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Unai Emery’s West Ham setup dilemma

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Unlocking Arsenal’s attacking potential will go a long way to enabling the Gunners to remain competitive in the race for the top 4.

Chelsea v Arsenal - Premier League Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

In a sense, the Premier League begins now for Unai Emery and Arsenal. That is not to say that they shouldn’t have tried against Manchester City and Chelsea, but that ending with 0 points from those two fixtures was a realistic occurrence. Last season, Arsenal got 1 point out of 6 from those two fixtures, as they did in 2016-17, losing to Chelsea away and drawing with Manchester City at home.

Arsenal’s failure to crack the top 4 in the last two seasons has not been down to results against their top 4 rivals, but rather, their failure against the Premier League’s lesser lights. Last season, Arsenal had the second best home record in the division, taking only three fewer points from home matches than Manchester City. Away from home, though, Arsenal were 11th, with Liverpool taking 16 more points and Chelsea 17.

Of the 15 games Arsenal failed to win away from home, ten were against teams that finished below the Gunners, and in five Arsenal had a lead, dropping 14 points. Add in draws against West Ham and Southampton, where Arsenal failed to impress going forward, and there are 18 needlessly dropped points against the Premier League’s lesser lights, and that’s before adding losses against Leicester and Stoke.

While Arsenal’s defence has, rightly, been the focus of those away performances, they were also notable for Arsenal’s toothlessness in attack. In home games, Arsenal scored 54 goals in 19 games; away from home, Arsenal scored 20 in 19. Unlocking Arsenal’s attack will improve the side away from home, and keeping that attacking thrust will allow Arsenal to maintain their excellent home record from last season. This, then, is the challenge for Unai Emery, and one that he should expect.

The strength of Arsenal lies in attack: in Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Arsenal have one of the best strikers in the world, an outstanding creative player in Mesut Özil, one of the best midfielders in the league in Aaron Ramsey, and strong complementary players in Alexandre Lacazette, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Alex Iwobi, who was excellent against Chelsea. How Emery orients these players against weaker Premier League teams will go a long way to defining Arsenal’s season.

In the last two matches, Arsenal have finished with both Lacazette and Aubameyang on the pitch, which happened throughout pre-season, with Aubameyang playing on the left. If Emery repeats that, he can use either a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3. With both, he can fit Mesut Özil and Aaron Ramsey into the team. In a 4-2-3-1, Emery could play Ramsey as a #8, with Özil at #10, with either Iwobi or Mkhitaryan out wide. Yet that seems unlike Emery’s style, and indeed, it seems significant that he said Ramsey is a number 8 or number 10. Rather, it seems more likely that Emery will play two from Granit Xhaka, Matteo Guendouzi or Lucas Torreira, and then Ramsey at #10, or with a midfield three with Ramsey in a deeper position, though not his best position, and Özil taking a wide role.

Özil would most likely prefer to play #10, and eventually there will be a reckoning with playing senior players in their preferred positions, especially if Arsenal continue to struggle, and Ramsey, in contract talks, would also prefer a central role, with the Welshman better from deep if Arsenal are playing in possession. If Ramsey is to be used as a #10, it’d best in a set-up similar to that of Wales during the European Championships in 2016: a counter-attacking set-up, with genuine wide players—either wingers or wingbacks.

Using a 4-3-3 may be the best compromise for all three. Ramsey would be deeper, Özil would play nominally wide but encouraged to use the half-spaces that Iwobi and Mkhitaryan used to great effect on Saturday, and Emery would have the defensive protection of two of Xhaka, Guendouzi and Torreira that he seemingly craves. In possession, there is not a whole lot of difference between this shape and a diamond 4-4-2, as Emery encourages both full backs to high up in possession, as opposed to Arsène Wenger, where fullbacks where used to build play, and add width and runs in a secondary phase, and Aubameyang is effectively a striker playing on the left rather than a genuine wide forward, and his partnership with Lacazette is a classic-partnership between two strikers, with Lacazette able to drop deep and link play.

This may suit Arsenal off the ball, especially in games that they will want to dominate, as Emery prefers:

What I like is provoking the opponent. It’s a more aggressive idea, which exposes you more. Bielsa’s style, Guardiola’s style. When you lose the ball, you win it back as quickly as possible. Anywhere the ball may be, the team has to position themselves to press and win it back. If play stops, everyone goes back to their position. If the ball is in play, we press, all while remaining organised tactically.
Those are my two outlooks from a defensive point of view. If the ball is in play, you press. If play stops, you reposition yourself. For me, the 4-1-4-1 is the system which facilitates that type of pressing. The 4-4-2 is designed more and more for zonal positioning. It’s less aggressive, but is more difficult to get past. That’s the case with Marcelino’s teams, Quique Sanchez Flores’ teams, Saint-Étienne when we last played them…

Playing in a 4-3-3 makes pressing in a 4-1-4-1 shape a natural transition, for they are effectively the same system. Using a 4-4-2 shape, as Arsenal sort of did against Chelsea, makes sense, knowing that the opposition are going to try to dominate possession, and thus make it more difficult for them to play through you, though it didn’t work like that for Arsenal. In games that they will have to dominate, aggressively winning the ball back will allow Arsenal to remain on the front foot, and make the team harder to beat on the counter-attack.

Emery’s task is to make Arsenal harder to beat, and more organized. Yet he also has to maintain Arsenal’s strong form at home last season, and make the team a better attacking unit away from home. That is where the strength of the team lies. With an average centre back pairing and goalkeepers, Arsenal are always liable to concede, but by being able to utilize the talents of Ramsey, Özil, Aubameyang, Lacazette, Mkhitaryan and Iwobi, Arsenal will be in the running for a top 4 spot. How Emery sets up in games that Arsenal should win—effectively, everyone outside of the top 6—will go a long way to showing how far Arsenal will go in that race.