Everything looks worse in the winter. As the days become shorter, grayer and colder, and the realization that one will spend the next few months cooped inside grows, flaws appear. The same goes for Unai Emery’s management of Arsenal. After a glorious autumn, where Arsenal, perhaps inexplicably, racked up 22 games unbeaten, the flaws, both of the side and of Unai Emery’s coaching, have come to the fore as Arsenal have lost three of their last six Premier League games, falling six points behind Chelsea in fourth.
The line of thought recently with Emery has been the idea that he does not have a clear plan or identity for Arsenal. This is, of course, in comparison with Jurgen Klopp’s first months at Liverpool, which, while producing inconsistent results, also showed some grasping with Klopp’s style of football. In recent weeks, Arsenal have looked bereft; very little pressing, very little proactive football. This is in direct contradiction with pre-season. But yet, this might also be what Emery wants. He has spoken of imposing ideas, and process, and having been critical in the beginning of the season, his criticism has dried up, with Emery saying of Saturday’s defeat that Arsenal, creating the lowest xG since the first game of the season, against Manchester City, that Arsenal were “unlucky.”
Indeed, it must be considered that this, the run of games over the last 6 weeks, is the football that Emery wants. It features much of the concepts that have been behind Arsenal’s play this season: two number sixes, who do not push forward, a number 8 playing as a number 10, whose main role is spreading the ball wide for the fullbacks, who provide most of the attacking thrust, and slow passing at the back, with possession between the goalkeeper, center backs, and midfielders, trying to draw out the opposition as the fullbacks push forward to create overlaps.
While cutbacks can be an incredibly efficient way to score—just see Manchester City—it is also difficult to impose over 90 minutes of football. It demands physical effort from fullbacks, who are of course, defenders, not attacking players; it demands consistency in the final pass, and most fullbacks do not have consistent final passes—if they did, they’d be wingers. Finally, the best teams that use attacking full backs, such as Manchester City, use them in a number of ways; to create overlaps, but also space for wingers, through overlaps or underlaps; to make the pitch larger, opening up more space in the middle. The best teams have variation in their attack, and attacking structure.
This is not the case for Emery. In Arsenal’s structure, the full backs become the primary deliverer of the final ball. The function of the midfielders is to get the ball wide. Arsenal do not utilize the middle of the field or combination play, for there is no longer the numbers to have combination play: the midfielders sit, Iwobi looks to combine with Kolasinac, and then there are two strikers. The ability to play quick one-twos is no longer readily apparent.
All of this is coupled with a now non-existent pressing structure. Arsenal play a high line, but in recent weeks without pressure on the ball, the result being that Arsenal are worse defensively this season, both in raw numbers, and with underlying numbers. Emery is either unwilling, with the team seemingly unable to press, to structure the team any different, or he is happy with the current defensive structure.
The problem for Emery, and for Arsenal, is that last season was considered the floor. In their effort to bring themselves off the floor, Arsenal went for the quick fix to get straight back in the Champions League. Twelve months later, though, and Emery’s football looks as badly suited to getting back into the Champions League as late-era Wenger did. For Arsenal, a quarter into Emery’s guaranteed two-year contract, the lack of progress is an affront to a front-office group that guaranteed a new start (perhaps anustart), rather than another Groundhog Day.