What Is Arsenal’s Identity Under Unai Emery
It was never going to be easy. For the fans, the players, or the new regime. It is trying times at Arsenal, and most in the fanbase are struggling with how to handle it.
This is not to say that new manager Unai Emery is not backed. Despite the flak he has begun to receive over the last few months, it is fair to assume that such frustration was always going to set in. Regardless of who ended up being the successor to Arsène Wenger, this was always going to be a fanbase on edge, itching for progression. For revival.
In fairness, however, events that have recently unfolded has made the waters even choppier for the Basque headmaster. Issues with Mesut Özil, a seemingly timid hand when dealing with our youth crop and questionable transfer dealings have brought more questions than answers.
Perhaps the biggest question – providing the most angst – comes down to a simple query; who are Arsenal on the pitch?
Arsenal and Wengerball
When Wenger came to north London in 1996, he inherited a team which, despite a history of gifted players to have graced the pitch at Highbury, was far from the most elegant in the country.
Everyone knows full well the changes he implemented in the club on the back end. Further still, Arsenal’s brand of football, featuring a much-increased level of tactical understanding, confidence on the ball, and poetic movement when on the hunt. What developed over time, from the early days of Dennis Bergkamp to the Olivier Giroud years, was affectionately dubbed Wengerball.
Arsenal exuded confidence to the point of cockiness. Such was their near superhuman understanding and togetherness in the way they played, that many would come to Highbury knowing the result before it happened. But even Wengerball paid homage to the structure and groundwork that had been laid during George Graham’s tenure.
Rather than completely change the clubs on-pitch identity, Wenger molded Arsenal by combining his footballing philosophy and tactical ethos together with Graham’s grittiness, determination, and passion. It was the perfect medley. Arsenal’s league successes were a testament to the power of adapting your ways to include the best bits of what came before you.
Striking a balance
We have seen this from other managers as well. Pep Guardiola took the basis of Total Football seen from Dutch legend and former manager Johan Cruyff and expanded upon it. Similarly, when he took up the Bayern job, the former Spanish international respected the clubs’ desire to play attacking football while also respecting their culture despite bringing in quite a few changes; many of which are fondly remembered.
Jürgen Klopp and his heavy metal football, now a far more refined gegenpress, is another example of an incoming managers commitment to his ideas while emphasizing what has come long before him.
On the reverse side of the coin, we have seen what can happen to managers – regardless of reputation – when they do not honor a club’s pre-existing identity. José Mourinho quickly comes to mind, who often suffered the criticism of his Manchester United teams failing to “play the United way.”
It is fair to say that, still, most – if not all – are unable to truly define what Arsenal are under Emery. What we currently have is not so much an identity, but rather a portion of what an ethos consists of.
Questions of identity
When he first took the Arsenal job, the former PSG, Sevilla, and Valencia boss was touted as a manager who “shared our vision to move forward, to build on the platform created by Arsène Wenger and help this club enjoy greater success.” His knowledge of the game, his drive, and the apparent research he did on Arsenal players before his interview impressed the board.
Unfortunately, many of the Gunners faithful now question the accuracy of said claims in the wake of how the season has transpired.
On the surface, the season has not been the disaster that so many claim. A look at Emery’s current domestic point haul to date (14-5-6; 47) in his first season in England has him among the best in Premier League history, better than current managerial rivals Klopp, Pochettino, and formerly Mourinho. Despite this fact, one that included a 22-match unbeaten run, Arsenal sit at the bottom of the top six table.
There were many who began to raise concerns when our 22-match run came to a screeching halt. Though we kept grinding out results, it appeared as though we were riding our luck in terms of our performance levels. The results against Southampton and West Ham confirmed that as fact. We were in form regarding point accumulation only. All the data suggested that it would taper off sooner rather than later. It has done just that.
Much of the criticism has involved our lack of an identity or ethos. Emery has championed the need for us to be a pressing side. Pressing is not an identity, but rather an aspect of an overall tactical approach. Our inability to put a finger on our tactical pulse to identify a rhythm is worrying, to say the least.
If a lack of an identity is a cause for concern, then our inability to show progression in our problem areas has many bordering on panic stations.
Lack of faith and failure to progress
Arsenal has been questionable at the back for quite some time, including the final years of the Wenger regime. With Emery’s apparent knowledge of our players and pre-made plans to help improve us in certain areas, the fanbase at large looked forward to more solidarity at the back to accompany our ability to score goals. Fast-forward to the current situation, and Arsenal maintains both its goal-scoring prowess and defensive woes.
What is more troubling is the fact that we have brought in a handful of summer signings that targeted this area. None of Sokratis Papastathopoulos, Bernd Leno, or Stephan Lichtsteiner, all highly experienced players at the top level, have improved our record at the back. In fact, it has got worse.
Some will turn to our poor luck with injuries this season as a reason for our poor defensive record. This notion is easily debunked when the numbers show us that our defensive record was as poor before injuries cropped up. Was this down to Emery, the players, or our lack of tactical direction? Could it be a combination of all three factors?
It has not helped that, past the unknown tactical structure, the seemingly constant reshuffling of our first-choice XI. Routine changes in all areas of the park, and a starting XI that has featured a combination of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Alexandre Lacazette, Aaron Ramsey, and Mesut Özil in only four matches this season, has not given any credence to Emery knowing what his first-choice team truly is.
Frustratingly, this appears to go against the notion that the likes of Ramsey and Özil were labeled as key components for Emery’s plans once he arrived at the Emirates. Now we are left with a scenario that sees the Welshman off to Juventus in the summer (on a free no less), and the future of Özil in serious doubt as Emery – for one reason or another – refuses to put faith in him.
Whichever way you slice it, this does not appear to be a manager who has any answers. Eight months into his first season at the club, one would imagine that at least some measure of definition could be cited.
Instead, Arsenal is left with a frustrating current state of affairs, one that includes an overreliance on our center forwards while being completely bereft of any consistent creative nuance. What is clear, crystal, in fact, is that Emery is a man who prefers his type of players; ones who he has worked with before and trusts. This was confirmed by the BBC’s David Ornstein on Arseblog’s recent Arsecast episode.
One must now wonder if Emery feels he is incapable of laying the real framework for his tactical approach at the club until “the right sort” of players are brought in. But should that be the case? Is it not the mark of a top-class manager when one can adapt to his players as much as he expects his players to adapt to him?
Where has all the style gone?
It goes without saying that the state of our player personnel has come into question in the aftermath of Wenger’s reign coming to its conclusion. To that end, no one can fault Emery for wanting to bring in new players, but the questions surrounding the type of players is where the concern arises.
Say what you will about the state of the team(s) in the final Wenger years, but you would be hard pressed to find a lack of a creative focal point. This was a hallmark under the Frenchman. Dennis Bergkamp, Robert Pires, Cesc Fabregas, Santi Cazorla, and Mesut Özil all took up that mantel during his 22 seasons at Arsenal.
No matter what the situation on the pitch, Arsenal always had a creative mind at the heart of everything we looked to achieve when attacking. This is no longer a fact that we can rely upon under the Basque.
Past our lack of creativity and the obvious need for it, one of the most important characteristics under Wenger has been largely bypassed by Emery; entertainment. Wengerball was – for most of its existence – incredibly effective and difficult to contain, but it also exhibited an entertainment factor. It was beautiful to watch in all aspects. The current iteration of our approach on the pitch is contrarian, to say the least.
Long gone are the slick passing combinations done at pace, the intricate movements on the pitch akin to dance moves on a ballet floor, and the effortless way Arsenal used to stroll from back to front.
We have seen a few glimpses of this, but much of what we do during the run of play can only be characterized as industry without the flash. Hard work has not only become the order of the day but the only order at all. This is surely why Emery wants to bring in players he has worked with before. Players he knows fit this characteristic, rather than players who he is forced to try to mold into it.
Respect for the old ways
It is quite odd that – seemingly – Emery, by his own admission, wanted to build on the foundations laid by Wenger, considering the evidence we have been provided with. There are few ties to Wenger in terms of tactics and style of play. Though he is not forced to adhere to everything Arsène stood for, it is far easier to take a club forward when you rely on what came before you.
Other managers have been sacked because of a lack of faith and trust in the culture and historical approach on the pitch. Carlo Ancelotti, despite winning the league (expectedly) with Bayern Munich, was sacked by the Bavarian giants for a myriad of reasons, one of which is his failure to appreciate, respect, and tap into the clubs’ DNA. Emery is currently risking the same. Sometimes it is not just about results, but how you achieve them.
Much will be asked and expected of Unai as his Arsenal career presses onward this season and beyond. Both his success at Sevilla in the Europa League and his ultimate failure at PSG, are sure to increasingly come under the microscope as parallels will undoubtedly be drawn somewhere down the line.
It is quite clear that he has the utmost backing of the new regime at the club under the direction of Raul Sanllehi, and thusly, his vision will also be heavily supported behind the scenes. What must be clearly defined, and soon, is just what that vision is. Tangible evidence on the pitch must be provided; if not in the latter stages of the current campaign, then surely for the vast majority of the 2019-20 season.
There is a saying that goes “you don’t know where you are going until you know where you have been.” The notion of never forgetting where you have come from, and what has made you who you are, is of the utmost importance when we tackle all that life throws in our path. Perhaps in football, and indeed Arsenal, it is a sentiment that must be truly embraced.
Growth, progression, and freedom of expression in one’s ideas will always be at the forefront of the beautiful game. As Unai Emery settles into life at London Colney and England at large, it may do him a bit of good to truly look back to where Arsenal have come from. His job may well depend on it.