Three Reasons Why Unai Emery is Arsenal’s Biggest Problem
Unai Emery is in over his head. That much should be even more evident after his Arsenal squad turned out yet another lacklustre performance, this one resulting in 1-0 loss to Sheffield United.
To put this into further context, in Arsenal’s last five away games last season they went LWLLW and in the first give away games of this season they are WLDDL. With 30 points available, Arsenal have only managed 11 points on the road from their last 10 away matches.
That form is also filtering over into the home performances where Arsenal look less than convincing.
At first Emery was excused because he didn’t have is players. Then we went through a summer of upheaval where a significant number of players were moved out and quality players brought in. When the results still didn’t turn around, it was because he didn’t have his first-choice defence (both full-backs and Rob Holding out injured.)
Those of us who had questioned Emery’s quality were told he had us in third place so far and what more did we want? It’s worth noting that Emery had Arsenal in third place in April of last season and still finished the season in 5th.
For a manager who was supposed to be the tactical type of manager Arsenal were craving, he goes through match to match looking like he has no idea how to solve the problems before him. Simply put, he’s not the manager Arsenal need.
So, what is it? What is it about Emery that makes him so unsuitable for this job? Let’s look at three key factors.
“This personality for all the minutes of a match: protagonists. I like the possession with the ball, I like good pressing against the other team. I prefer to win 5-4 than win 1-0.”
With those words, Unai Emery created the impression that Arsenal’s core identity that was evolved under Arsene Wenger would be maintained. However, except for Leicester at home and Fulham away last season, none of the matches we’ve played under Emery have lived up to his desire to be protagonists.
As we head into his 16th month as manager it’s become increasingly clear that Arsenal have no identity. They aren’t particularly good at any one thing except sideways passing without any purpose.
People will often point to Emery’s desire to play out of the back as a style of play or a philosophy. Except that it’s not. It’s a tactic and it’s not one we are particularly good at. The technical quality of the passing leaves a lot to be desired and with no suitable midfield support, the options to play out after the first pass are limited. With the right midfield set up you’d expect the 6 or 8 to frequently drop into the gap created by the centre-backs. However, that is the exception not the norm.
Normally, you can find one of either Guendouzi or Xhaka standing around the midfield without too much awareness of the danger their centre-backs are in when the are passed the ball when the opposition are pressing.
After that, the only recourse is usually a couple of passes back and forth with Leno who will either boot it long or play it one more time back to the centre-back. On the off chance the centre-back can play it out, the play is usually down the wide channels in a more direct manner that is predictable and easy to defend against. Is it any wonder that Arsenal are getting less and fewer shots?
Arsenal trying to play out from the back (credit u/6l0th) pic.twitter.com/3TFfyhUpcG
— Neil Macdonald 📊📈 (@NeilMac555) October 22, 2019
It’s hard to watch Arsenal and identify any structure to their play, any cohesive shape or style of play.
When you watch Arsenal attack, they hardly ever attempt try to balance their attacks by attacking defences through the middle of the pitch. The attempts are slightly better at home vs. away but overall it looks as if Arsenal hardly ever attempt to break lines with a penetrating pass.
If you can point to anything, Arsenal have become a crossing team, although they are hardly any good at it. Arsenal have attempted 162 crosses this season resulting in a net of 2 goals. Considering we’ve only managed 13 goals total on an average of 12.4 shots per game this season that crossing stat is damning.
None of this, however, should have been a surprise to the Arsenal hierarchy or to its fans. The evidence was all there to begin with. During his tenure at PSG with the talent he had on display, there was no identity in their style of play and in his first season, when the league is set up for PSG to dominate he lost it to Monaco.
Identity problems with his system of play were so bad at PSG it forced a mutiny by the players that resulted in club management forcing the coach to abandon his 4-2-3-1 and play a 4-3-3 because the players felt it would get the best out of them. When that happens he, in essence, became nothing more than a figurehead. Which leads us to our next issue.
Inept Personnel Management
For all of our biased criticism of opposing managers like Klopp, Pep and Poch, there is one thing those managers do that Emery it seems is unable to do – get their players to play for them. Watching Liverpool, City and the version of Tottenham before this year, play – you knew that the players would go to war for their coach. They seemingly relish the competition for playing time and they want to play for the manager and do him proud.
Based on the evidence of how Arsenal have played as well as some off the cuff remarks of departing players, a picture of a distant coach unable to relate to players is being painted. And much like his lack of identity, this was all there before the Arsenal’s hierarchy eyes from his time at PSG.
Last night with third place on the line and the bigger teams failing away, Emery was unable to motivate his side to play with any semblance of urgency or commitment. Every player on the pitch lacked ambition and for that, the fault lies squarely with the head coach.
He doesn’t seem to put the team out there to be successful and the best players are kept out of the squad simply because the player (who may be worse than the player on the bench) on the pitch hasn’t done anything to warrant being removed. Again, look at Liverpool, Alisson is the better keeper of the 2 they have. He goes out injured for a better part of the first third of the season but the moment he is healthy he comes back in – despite solid performances from his deputy. The best players need to play but Emery compensating for his damaged ego, it would seem, doesn’t do that.
Then there is the curious case of Mesut Özil. The story as it goes is that Özil isn’t working hard enough in training. Therefore dropping him is warranted. Okay. Perhaps. But go back to the run-up to this recent match. First, you had Raul Sanellhi at the Fan Forum say Özil is working hard and should be back soon. Subsequently, Özil gave an interview where he said he’s working hard to get back into the squad and accepts that he needs to do that. Finally, in his presser before the match, Emery says Özil is working hard and has jumped past players who were playing before him.
All really good signs. Until we got to the match when the improving Mesut Özil doesn’t even make the bench. At one point last night both Aubameyang and Joe Willock had hardly gotten a touch on the ball. It was a stat that cried out for a player tailor-made to getting them the ball, however, for whatever reason Emery decided not to even have that player available.
Even if it’s not Özil and he opts for Ceballos at least it gives the team someone with a range of passing that can get the forwards the ball. But Ceballos started on the bench.
And there are other instances where Emery has mismanaged his personnel. Think back to last year when every first-choice CB was injured or carrying a knock and instead of turning to Zech Medley, an actual centre-back, albeit a young one, he opted for Granit Xhaka in a crucial area of the game that Arsenal were struggling with.
Early in Emery’s tenure people applauded his early substitutions. However, I don’t see it as rosy as that. One or two times would be understandable but Emery was making an adjustment at halftime or shortly thereafter for a string of games where it almost became ridiculous. As it went on, it became evident that those early subs were because Emery had gotten his personnel and tactics wrong at the outset and needed to make a change to fix it and try and get a result in the game.
The players aren’t the problem. There might be a couple of players left, that aren’t suitable or ready but after shifting out around 21 players, and bringing in quality, the same issues remain. Emery can’t get his charges to play for him. They look uninspired and as time goes on you can’t just get rid of all the players. At some point, the coach’s inability to manage the players becomes one of the club’s biggest problems.
Arsenal Are Getting Worse
The real question you have to consider with Emery is – has he improved Arsenal? Here is the most common answer supporters of his will give – yes. He got us to 5th place and a final which was one place better than Wenger’s last season and one match better.
However, there are underlying metrics that point that Emery has at minimum maintained a status quo or in fact has made the team regress. In the Athletic this week Amy Lawrence said it best:
“The attacking numbers are deteriorating. Arsenal’s creativity is down, chances are low, and the strikers really need to forage for themselves these days. Aubameyang’s personal statistics have been exceptional this season but in Sheffield his team-mates were unable to carve too many openings for him. Nicolas Pepe’s burst and cross early on was promising.”
Overall, through the first 9 games this season Arsenal are 7 points worse from last season and so far we’ve scored a meagre 13 goals (versus 25 last year at the same point) for a +1 goal differential (versus +10 last year at the same point)
22 points, +11 GD
Sheff Utd L
15 points, +1 GD
We’ve gotten worse
— Joe Mc (@JPMc99) October 22, 2019
When you begin to look back over a time period beyond Emery’s 16 months and throw in Arsene’s last season, the decline statistically looks exponentially worse.
Starting with xG – for you uniformed neophytes (like me) xG is a “metric which assesses every chance, essentially answering the question of whether a player should have scored from a certain opportunity.”
Beginning at the start of the season in Wenger’s final year, Arsenal started with an xG of ~2.56. Over the season until his departure, it declined to ~1.68. People may be surprised to know that even in Emery’s best run – the 22-game unbeaten streak from last season, Emery’s Arsenal have never gotten above a 1.66 xG.
That 22-game unbeaten run was held up as a sign that things were improving under Emery. However, the metrics associated with that run were telling a tale of a team outperforming itself and were going to come crashing back down to earth. Which is exactly what happened.
Defensively the xGA for Arsenal wasn’t that good under Wenger as you’d expect. In that final season, Wenger started with an xGA of around 1.69 and finished with an xGA of around 1. The lowest that season was a period where it hovered around 0.74.
For Emery, his team’s xGA has hovered around 1 with multiple peaks around 1.66. Our defensive peak on a rolling average basis was the pre-Xmas match vs Burnley last year. As we got to the end of last season, the defence got worse and the attack stayed only mediocre, resulting in Arsenal closing the season falling from third place to fifth.
So far this season, through 9 games Arsenal are averaging an xG of 1.46 which was almost exactly where we were late last fall. That xG is 5th best in the league behind Liverpool, City and Chelsea, and oddly enough last place Watford.
Last season when we were winning games early in the season our xGA was around 1 as we previously said. This season so far, its around 1.28 which is 25% increase over last year. Basically, when you put it all together, we have an attack consistent of the big 6 but a defence that is aligned with the worst teams in the league.
For context and comparison with an xGA per 90 of 1.28 this year, teams that did that sort of number last year over the full season were Bournemouth, Arsenal (that was our exact number last year, oddly enough) and Newcastle. Last year the other big 6 were: City at .59, Liverpool at .75, Chelsea at .88, Spurs at 1.09, and United at 1.12
While some people want to disregard stats and metrics because its “not football” they are at a minimum an indicator that can be used to predict and understand performance. When the 22-game run was going and people were arguing that Arsenal were outperforming their metrics, it did snap back and it resulted in the Gunners finishing about where their metrics placed them – 5th.
Still, there are more traditional measurements to gauge. Last season we were conceding on average 12.85 shots per game. So far this season we’re allowing 17.5 shots per game.
Additionally, the seasonal averages for goals for and against are declining as shown by the graphic below.
Even with the small sample size, the stats for Emery aren’t adding up. The team doesn’t seem to be improving. Whether you look at traditional stats or metrics like xG or xGA Arsenal seem to be getting worse under Unai Emery.
When Unai Emery was appointed head coach by Ivan Gazidis, it was widely assumed that Ivan didn’t want to take the risky punt on the candidate most seemed ready for Mikel Arteta. However, speaking with SER Catalunya, Arteta said he turned down the chance to manage the club he was a fan favourite at.
“I was about to leave [for Arsenal], but I stopped myself. The first [time] was different, the second [Newcastle] was mostly me.”
“Firstly, that I am not in a hurry and I have not felt that I need to take the step.”
“And the third is a matter of loyalty, when you promise someone to continue next year, with little time to manoeuvre, it was not appropriate to make that decision.”
“And because I think we still have that space for improvement and that ambition to be able to do something we dream of, which is to win the Champions League.”
With Arteta rejecting Arsenal and other significant candidates locked up, Arsenal turned to Emery to be a bridge manager. He was neither flamboyant, a personality, nor was he deemed too much of a risk. It must have been assumed that he’d at least not hurt the chances of the club from falling out at least the Europa League, while everything else was adjusted for Arsenal’s future. Maintain the status quo.
However, while the status quo has maintained, he has presided over a decline in Arsenal looking any semblance of the Arsenal we’d know. Sure, that’s a subjective assumption considering Arsenal haven’t always been the swashbuckling side of the Arsene Wenger era. Given how Emery was introduced, however, that seemed to be what we were supposed to get. 16 months into his tenure and that is not what we are getting. As each game passes the hope Emery will be a good fit at Arsenal fades. The football is getting uglier with each match and the stats are worse. The argument that things are getting better is based entirely on speculation and hope and not supported by anything tangible.
At some point, the smart men in the board room have to realize this and have to realize that Emery poses the biggest threat to their regaining Champion’s League qualification. Folks at PSG realized the job was too big for him there, how long will it take the folks at Arsenal to realize the same?