Can we go back to the international break? After two weeks to ruminate over Arsenal’s 1-0 win against Bournemouth, Unai Emery came up with the bold plan of trying exactly the same thing, against Sheffield United. It was, though, an away game, and thus Emery picked Joe Willock to play as the most advanced midfielder, asking him to make off the ball runs. After an international break where discussion around Arsenal centered around performances versus results.
In truth, Arsenal’s performances have not been good this season; nor can they claim to be unlucky. Through nine games this season, Arsenal have a goal difference of one; their expected goal difference is negative one. Only one game, Arsenal’s 3-1 loss to Liverpool, has been decided by more than one goal. Arsenal have been playing on the margins the whole season, and, many argued that if Arsenal continued to do so, games such as Arsenal’s 1-0 win against Bournemouth could easily be a 1-1 draw or a 1-0 loss. Such came to pass last night against Sheffield United.
Arsenal could’ve drawn yesterday’s game: Nicolas Pépé could’ve scored, or Mike Dean could’ve given a penalty for a shirt pull on Sokratis or the contact made with Bukayo Saka. Neither happened, and ultimately, Arsenal were insipid, taking just nine shots, despite trailing for an hour. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, nominated for the Ballon d’Or for his work over the last season, had one shot, and ended the game playing on the wing, with Martinelli wide on the left and Saka playing as a number 10, despite being exclusively a left-sided player. Aubameyang had an xG of .07; shockingly, it is his not lowest total in the last 6 months, with Aubameyang registering 0 shots in the 3-0 debacle against Leicester, and .05 against Crystal Palace (where Aubameyang scored).
Ultimately, Arsenal were matched by Sheffield United, newly promoted from the Championship. Rather than imposing themselves, or asserting their principles, Unai Emery had Arsenal playing reactively against a team newly promoted from the Championship, because Emery does not have any strong principles. He has been unable to settle on a system or ideas: Arsenal do not press, Arsenal do not possess the ball in the final third looking to dominate teams. In essence, Arsenal lack a clear structure of how to play. The one constant is that fullbacks get forward, but that does not help Arsenal’s structure, and nor will the insertion of Kieran Tierney or Héctor Bellerin into the team give Arsenal a clear identity.
Indeed, this is shown by the viral clip of Arsenal’s playing out from the back. Emery has imported the idea, but has failed to place the team in a structure that allows them to play the ball out well from the back. The back four sit deep, joined by the two central midfielders. The goal of playing out from the back is to invite pressure to then play through the lines. But while Arsenal invite pressure, there is no structural set-up to allow them to rotate possession; rather, they either have to play backwards, or square. The fullbacks get put into positions where they can either go back to a centre back, play a dangerous ball inside to a midfielder or play a hopeful ball down the touchline for a winger.
Arsenal trying to play out from the back (credit u/6l0th) pic.twitter.com/3TFfyhUpcG— Neil Macdonald (@NeilMac555) October 22, 2019
These are not new issues. They were present last season. Ultimately, Emery stumbled upon a system that worked, largely by bringing back the players he had discared in Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Özil, who gave Arsenal an understanding of an identity. That fell apart when Ramsey, now at Juventus, was injured. Ramsey last played in the Premier League on 15 April; since then, Emery’s side has played 14 league games, taking 19 points: winning five, drawing four, and losing five, scoring 20 goals and conceding 23. That is, at best, midtable form.
Even extending the run to nineteen games, Arsenal have 29 points, a ratio which, over a full season, would put them at 58 points, which would be the lowest total since 1995, where Arsenal finished 12th with 51 points. Over the last 19 games, Arsenal have scored 26 goals while conceding 25. The goal difference of one is indicative of Arsenal’s performances under Emery. Only three times have Emery’s Arsenal won by more than two goals in the Premier League, against Fulham, twice, and at home against Bournemouth last season.
Too often Emery brings Arsenal into games where the level is the same despite Arsenal’s tremendous attacking firepower and quality. This means that too much is left to luck; to things that can go your way, or can go against you, where you can pull back from a 2-goal deficit, as Arsenal did against Tottenham, or fall short, as Arsenal did against Crystal Palace last season, or you can protect a one-goal lead, as Arsenal did against Bournemouth, or lose it, as Arsenal did against Brighton.
Almost a quarter of the season has passed by, After an exciting summer, the reality of Emery’s football has brought the atmosphere surrounding Arsenal back down. Every week comes and goes, with hope that Arsenal will switch into gear, that the return of the full backs from injury, or Lacazette returning, or Emery bringing Mesut Özil back into the fold will see something change. But, ultimately, it will not. There is half a season of middling form, backed not only by what we’re seeing on the pitch, but by underlying statistics and analytics. Arsenal will not get better under Unai Emery. With Champions League qualification crucial, and Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur, and Chelsea leaving an open goal, it is time for Arsenal to move on from Emery, and find a coach who can get more from the sum of Arsenal’s parts rather than put the parts in positions where they cannot succeed.