There’s not a lot to learn from preseason, even when your manager of twenty-two years has been replaced. Arsenal fans turned in with more interest to watch Arsenal play against Boreham Wood, Atletico Madrid and Paris St. Germain, but in reality, there wasn’t much different between Unai Emery’s preseason and Arsène Wenger’s last preseason. While there may be a more concerted effort to press, the most obvious change was Arsenal’s deepest midfielder, the #6, dropping in between the centre backs as Arsenal built attacking play, and as Eddie Nketiah noted, one major difference between the two coaches is an emphasis on structure in possession.
At the Arsenal fan event in Singapore, one fan asked about the differences in training under Wenger vs Emery and the response from Eddie Nketiah included "... possession is more structured with Emery".— Defence (@rudhran78) July 25, 2018
What we can conclude from three games of preseason, though, is that Emery is going to play some variation of 433 or 4231. The difference between the two comes off the ball, as Emery noted. If Arsenal play 4231, it means playing Mesut Özil as a number 10, and dropping into effectively a 442 out of possession. If Özil doesn’t play as a number 10, it means playing a central midfielder—Aaron Ramsey, for example—as the highest midfielder. In the first game in Sinagpore, against Atleti, Ramsey and Emile Smith Rowe played ahead of Matteo Guendouzi, with Ramsey the higher of the central midfielders, Smith Rowe balancing and Guendouzi the #6.
This has personnel ramifications. If Ramsey is played as the highest of the central midfielders, it means Özil playing wide on the right, and two of the other attacking positions being taken by two from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Alexandre Lacazette, Henrikh Mkhitaryan or Alex Iwobi. And if Ramsey is played in a deeper position, it means either Lucas Torreira, a £25m signing, or Granit Xhaka, who played in all 38 of Arsenal’s league games last season, being left out—along with one of Özil, Mkhitaryan, Iwobi, Lacazette or Aubameyang.
This amount of depth is not necessarily a bad thing. For one thing, injuries are almost guaranteed to happen, and competition for places is never a bad thing. On the other hand, Arsenal have a top-heavy squad, with a lot of players who might reasonably expect to play, and managing players happiness will be a demand asked of Emery—one that did not always happen when he was at Paris St. Germain.
Where Arsenal’s high-profile players end up playing, and their general deployment, will speak a lot to Emery’s plan and style for the season. Is there an agreed upon first XI? Is it more attacking based, featuring Ramsey deep, Özil as a #10, and Mkhitaryan or Aubameyang out wide? Or is it a more conservative style of football? Or, does the plan change based on context—home or away, who Arsenal are playing, whether they’ll face a pressing team or a team that sits deep? One way for all of us to begin to find our feet after twenty-two years of Mr. Wenger will be to examine how Arsenal’s stars are deployed, and what they’re asked to do.