Understanding Unai Emery’s tactical philosophy: wide overloads
At his first press conference, minutes after the conformation of his somewhat-surprise appointment as Arsenal manager, Unai Emery promised the Gunners fans and the football world that he would continue to impress upon his players the attacking philosophy that had been a staple for years under Arsene Wenger.
“I would rather win 5-4 than 1-0,” the Spaniard said, and during his first season in charge, he seemed to have little choice, as the defensive frailties that had also been a staple of the club for years made a high scoreline almost a formality
However, as the season wore on, another problem emerged for the Gunners, particularly in the middle period of the season, where Emery experimented without Mesut Özil and Aaron Ramsey.
This problem was creativity. And it stemmed from an imperfection in Emery’s approach, in the pursuit of perfect practicality.
Emery favours attacking football in most respects. He believes in possession as a primary weapon of control in matches, favours a proactive press in defence, and pushes his fullbacks high to generate overloads wide of the box. He likes dexterity to be coupled with practicality in his players.
However, it is his commitment to an extreme form of wing play that is causing problems in Arsenal’s attack. Examining why Arsenal continue to relentlessly pursue wide-overloads, the theory behind this sort of build-up is two-fold.
A defensive attack
Firstly, progressing the ball down the flanks, moving the central midfielders wide of their more natural positions provides a natural defensive cover without needing to be defensive. Losing the ball in these areas, particularly out wide, in the middle third of the pitch, is far less dangerous than losing the ball in the centre of the pitch.
This is because the opposition must complete one extra pass to create an attack from wide (usually a counterattack in these scenarios), allowing Arsenal’s players, particularly the opposite fullback and central midfielder to the side the ball is lost on. This allows Arsenal to flood extra numbers back and reduce the risk of leaving one or two defenders exposed, as consistently happened during the final years of Wenger’s reign.
Further to this point, the pass that the opposition must complete from wide to create a genuine counterattack, if Arsenal have lost the ball in the middle third, is a ball from wide to the centre, which is a risky pass to attempt for a number of reasons.
In the ensuring chaos, players are neither organised in attack, nor expecting to receive a pass, and the consequences of a misplaced pass are dire: an Arsenal interception with high numbers of players forward and a moderately disorganised opposition defence, having just begun the transition into the attacking phase of their build up.
As such, the potential catastrophe associated with such a pass means that opposition players are unlikely to attempt it, instead favouring recycling possession to their defenders and beginning a slower build-up, allowing Arsenal time to drop back into their mid-block and begin their press.
You can’t idiot-proof a system
It should be said, while this thinking: to build-up wide in order to protect the defenders from being exposed is very defensive, ultimately, the biggest improvement in Arsenal’s defence will likely come from personnel changes.
The flaw in Emery’s thinking here is that Arsenal will be any better defensively by sacrificing the potency of build-up simply to allow the team to defend in numbers. Ultimately, the same personnel will still make the same individual errors that consistently cost the team points.
Arsenal can have more numbers in defence all they want, but if those numbers are still going to give the ball away in dangerous spots, consistently foul opposition players in and around the penalty area, and miss obvious runs at set pieces, the team will still concede high numbers of goals. It really is that simple.
Favouring realism over idealism
The other reason for Emery favouring a wider build-up is less defensively-minded, and more a weighted judgment about chance quality vs. chance creation.
It is simple tactical theory that it is easier to get the ball into the box from wider areas, this was the thinking behind the famous ‘P.O.M.O.’ coaching in England throughout the 1980s and 90s. Hugging the touchline allows players to more easily manipulate defenders and create opportunities to get the ball into dangerous areas.
It’s a theory Emery is working with at Arsenal. Arsenal’s football has been aesthetically unremarkable for much of the Spaniard’s management, but it’s also practical. Sead Kolasinac is a great example of this. The Bosnian is not a great defender, as is well known, but also has consistently poor passing and crossing numbers, suggesting he’s, in fact, not that good a player at all.
However, his positioning in attack is excellent, and is a personification of the philosophical belief underpinning this part of Emery’s plan of attack for Arsenal: ultimately, if you can consistently create moments of opportunity, regardless of their quality, you will create goals.
Emery believes that creating 12 lower quality opportunities – speculative crosses, usually low – than six higher quality opportunities – for example a striker receiving a pass in the box, by sheer force of numbers.
There’s some logic to support this, not least that it gives Arsenal’s strikers more opportunities to score, and this is further reasoned with the fact that their superior finishing ability will somewhat negate the lower quality of chances. Arsenal, on the whole last year, seemed to have a good season in attack, scoring above 70 goals in the league, which is usually a good measurement of this.
A weaker attack, despite the goals
However, there are also significant downfalls to this approach, many of which were shown by Arsenal last season.
The first is simply numerical evidence. While Arsenal scored a lot of goals, they scored a lot of goals at home, and an average amount away (notwithstanding their literal inability to keep them out at the other end when not playing at the Emirates). This suggests that many goals were scored by teams looking to chase the game and Arsenal exploiting the spaces that a team doing this will naturally leave more of.
Further, if you remember Arsenal’s winning run between September and December, one of the quirks of it was a remarkable amount of second half goals scored. All this lends weight to the fact that while Arsenal scored a lot of goals, they didn’t score the right goals, at the right time, in the right matches, ultimately failing to qualify for the Champions League.
Factually, Arsenal are simply accumulating less xG, less shots and less of the ball. The numbers don’t lie. Building play from wide has stifled Arsenal’s attack.
Perhaps the more obvious effect a wide build up is having, though, is that it’s stifled the effectiveness of Mesut Özil to such a degree that despite having the largest contract in the squad – a reflection of his importance at the time of signing – he is no longer more than a bit-part player.
To get the best out of the German, Arsenal need to give him a lot of the ball in dangerous areas – i.e. in the centre of the final third. Özil is extraordinarily good at retaining the ball in the final third, good at progressing the ball in the final phase of Arsenal’s build-up, and able to pick out key passes that most players could not, opening up opportunities that other players could not create.
By playing wide, and restricting Özil’s ability to have the ball in dangerous areas, Emery is effectively guaranteeing that Arsenal won’t create the ‘out-of-nowhere’ chances that scored the club so many goals under Wenger.
There’s realism in idealism
Perhaps it is the latter reason why Emery’s football looks so unremarkable when compared to Wenger’s. Ultimately the Spaniard has made a choice to sacrifice creative risk in favour of a guarantee of a glut of low-quality opportunities, with adding defensive solidity.
Yet you can’t account for tactical solidity until you have the personnel to carry out defensive duties properly. And you can’t score consistently without allowing players who create those opportunities to score to have the ball in the areas where they can create.
Emery was an appointment hailed for its practicality, and a manager hailed for his too, but Arsenal are slowly discovering there’s a fundamental realism behind idealist philosophies in football.
It creates chances, despite its imperfections, and ultimately if Arsenal aren’t brave enough to try to score, they simply won’t score.