Few news stories are genuinely surprising any more in football.
All of the biggest transfers are rumoured weeks beforehand, and – when they come close to fruition – it’s leaked comfortably in advance. Likewise, all the major publications have a good feel for which managers are going to get sacked long before the axe descends.
I think that’s why yesterday’s news – broken by David Ornstein on Twitter – was so surprising. As a concerned Arsenal fan closely monitoring the situation, I hadn’t heard Unai Emery’s name linked to the opening a single time. In fact, only a few days ago it seemed like Arteta was a done deal.
Then – bam – it’s Emery.
My initial reaction was… pretty extreme disappointment. I’d started off with dreams of Allegri, like most Arsenal fans, then started to reconcile myself to Ancelotti… then Enrique… All of them big names, and even bigger winners. Emery – in my mind – was linked most prominently to back-to-back Champions League demolitions.
I took a little time, did a little research, and calmed down pretty quickly.
Now, I’m at a place where I like the appointment. A lot.
I’m going to whip through a quick profile of Emery, for those not acquainted with his work, covering his history of results and tactical preferences. Next, I’ll give my own thoughts on the appointment. Finally, we’ll finish off with some questions for the future.
Let’s get to it.
Unai Emery – A Profile
Nationality: Spanish (Basque Country)
Playing Career: 14 years, all in Spain
Managerial Career: Lorca Deportivo; Almería; Valencia; Spartak Moscow; Sevilla; PSG
Win Percentage As Manager: 53.5%
Trophies: 3 x Europa League; 1 x Ligue 1
Other Notable Achievements: Won promotion in first season with Lorca, and first season with Almería. Finished 3rd three times with Valencia, under difficult circumstances.
- One word that keeps coming up time and again, in relation to Emery: tactician. This is a coach who is obsessive over attention to detail, and spends countless hours pouring over film.
- Drills tactical discipline into his players.
- Has a history of bringing youth through. At PSG, he helped Adrien Rabiot, Giovani Lo Celso and Presnel Kimpembe to kick on.
- Mild-mannered, and non-confrontational.
- Favours a 4-2-3-1 formation, with high pressing and quick transitions.
Is Unai Emery a dream hire? Of course not. But the more I look at this, the more I see it – appraising the situation realistically – as an ideal appointment.
Again, the word everyone uses about Emery is “tactician”. God, won’t it be refreshing to have someone in the dugout who actually – you know – cares about tactics? At Sevilla, Emery would routinely swap between a more attacking, intensive, pressing approach at home and against smaller teams, and a more defensive, disciplined, counter-attacking approach away and against bigger teams.
This isn’t exactly rocket science, but it’s more than we were getting under Arsene Wenger. Results like the 2-0 away to Manchester City in early 2015 (and how sad is it that that game still gets brought up so often?) stand out precisely because they were so rare. That day we dropped deep and played compact, counter-attacking football. The tactic worked perfectly… and was barely heard from again.
Whether we were playing Blackburn or Barcelona, Wenger refused to change his pass-happy, attacking approach. Our current team simply isn’t good enough to play that way. Emery might be less of an idealist and more of a pragmatist than Wenger, but that’s exactly what we need right now.
Above all, we simply need to stabilise. We’ve been slipping backwards year on year in the league, and we need to arrest this fall as soon as possible. In European terms – embarrassing as it is to say or type – we’re a top end Europa League-level club right now. We should realistically be winning that competition, and Emery managed to do exactly that with a Sevilla side no better than our current Arsenal one, three times on the bounce.
We need to stabilise. We need someone who’s going to be smart about the league, and get us back up to fourth place, before we even think about challenging for a title again. We need someone who’ll give us a good shot at winning the Europa League, then – when we do get back to the Champions League – to become a serious, latter-stages team again; a tough out, and not just a punching bag.
We also need someone who’s going to bring youth through at the club. Firstly, because we’ve got some extremely promising young players (Maitland-Niles, Nketiah, Willock and Nelson are all exciting English prospects), and secondly, because lord knows we haven’t got the money to buy our way out of our current predicament.
Finally, we need someone who, tactically-speaking, is going to instill some bloody discipline in this team. Someone who teaches the players to hold their position, to read the ebbs and flows of the game, to cover each other.
Emery ticks all of these boxes.
Is he going to transform the “culture” of the club? Probably not. It’s hard to read anything into his time with that ridiculous, egomaniacal PSG squad, but he certainly had no effect whatsoever on their personalities.
One step at a time, though. Again, for now, let’s just put an actual tactical system in place. Let’s become a difficult team to beat again. Let’s work on fixing the undoubtedly talented players we’ve already got. Héctor Bellerín looked a world class right-back at 19; that player’s still in there somewhere. Mesut Özil has run midfields at Real Madrid and for Germany; let’s put him in position to do that for us too.
The Arsenal pantry isn’t bare. It’s stocked with nice, if not exceptional, ingredients. In recent years, we’ve had a chef who thought he knew the recipes so well that he didn’t need the book, and the meals gradually turned out worse and worse and worse. Our new chef swears by the cookbook; follows it to a tee. Let’s give him a chance, and see what he can whip up.
Questions for Next Season
I don’t want to get into transfer speculation. Anyone who thinks Arsenal are just going to buy in a new, world class spine for the team is deluding themself. The money doesn’t seem to be there, and it’s not like Aubameyang-style, “great player in the wrong situation, doesn’t need to go to a top club, just wants out”-style players grow on trees anyway.
Let’s work with what we’ve got, and what we know, right now.
1) What Tactical System Will Emery Play?
This is the big one.
Emery’s preference is for a 4-2-3-1, with two holding midfielders and overlapping full-backs. It’s the system he used at Sevilla with such success, and he tried to use it at PSG too… only to be effectively forced out of it by the players.
I’d be very, very excited to see this formation at Arsenal.
With two holding midfielders, our shaky defence (which we’ll surely upgrade) gets the cover it needs. Admittedly the only holding midfielder we actually have now is Elneny, but if Xhaka – for example – could have a huge amount of tactical discipline instilled in him, he’s certainly got the physical attributes to do the job. I – and every other Arsenal fan on Planet Earth – would also hope we’d buy in at least one more in the meantime.
This, in turn, would help to free up our already-exceptional quartet of attackers from defensive duties, and to effectively operate as their own unit.
Özil, in particular, would finally be given the straight-up number 10 role which he so desperately needs in order to run the game.
Probable lineup for next season, with anonymous new players, (and sans specific shirt numbers):
2) Who Benefits Most From the Change?
Özil. One thousand times, Özil.
The guy has borne the brunt of Arsenal fans’ frustrations, particularly this year. Meanwhile, he’s frequently shunted out to the left side, and has been since he arrived; he’s surrounded by underperforming players; and our attacks, in the past couple of years particularly, have been incredibly static. If nobody’s moving, and nobody’s getting open… who is he supposed to set up?
Stick him right in the middle of the park, help him save some energy instead of tracking back and helping to cover the flanks, and let him work his magic. If we do play more of a counter-attacking style, with Özil being the chief playmaker on the break, he could well become a monster next season.
3) Who Are the Odd Men Out?
- Granit Xhaka
I’d happily drive him to the airport myself today, if given the chance. People point to his “good games” as evidence that he’s improving… but he’s always had “good games”. Unfortunately, his bad – or usual – games cost us entire matches.
His positioning and general awareness is awful, his tackling is poor, and he simply always feels like a mistake waiting to happen. His passing isn’t as good as it’s made out out to be, and certainly isn’t good enough to justify his seemingly unshakeable hold on a first team place.
From a tactical perspective, he just doesn’t fit this system. Arsenal fans thought they were getting a holding midfielder when he arrived. He looks like a holding midfielder. But he’s not.
I don’t see the Arsenal board simply giving up on Xhaka, only two years after splurging £35 million on him (which they’d never get back now), so I guess he’s sticking around. It will take a huge turn of events, however – and a huge amount of effort and coaching from Emery – to transform him into a player that’d fit the system.
- Alexandre Lacazette
I think Lacazette is a very good player, who would’ve had a much better season if he was in a team that played to his strengths (not pinging high balls two feet over his head, as Arsenal did against Atletico Madrid in the second leg, for example).
Unfortunately, he arrived at the worst possible time; i.e., just before Aubameyang also arrived. Auba is a better player and a better goalscorer, so he deserves to start up top. The space behind the striker is taken by Özil, and the right-wing is taken by Mkhitaryan. That leaves the left wing. Lacazette is a decent enough link-up player, and he works hard… but I don’t see him as a long-term solution on the left wing.
Wenger did start Lacazette and Aubameyang together a few times towards the end of last season, to decent effect, and interestingly it was actually Auba who tended to naturally drop off to the left. Playing against the bigger teams, however, I wouldn’t start either of them out there; and – again, even though I think he’s a very good player – Lacazette seems the odd man out for me.
From a position of disappointment and/or outright anger, I’ve performed a complete 180 regarding Emery’s hire.
If we look at Arsenal’s current circumstances, in realistic terms, he ticks every box we could really hope for. Above all else, as I think I’ve made clear, I’m looking forward to watching a manager using actual tactics in a football match.
In fact, let’s chop that last sentence down a little. I’m now actually “looking forward” to seeing Arsenal play next season. That’s something I couldn’t have said if Arteta had taken over, and certainly couldn’t have said if Wenger was still at the helm.
And so, for what it’s worth, Señor Emery, you get a hearty greeting from this fan.
Welcome to Arsenal.