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Unai Emery’s Arsenal are in a crisis of identity

Unai Emery’s problems do not begin with transfers or the Arsenal players or even Mesut Özil; they begin with his tactical plan.

Huddersfield Town v Arsenal FC - Premier League Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images

Unai has an outstanding track record of success throughout his career, has developed some of the best young talent in Europe and plays an exciting, progressive style of football that fits Arsenal perfectly.

Ivan Gazidis, 23 May 2018

My idea is to be protagonists. The history here is a team that love playing with possession and I like that personality. When you don’t have possession, I want a squad that are very, very intensive with the pressing. The two things are important for me to be protagonists – possession of the ball and pressing when you don’t have the ball.

Unai Emery, 23 May 2018

How would you describe your style of play?

Each match, you are looking for every player to transmit intensity, aggression, to show that they want to win and are prepared to work hard to win. We want to do that with style, with a personality, with protagonists on the pitch. We want every player to create things and find things when they’re on the ball. When we are without the ball, we also want to show ambition to recover the ball quickly. We want to demonstrate that not only in every match, but also in every training session. We want our players to be energetic, full of action with or without the ball and as protagonists on the pitch doing things.

Unai Emery, 24 July 2018

It would be safe to say that nearly nine months after his appointment and eight months into his work at Arsenal, Ivan Gazidis’s assertion that Unai Emery plays “an exciting style of football,” and Unai Emery’s description of wanting to be “the protagonists” is far from reality. As Arsenal have regressed to their mean after a 22-game unbeaten streak, some stark truths have become apparent. Arsenal’s underlying numbers are worse now than they were a season ago, both home and away, and statistically, Arsenal have conceded more goals at this point in the Premier League than any Arsène Wenger side, bar the 2011-12 team that, of course, conceded 15 goals in their first five games of the season, and still finished third.

Indeed, what has tangibly changed from the low bar set by Wenger’s Arsenal last season? Arsenal are 11th in the league in tackles per game, as they were last season; 12th in interceptions, as they were last season, two indicators of whether a team is taking a more protagonistic approach. They catch the same number of players—2.3—offside per game. And having conceded the 6th fewest shots last season, Arsenal have now conceded the 10th most, conceding nearly 2 more shots per game, all while declining to taking the 12th most shots per game (12.2), having been 6th in that metric last season, having less possession, and passing at a lower rate; protagonists, indeed. The nadir was last Thursday, as Arsenal, effectively playing Emery’s preferred side, limped to a 1-0 defeat in the Europa League to a BATE Borisov side who had not played in two months, and were beaten 4-2 and 6-0 in last season’s Europa League by squad players.

It is fair to claim some mitigation for Emery. There are serious long-term injuries, to Danny Welbeck, Rob Holding and Héctor Bellerín, and he was only allowed to sign the lightweight Denis Suarez in January. Yet the claim that Emery needs multiple transfer windows contradicts his remit, to get Arsenal immediately back into the Champions League, and contradicts Arsenal’s transfer policy this past summer and January 2018, where they doubled down on the players they had, and invested in, among others, Sokratis, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Mesut Özil. There is a further uncomfortable fact: Emery only has a guaranteed 2-year contract, belying that, for Arsenal, they, perhaps unreasonably, expected a quick return to the Champions League.

With this group of players, Emery has lost the identity he spoke of at the beginning of the season. Rather than being protagonists, Emery now lines up with five defenders and two defensively-minded midfielders against two truly abhorrent teams, Huddersfield and BATE Borisov. When he was appointed, there was some expectation that Emery, a coach who puts a huge amount of his focus on the opposition, would take away some of Arsenal’s attacking potency, but would make the team better pressers and better organized defensively. Yet the second half of that bargain has failed to materialize. After speaking about pressing throughout pre-season, no one at Arsenal has mentioned it in several months, nor has it really been seen. In terms of defensive organization, Arsenal are seemingly getting worse, not better: per expected goals against, Arsenal are the seventh worse defense since the new year.

It is not much better going forward. Rather than having “every player create things and find things when they’re on the ball,” Emery’s attack is built on trying to slip the wingbacks or fullbacks behind for a cutback. The entire attack is now dedicated to providing through balls fore the wingbacks to run on to, a somewhat sophisticated version of, “get the ball wide, get chalk on your boots and get crosses in.” While this can be effective when it works, when it doesn’t, Arsenal have no other method of creating play—much as they created little after Emery, somewhat confusingly, took Kolasinac and Maitland-Niles off Thursday and ended the game with Alex Iwobi and Mkhitaryan playing wingback, after a rather odd 10 minute period of Aubameyang playing as a right-winger when Arsenal were a goal down.

A further problem is that endlessly trying to slip wingbacks in does not all Arsenal to be, in Emery’s words, protagonists. One way of being protagonists with the ball is to use it to control the game; to push the game into the opposition half and recycle possession, looking for openings. For Arsenal, though, in possession, that does not happen: there is not enough movement off the ball, with forward movement only coming from the wingbacks, the only ones to truly make threatening runs off the ball.

Arsenal in possession

In possession, Arsenal’s positional structure is problematic. The players looking to break in behind are the wingbacks, but with Iwobi, Mkhitaryan, Xhaka and Guendouzi, there’s a box behind those players looking to break behind. Yet, it all becomes very lateral rather than vertical; Xhaka passes to Guendouzi or the centre backs if a switch of play isn’t on. Furthermore, the technical level of the side is down. Rather than playing one-twos and combination of quick passes, Arsenal’s passing is very deliberate, allowing teams to set up into comfortable defensive positions. The level required to open teams up, then, requires two perfect passes: one to find Kolasinac, and the second to find a striker, meaning the football is pedestrian and predictable.

Arsenal in possession

Yet Arsenal are rarely playing well on the counter attack. An example of this comes from Thursday’s game: Granit Xhaka played Ainsley Maitland-Niles out following some BATE possession, and all of a sudden there was room to run; yet, Maitland-Niles didn’t have the numbers with him, nor easy passing options, outside of the one, Mkhitaryan, which could kill the move.

Arsenal counter-attack

Seconds later, the move was dead; a series of lateral passes were made, and then there was a misunderstanding between Iwobi and Lacazette, and the former passed the ball straight out of play.

Arsenal counter breaks down

Dominating through possession is not the only way of controlling a game and territory. It can also be done off the ball, through pressing. That, for example, is how Jurgen Klopp’s teams dominate games, and how Tottenham Hotspur can control games, even though their technical level isn’t high in midfield. This is done by imposing yourself on the opposition; by pressing and squeezing the space, much as Emery promised when he joined. This is something that can take time, but eight months on, one would expect to see some progress on that front.

And yet, after the beginning of the season, with an emphasis on more running and hard work, Arsenal’s pressing has pretty much disappeared, aside from certain big games at home—which may be tactical, or may be that the players get themselves up for the big games.

Arsenal’s Defensive Shape

Here, Arsenal’s lack of pressure gives the BATE players too much time to play the long passes that they wanted to play, both because of the agricultural state of the pitch, and their low technical quality, meaning that, despite having three-quarters of the ball, Arsenal didn’t impose themselves on the game—a feature of the last two months of Arsenal’s play, if not longer.

This is not new. Against Huddersfield last weekend (and against Cardiff two weeks ago, and West Ham last month, and Brighton in December) Arsenal displayed a lack of attacking ability, defensive vulnerability, and a conservatism that caused confusion among the players as they produced outright poor performances against low-level opposition that they should, with the quality at Arsenal’s disposal, be beating easily. Yet, the lack of an identity is leaving Arsenal adrift.

With a confused plan, there is only so much the individual players can do, especially when some of the better players in the team are being left out. Without a set identity, disjointed performances will continue to be the norm rather than a one-off that one can ignore. After the game, Emery said that the performance was similar to the Huddersfield, and he’s not wrong: under Emery, confused mediocrity is becoming the standard.

Indeed, before getting several windows to mold the team into what he wants, perhaps it’d be best if Emery were to first figure out what he wants his Arsenal team to be, and then communicate it to his players. Perhaps at that point, they may be able to lay a hand on teams like BATE Borisov, rather than playing a meek and confused style of football that leads to failure.