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Unai Emery’s tactical flexibility has to be based on stable principles

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Emery has gained a reputation for being tactically flexible, but too much flexibility has the risk of becoming chaotic

Wolverhampton Wanderers v Arsenal FC - Premier League Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images

Although he has officially been at Arsenal for almost a year, conversations surrounding Unai Emery still take on a large degree of guesswork. In a sense, we’re still getting to know Emery. This is perhaps a natural consequence of moving to a new manager after 22 years. It also speaks to differences between Emery and Wenger. Whereas Arsène Wenger was always loquacious with the press, and how he wanted his teams to play, Emery is reluctant to speak. His press conferences reveal very little, and his club interviews reveal even less. Indeed, not really since his introduction to the club have we had a long conversation with Emery about what he wants; and what he said then is completely different to what we see now.

Arsenal’s frequent formation shifts under Emery has led many to say that the manager is a flexible pragmatist. While he is certainly pragmatic, the flexibility is interesting. In previous jobs, Emery was known for exclusively being a 4231 manager. He tried to implement the system at PSG, but switched back to 433 because the players preferred that system. When he started at Arsenal, he used 4231 for much of the beginning of the season, before switching to a back 3. That one cannot predict what system or lineup Arsenal will use under Emery certainly points to flexibility. But that is not entirely a good thing.

At certain points this season, Arsenal’s players looked unsure of what they were being asked to do. This is an important consideration in terms of flexibility. Plenty of managers are flexible in terms of systems: Pep Guardiola changes his system, Mauricio Pochettino utilizes a back three, a diamond midfield four, and a straight forward 4231, and even Arsène Wenger dabbled in a back three in his last season and a half at Arsenal. The thread there, though, is that the players know what to do because the guiding principles remain the same even if the system changes. That means that what the teams do with and without the ball is based on the work that they have done throughout a season of training and coaching sessions. With Guardiola, for example, his changes doesn’t mean that all of a sudden he’s going to make Manchester City a counter-attacking team that will cede possession and sit deep; they’re still going to impose their passing game on the opposition. Spurs will still press heavily. Under Emery thus far, there aren’t principles that remain as the system changes at Arsenal.

In a sense, Emery’s pragmatism and flexibility is hampered by not having these principles. There have been earlier questions about Arsenal’s identity, questions that increased as the Gunners frittered a top-four place away, although getting to the Europa League final has quieted that conversation. But a year on, we’re no closer to knowing what Emery wants his Arsenal team to do. Throughout his tenure, many have drawn on comparisons to Jurgen Klopp and Pochettino’s first seasons at Liverpool and Spurs. And while the point totals were underwhelming, there was at least a shaping of identity, and the beginning of principles. With Emery, the unknown means it’s hard to say whether he’ll be successful next season. Indeed, even if he beats Chelsea on Wednesday, we’re not necessarily closer to understanding what Arsenal will look like next season, and that, more than results, is what matters in measuring Arsenal’s development.