Emery prepares to lead his army into the biggest week of the season
Unai Emery faces the biggest week in his short Arsenal tenure so far as he prepares to take his team to face Rennes in the Europa League round-of-16 and then welcome Manchester United to the Emirates in the Premier League on Sunday.
Both games have become must-win in the path for Arsenal returning to the Champions League. Arsenal are currently one point away from fourth-place United in the table and a win would not only put them ahead of the Red Devils but would also be the last game Arsenal have to play against top-six opposition this season.
After Sunday, the rest of the top four contenders’ fixtures vs the top six will be:
Spurs – Liverpool (a), Man City (a)
Manchester United – Man City (h), Chelsea (h)
Chelsea – Liverpool (a), Manchester United (a)
This leaves Arsenal in a strong position to pick up points in weeks where the teams around us are far more likely to drop points. The main fear will be our poor away form – five of our remaining nine games will be away from home to Wolves, Everton, Watford, Leicester and Burnley. Three of those teams being in the current top ten of the Premier League.
Our second wind
There is definitely reason to be hopeful, though, as our recent performances have become much more positive. An injury crisis made our form from January to February very inconsistent but we were able to keep touching distance with the top four. Recent games have shown glimpses of a much more functional outfit and form has backed this with impressive wins vs Southampton and Bournemouth followed by a contentious but nevertheless spirited away draw vs Spurs.
A big talking point of the draw at Spurs is that we were organised, compact and defended in a very narrow shape away from home under difficult circumstances and looked comfortable. I’ve seen us attempt to defend with a deep block in two banks of four a few times over the last few years under Wenger and Emery and the common theme was we didn’t have the organisation, commitment or streetwise nature to pull it off.
Saturday was the polar opposite and the team defended fantastically. Sokratis, Koscielny and Monreal had a lot to deal with in terms of Son’s relentless running of the channels, Trippier’s threat from crossing positions and Kane’s movement but they came out of it with top marks.
Mkhitaryan has come back from injury looking sharp, hungry and everything of his famous Dortmund form we all hoped he’d recapture. Under the radar, Iwobi has also become very physically consistent too. He doesn’t lose concentration positionally as much and after noticeably becoming leaner, he’s not culpable for fading out of games after 70 minutes anymore. If anyone deserves an award for ‘Most Improved Player of the Season’ my vote would go to him.
A big night in France
On Thursday, Emery will take us to play the Ligue 1 fortress Rennes. I don’t use the word fortress lightly but it’s entirely deserved. Since Julien Stéphan took over from Sabri Lamouchi, they’ve only lost four of their last 20 games – A run that includes 10 clean sheets and in beating a very modern Real Betis, that has had a lot of investment, over two legs, Stéphan has shown that he’s a very tactically-astute manager. Where they have played well is mostly in a 4-2-3-1 shape, they were versatile enough to be able to switch to 4-4-2 to play Betis and make it successful.
How they beat Betis
Under Quique Setién, the La Liga club have enjoyed good success in a possession-based 3-1-4-2 formation that sits with a very high line and dominates teams with constant penetrative vertical passing. Midfielders William Carvalho and Giovani Lo Celso have really seized their roles in this formation and they look an impressive technical team overall.
This season, Real Betis have beaten Barcelona 4-3 at the Camp Nou and inflicted a 1-0 victory over Atletico Madrid at home – a taste of their own medicine.
The second leg favoured Betis as they were bringing three away goals back with them to the Benito Villamarín. Stéphan’s men took a surprise 2-0 lead in the first 30 minutes through Bensebaini and Adrien Hunou.
Rennes used Ben Arfa to cut the passing lanes into William Carvalho which shut off Betis’ primary form of progressing the ball from their back-three into their midfield and were instead forced to look for longer, more direct balls towards their wing-backs which suited Rennes in their narrow banks of four.
Lo Celso and Sergio Canales tried to pick spaces between the lines but Rennes were far too compact and continually looked to Niang and Sarr on the flanks who were able to drive into space behind Betis’ wing-backs with pace and power but at times Betis were able to stretch Rennes out of their narrow shape and hit them in transition – this paid dividends as just before half-time, Lo Celso struck for Betis to make it 2-1.
In the second half, Rennes defended admirably and even found a killer blow with Niang’s 94th-minute winner. What Arsenal will face in Rennes is a pragmatic team under a big upward curve since Julien Stéphan took over.
They can analyse the team’s strengths and work as a unit to combat them. Old enemy Hatem Ben Arfa will surely be up for the challenge of another big performance vs Arsenal and his past poor relationship with Emery will only fuel that.
Emery vs Ole
The last time Unai Emery played United under Ole Gunnar Solskjær, it resulted in a 3-1 home defeat in the FA cup – a result he’ll be desperate to fix.
United have been stretched thin over recent weeks and have doubts over the fitness of former Gunner Alexis Sanchez along with Anthony Martial, Jesse Lingard, Nemanja Matic, Ander Herrera, Juan Mata, Antonio Valencia, Marcus Rojo, Matteo Darmian and Phil Jones. No doubt at least a few of these will be OK for Sunday’s game but first they’ll have to come through an imposing away tie vs PSG in the Champions League and because United are currently 2-0 down on aggregate, it’s not a game they can afford to rest anyone in.
Injuries aside, a reason to be fearful would be the recent form of Romelu Lukaku, a player who’s caused Arsenal a lot of problems in the past and is now on a run of scoring four goals in his last two games.
It will be interesting to see if Solskjær will persist with using a 4-4-2 diamond in his match vs Arsenal. And if Emery might be tempted into matching him up with a diamond of his own or if he’ll stick to our current 4-2-3-1 that seems to be picking up momentum or opt for the 3-4-2-1 that worked well when we played Bournemouth recently – Emery hasn’t been a coach that’s easy to predict.
The rotation will be key for us managing these two games with the results we need. Getting any kind of win vs Rennes would put us in a strong position for the home leg because of the away goals but judging by their victory over Betis, that won’t necessarily be the deciding factor and we should give them respect.
On the other hand, a win vs United would put us in a fantastic position for the top four. If we were to lose both games, it would put a huge dark cloud over our season that would be difficult to work through. We need to have it in our own hands and the United game is a definite six-pointer.
I trust Emery is currently scheming his plans for this huge week of our season and given that we’ve mostly looked very good at home against the top six this season, there’s every reason to be optimistic for the run. Two good results for Emery would not only fuel the team with confidence but it would surely fill them with confidence in Emery himself and his tactics/decisions (both of which have been questioned over the last few months.)