Despite an 18-match unbeaten run, Unai Emery is yet to have a signature result, one that puts down a marker to the rest of the league. A 1-1 draw with Liverpool was encouraging, based on how Arsenal played against the top 6 last season, but it’s worth pointing out that Arsenal had two wins, two draws and just a solitary loss in their last 5 home against Liverpool. While the 5-1 win against Fulham and 3-1 win against Leicester were enjoyable, they weren’t a marker, given the quality of the opposition. On Sunday, in the North London Derby, Emery has a chance to get that monkey off his back and give Arsenal a signature result ahead of a crucial week, with a trip to Manchester United following on Wednesday.
Emery first came to wider prominence as manager of Valencia, in a series of matches between his side and Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona. The thread of those two matches was how Emery set up his team well to react to Barcelona, utilizing two left backs to great effect. This is a pattern of Emery’s, and why his teams are usually better in big games: he is excellent at setting his team up to counter the opposition. What he is less good at is reacting to the opposition, but doing so to impose his team onto the game.
In a sense, that is because Emery’s philosophy is opposition focused; the only constant demands of his teams are the forward movements of the full backs, playing from the back, and using attacking midfielders to attack and turn in the channels. Hence, at Sevilla, Emery won the Europa League, but never finished in the top 4, while his first season at PSG, when they failed to win the league, was characterized not by failure against the big sides (PSG got 12 points from 6 games against Monaco, Lyon and Marseille, and beat Monaco twice in the cups, 5-0 and 4-1) but by getting 1 point from 6 against Toulouse, and losing away against Montpellier and Guingamp. Indeed, that replicates some of Arsenal’s performances this season: the matches against Chelsea and Liverpool have seen Arsenal play well, and indeed, create more, and against Liverpool, defend better (against Chelsea and Liverpool, Arsenal’s xG has been higher than their season average; against Liverpool, Arsenal’s xGA was lower) than in their matches against most of the rest of the Premier League which might reasonably be characterized as unconvincing victories.
Emery switched to a back three against Bournemouth, for perhaps two reasons: a) not fully trusting Sead Kolasinac in a back four and b) because Bournemouth can use a 4-4-2 with split runs from Josh King, which allows David Brooks to run in behind, and thus by using a back three, Arsenal have a spare man at the back while still being able to use their full backs to create overloads higher up the pitch. There has been some suggestion that Emery could use a back three against Tottenham, who against Chelsea used a 4312, with Dele Alli man-marking Jorginho and Son stretching Chelsea’s defence. Yet Arsenal don’t build play as Chelsea do, with Xhaka and Torreira acting as double #6s, rather than a solitary playmaker from deep, as Chelsea use Jorginho. The likelihood, then, is Mauricio Pochettino deploys his side differently, and thinking of that, Emery will probably use a back four.
There is a second reason Emery will use a back four: it allows Arsenal to line up in a 4-2-3-1, which is his preferred system. It is Emery’s preferred system not for what it enables Arsenal to do with the ball, but what it allows Arsenal to do off the ball: to press in a 442 shape, with the number 10 and the striker closing down the centre backs and the midfield two protecting the centre backs. Arsenal pressed well against Liverpool, and the expectation will be the same here. Tottenham have been susceptible to pressing this season, and thus it should be the focus of Emery’s game plan. How well Emery transmits that into a plan, and how well he sets out Arsenal’s own ideas once they have won the ball will determine if he gets the signature win he needs.