Unai Emery is going to be gone soon. That much is inevitable, as even Arsenal executives’ glacial reaction to Arsenal’s struggles has finally seen them begin to admit, through leaks, that it isn’t good enough, and that Emery won’t turn things around. In truth, Emery was always a weird fit for a team that has such attacking players, and defensive weaknesses. Perhaps Arsenal were enamoured by the Europa League track record, or just felt that he was a safe choice who could provide the team some structure, despite justified concerns from a number of people who were aware of his track record. In any case, Arsenal got the appointment wrong, and it is important they take lessons away from the experience so that the club isn’t back here in 12 months time.
Indeed, one of the key issues for Emery, beyond the fact that he isn’t very good, is that under his reign, Arsenal’s attacking players have been marginalized. This season alone both Mesut Özil and Nicolas Pépé have spent time in Emery’s doghouse, with Emery playing all four together for only forty-five minutes as he chased a win in last weekend’s 2-2 draw with 19th placed Southampton. The marginalization of Arsenal’s attacking players has seen the Emirates go from a fortress—Arsenal had the joint best home record in the Premier League in Arsène Wenger’s last season—to a stadium where the 19th placed team in the league who lost 9-0 two match weeks ago feel justified in not winning 3, 4, or 5-1.
Ironically, Emery recognizes this, but, in a statement that completely sums up the disastrous miscalculating of his reign, feels the need to blame the fans.
Emery: "My wish is the supporters help the team because we need them. Our confidence depends a lot on how we feel in our stadium with our supporters. Teams are coming here fearing us less and this is the first thing we need to change." #AFC— Sam Dean (@SamJDean) November 27, 2019
The fans have perhaps been apathetic, but they are responding to the football on the pitch. The atmosphere is nowhere near as toxic as it was at the end of Wenger’s reign. Boos have been mild in comparison to results. But all of this speaks to a greater truth: Arsenal need to get back to winning football, and the best way to do that is through leaning on the attacking players.
Arsenal have an imbalanced squad. Having sold Alex Iwobi and loaned out Henrikh Mkhitaryan, there isn’t a natural senior left-sided player, and thus getting Aubameyang, Lacazette, Pépé and Özil into the team together will mean someone plays out of position. But Arsenal have to find a way to play three of them, while not resorting to featuring only defensive players in the rest of the side. They have to find a way that means Arsenal attack with numbers, getting players into good shooting positions, and taking more shots. These elements will give Arsenal a greater chance of winning, for two reasons: it’ll put opposition sides under pressure, giving Arsenal more control of matches, and instead of leaning on weak players, like David Luiz and Sokratis, it means Arsenal will lean on the stronger players in their side.
Under Emery, Arsenal have been cautious, with poor positioning and bad possession play. This means Arsenal concede possession in dangerous areas, and make their attack less threatening. The cascading effects are to concede territory and shots, putting their frail defence under pressure. It will not be enough to move on from Unai Emery; Arsenal will also have to decisively move on from his style of cautious, safety-first football.