The rumblings started early, far earlier than anyone expected at a post-Arsène Wenger Arsenal. After a wave of pre-match optimism, Arsenal were back, conceding routine goals and making comedic errors at the back. The error that caused the fans to turn was Petr Cech nearly guiding a square pass intended for Shkodran Mustafi into his own net when Arsenal were already one goal down. Afterwards, Cech was greeted with ironic cheers whenever he successfully played a pass or went long. Cech, as he admitted, struggled to play from the back and it cost Arsenal against Manchester City in attacking terms. We’ve already asked if the right players for the system were used; the corollary to that is to ask whether the right system was used.
As I’ve written before this website, Unai Emery wants his side to be able to play from the back. Having goalkeepers comfortable on the ball, a midfielder, the #6, dropping into the line of centre backs, the full backs pushing forward and the wide midfielders coming inside is part of Emery’s style of play. Emery’s play off the ball may differ based on the opposition and the individuals and their roles in attacking play may change based on who Arsenal are facing, but there are broad principles to his style of play.
Yet, Manchester City are one of the best pressing and counter-pressing teams in the country, conceding the second fewest shots per game after losing possession, and taking the second most shots after pressing according to StatsBomb, in addition to their fantastic possession play. The teams that have done the best against Manchester City usually did so through fast, vertical play around lines of pressure, looking to get into one v ones and overlaps against their individual defenders, as Liverpool did in the Champions League quarter-final. Unai Emery would’ve likely been aware of this, yet persisted with playing through the back, rather than a more direct approach. Perhaps, then, a more pragmatic approach would’ve been smarter?
Emery, though, would argue that his approach is pragmatic. For one thing, Arsenal don’t have the players to play a direct style of play without playing through pressure. Arsenal don’t have a wide forward in the style of Sadio Mané or Mo Salah; nor do Arsenal have a hold up player, such as Olivier Giroud. The way for Arsenal to hurt Manchester City would be by using Arsenal’s strengths: the creativity of Mesut Özil, the running of Aaron Ramsey, the movement of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool all suffered poor seasons following the appointments of Pep Guardiola, Mauricio Pochettino and Jurgen Klopp; while City gained more points than the last Manuel Pellegrini campaign, they were well off the pace, and didn’t win a trophy. Tottenham and Liverpool both had worse seasons. Yet all are now in better positions than they were before those hirings; the establishment of a style of play, although perhaps contributing to some lost points, was more important in the long run. The same dilemma faces Emery. He could make Arsenal a more pragmatic side, in the sense of being more direct, utilizing the fact that Petr Cech is uncomfortable playing short passes, that Bernd Leno isn’t the best shot stopper, and Granit Xhaka can lose the ball too easily under pressure.
It wouldn’t, though, solve essential issues for Arsenal. They’d still succumb to pressure on the ball, resorting to hitting longer, lower percentage passes, resulting in losing the ball higher up the pitch. Since Leicester won the league, teams have adapted to counter-attacking teams, adjusting positioning to make direct play less successful. The space that Leicester had in front of them in 2015-16 no longer exists; for example, Manchester City now use the pace of Kyle Walker to not only supplement attacks, but also to be infield as a third centre back, behind the midfielder Fernandinho.
By persisting with a style of play that necessitates playing the ball out from the back, Unai Emery is accepting some short term pain for greater gain. It may not happen all the time this season, especially as the pieces that Arsenal have at the back may not completely suit the style of play. That, though, is part of the process of changing a side, and in accepting that it may not bear out in results, Emery is actually being realistic, betting that it will be more pragmatic in the future for his team to be able to play out against the best counter-pressers, rather than play long balls, isolating the attacking strengths of his team.