It’s February, which means we’re well past the half way point of the first Premier League season without Arsene Wenger since 1996. While less than a season is definitely a small sample size, particularly against the 22 season sample that preceded it, this seems like a decent time to take a look at Unai Emery and Arsenal and ask a few questions.
This look will not be statistical - we’ve got plenty of folks doing that for us. No, this look is more hypothetical, if you will, based on the general...discomfort? Discontent? Unhappiness? Pick your word, but there’s a lot of unease floating around Arsenal these days, and a lot of it seems to come from the man at the top, or more specifically, some of the choices he has made and continues to make this season.
I am not here to defend Unai Emery, nor am I here to condemn him. I’m here to try to unpack the issues he’s having and try to understand what can, should, and probably will happen next. Many of the following issues come with the standard caveat that I don’t see or have any insight into training, so I don’t know what happens there that makes Emery choose the way he does; all I know is what I see on the pitch.
ISSUE #1: Playing players out of position
He’s been doing this since day one. He’s often played Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang wide, despite the fact that he’s historically been - and prefers to be - a centrally deployed striker. It could be argued that, as the league’s second-highest goalscorer this season, it’s not the worst thing in the world to play him out wide, and results do matter, so while this one’s a head-scratcher, I can’t really get too angry about it, because it’s working.
He’s also tinkered a lot with the positions of Aaron Ramsey and Alex Iwobi, to mixed effect - again, neither one being played out of position is a disaster, but in Iwobi’s case, it also feels like being in an unsettled position is holding him back a bit.
There have, to be fair, been a number of relocations done out of injury-cover necessity, like Granit Xhaka and Sead Kolasinac, but the arrival of Denis Suarez might help ease those necessities just a bit.
ISSUE #2: Not playing your best player
A lot has been written - here and elsewhere - about Unai Emery’s refusal to use Mesut Özil, either as a starter or as a sub. Özil didn’t even see the field against Manchester City. I’m not going to talk about that in depth here, we know it’s an issue; what we don’t know is why.
Whether there was a training ground disagreement or whether Emery just doesn’t see a place for Özil in this squad, something’s not right. If it’s the former, there’s blame to be placed on both sides, but if it’s the latter, I do have to question Emery’s vision and tactics, because if you can’t find a place on the pitch for your best player, even if the players around said best player aren’t super great, that’s kind of on you.
ISSUE #3: Why not attack?
Regardless of who you have on the pitch, the point of soccer, last I checked, was to score goals, which enables you to win games. It’s debatable that getting into an attack mindset against Manchester City is a good idea, sure, but watching Arsenal in the last couple months has been an exercise in frustration, as promising buildups lead to cutbacks that, more often than not, lead to turnovers. I’m not sure what the origin of this style of play is, and it’s clearly not a constant (they attacked a lot against Spurs, for example), but the more they do it the more frustrating it gets.
What does all this mean for the future? Is #EmeryOut a thing?
For me? No. Don’t misunderstand: I’m not happy with what and how he’s doing right now. But the operative words in that sentence are “right now”. Unai Emery has been in charge for eight months, and he inherited a squad that had a whole lot of problems. They conceded 51 goals last year, and they’re on pace to concede 55 this season; whatever you think of him and the job he’s done so far, he absolutely did not walk into a situation where he was set up to succeed instantly.
I know how, at the top level of sport, there’s very little patience for evolution and change - we as sports fans are conditioned to expect that change equals instant improvement. Plug in a new player or coach and it’s a whole new world, right? Um, no.
Now, does it happen that way occasionally? I mean, sure, it can - just look at the red half of Manchester for an example of that. But also, look at that squad - the baseline of that squad is arguably better than the one at Arsenal. They were in a better place to start with, despite their trash heap of a manager, so when they got rid of that problem, they were much more able to turn on a dime than Arsenal are.
I’m not going to tell you how to think about Unai Emery. I will, though, tell you what I think. Despite the fact that I’m not happy right now, I’m willing to let this season and, crucially, next summer, play out before I start screaming for heads or pleading for patience. The job Emery’s doing right now is the job I expected any new Arsenal manager to do - hold things steady, and not take a gigantic step backwards.
Is that satisfying? Not ultimately. I’d class it as more of a baseline, a baseline that’s frustrating on a weekly basis but that is not the worst thing in the world going into Emery’s first transfer window with, as has been reported, resources at his disposal.
I don’t believe that one summer will make all the difference in the world, any more than I believe that after two-thirds of a season Emery should have turned Arsenal completely around. I do, however, believe that if he can bring in a couple people that fit what he wants to do, particularly in defense, the change we all want will start to happen. So I’m willing to be a little patient. Besides: if Emery gets the boot right now (not in the summer, right now), who is around and available that could do better?
I will say this: if I’m still writing this type of article in January of 2020, that’s going to be a problem.