cup showings overall, injuries and most importantly the fact Klopp has had to learn about the Premier League and then suitably adapt to it.
You can draw parallels to Klopp’s first season in charge of Liverpool to Emery’s first season at our helm. Results against the top 4 instantly improved for Liverpool but defensive frailties remained.
In 2016 Liverpool conceded 3 goals in the last 15 minutes to lose 4-3 against Bournemouth. This summed Liverpool up at the time – they were shakey and lacked the composure to close out games. Beyond their frantic pressing and brilliant counter-attacks, they were a team that could be got at, just as we are now.
In the team that featured that day included Milner, Wijnaldum, Henderson, Mane, Firmino among players that are still used by Liverpool. This shows that the adaptation period for players will take time and I believe our players will have to be given more time to adapt just as they were.
Building partnerships in defence
Emery has inherited a much better squad than Klopp inherited though, that’s definite, and I think that’s clearly shown by the fact in Emery’s first season we’re battling for 4th instead of finishing 8th so the process of making this team truly competitive should take a shorter time frame but it’s clear that this Arsenal team lacks profiles in nearly every area of the pitch to be successful over the course of a season.
Our centre-back options are mostly front footed defenders that are in the region of 6 ft 0 and 6 ft 2. They are reactive and they play bravely but there is no balance to any of the partnerships we’ve tried.
Arguably our best partnership in recent years was Koscielny and Mertesacker. Mertesacker was much maligned for his lack of pace lack of overall on the ball ability but he and Koscielny were a great fit. Mertesacker as the more stationary centre-back communicated well across the back line and was rarely rash.
His dominance in the air and intelligence of when to commit brought stability, where-as the more ambitious and quick Koscielny has the freedom to cover the space behind Mertesacker and carry the ball forward in possession too.
Between 2012 and 2014 the Mertesacker and Koscielny partnership played 27 games where they completed 90 minutes together and it that time we won 19 of them, drew 8 and lost none. we conceded on average 0.5 shots per game and kept 16 clean sheets in a run that saw Szczęsny get a golden glove for most clean sheets in the Premier League in the 2013/2014 season.
It’s important that we sign a centre-back of similar physical and mental attributes to Mertesacker to compliment our current selection of defenders in my opinion and I think that’s the biggest need in our summer.
Lack of maturity in midfield
Another thing we lack is true experience at the heart of midfield. Granit Xhaka is currently our main experienced central midfielder and although I think the true efficiencies of his performances have gone largely under the radar he’s still a player that is going through his own period of adaptation.
This is the first season Xhaka has looked fully comfortable in the Premier League and although some mistakes will always happen, as they will with any player, as the season has progressed you can see Emery is having a very positive effect on him.
Xhaka’s partner has mostly either been Matteo Guendouzi (19) or Lucas Torreira (23) who are both not only young but also in their fledgeling seasons in England. I believe both will be huge players for Arsenal but they’ve needed Xhaka to help them through games and when Xhaka has been absent through injury you can really see the lack of experience we have in midfield.
A big decision for Emery in the summer will be to bring in another central midfielder in the age region of the mid to late ’20s who can take some responsibility of marshalling this midfield and directing this team in difficult moments during games, like away games.
Unai Emery needs to find an X-factor
Our wide options are also overcrowded with similar profiles. Iwobi and Mkhitaryan are our most used players in wide positions and both are more of #10 types of attacking midfielders who have been converted to wide creative midfielders than what you could refer to as pure wingers.
This season we’ve become far too reliant on Aubameyang and Lacazette for our overall goal tally with only the soon to be departing Aaron Ramsey even beginning to chip in with decent numbers otherwise.
City have Sterling and Sane, Liverpool have Mane and Salah, Spurs have Son and Moura, Chelsea have Hazard and United have Martial. Arsenal is crying out for a wide forward that can not only get a good goal tally but can destabilise teams with pace and dribbling ability and also have the ability to carry the ball up the pitch quickly in transition.
The returning Reiss Nelson will aid this but it’s very doubtful he would be ready to be a regular in the starting 11 so it’s another area of great need to sign a winger.
Giving Kola cover
Kolasinac has got a lot of stick this season, some has been fair and some hasn’t. I think he’s been largely very positive, especially offensively, and his engine to cover so much distance up and down that left flank has been largely unpraised. He definitely has room for improvement but I think it’s the functionality of our system overall that makes him look bad mostly.
We rely on him too much to provide for our attacking players and that means we need to cover the space behind him properly, something we’ve failed to do on numerous occasions.
The only back-up we have for Kolasinac is Nacho Monreal who has been a fantastic servant for the club and always plays with heart and obvious love for the club but physically he isn’t at the needed standard now. Arguably he’s not to the level we need as a wingback and is only a passable centre-back when we play a back 3. We really need to be looking at youthful left wing-backs to sign in the summer to compete with Kolasinac.
Next season will be huge for Emery because that’s when the pressure will really be there. I think it would be unfair to assume we should be getting top 4 this season with a squad that finished 6th the season before.
The change from Wenger’s methods to Emery’s methods that are very much revolved around positional football, tactical variety and an emphasis on counter-pressing are stark differences and these players are getting a crash course in modern football – this will take time.
As we start next season Emery will have completed his 2nd summer transfer window and it’s acceptable to suggest by this point he’s had enough time to re-shape the squad to the point not that we’ll be the finished article but that we can visibly see that we’re on the right path and if we aren’t starting to see far more functional overall performances defensively and away from home fingers will be pointed at Emery but I do think his work so far has been good and we should be positive for the future.