“Trust the Process”. The quote made famous by the basketball team, Philadelphia 76ers, after the 2013-14 season when general manager Sam Hinkie took control of the team, it’s become the mantra of sorts for Unai Emery’s early days in charge of Arsenal. One the one hand, it suggests of course, the freshness of ideas that the new manager brings, but also of the need to move Arsenal away from the Wengerisms that still mark the team, and to a modern, Guardiola-influenced style.
There are two prongs to what Emery has tried to achieve – to gain more confidence in building up from the back and to aggressively press high up the pitch. So far, in the matches against Man City and Chelsea, the growing pains have been evident as Arsenal have made a number mistakes, and have looked exposed by the demands. Still, the signs are encouraging, and that was encapsulated best by Arsenal’s second goal in their 3-2 defeat to Chelsea, an eighteen-pass move which began from Petr Cech, and ended with Alex Iwobi arriving late in the box to score the goal.
The goal was a far cry from the troubles Arsenal had playing out from the back against Man City, and if the result is like this, Emery should be vindicated very soon for preaching faith in the “process”. It’s the other part of the philosophy, however, where results haven’t been so obvious. Yes, Arsenal pressed well in parts against City, but versus Chelsea, it was the failure to get out of their own half in the second period that contributed to their downfall. Emery wasn’t so clear why Arsenal dropped so deep. He seemed to suggest it was the inability of the team to push up the pitch, and subsequently, not allow the optimal positioning to press, which forced them to drop instinctively to their own box (rather than anything planned. Emery did replace Granit Xhaka for Lucas Torreira at half-time, the substitution which some suggested embody the reactive tactics in the second-half if not one of the contributors to it). Whilst Chelsea, on the other hand, also ramped up the intensity and kept possession so well that the ball hardly went out of play. “I think we conceded a lot to Chelsea and in the second half we need to keep control of the match, with the ball and with the positioning,” said Emery. “I think maybe in the second half we lost the positioning in the pitch and were too deep in some moments.”
One of the contributors to Arsenal’s suprisingly poor pressing has probably been Emery’s baffling decision to move to a 4-2-3-1 have deployed a (staggered) 4-3-3 in most of pre-season. He said that the “three in the middle” helps with the pressing, yet with players like Mesut Ozil, Xhaka and Torreira back, has seemed to try and find a way to fit them in. He also mentioned the other issue of maybe not having the correct profile in midfield to play 4-3-3 as most of his options are no.6s first, and not enough no.8s who can morph to no.10 or no.6s and vice-versa. “We can speak about the No 6, the No 8 and the No 10 [roles],” said Emery. “Torreira today is a six, eight. Normally every player has two positions – Torreira is six, eight. Maybe also Elneny is six and eight. Xhaka maybe also six, eight. Matteo [Guendouzi] maybe six, eight or eight, six.
“Maybe another player, a more attacking player like Aaron Ramsey, he is more of an eight, 10 – but this possibility to play with two or three midfielders, it depends on each match whether to change or not and the demand in each match. Whether we can do one midfielder more either more attacking or more defensive, it depends.”
Against Manchester City, Arsenal used the 4-2-3-1 with Aaron Ramsey in the no.10 position to aggressively press high up the pitch. Against Chelsea, it was Ozil who started behind the striker, but his role in the press was markedly different in that, while he would also help Aubemayang at times to stop the ball coming into midfield, he generally stayed tight on Jorginho. Xhaka and Matteo Guendouzi behind him then took Ross Barkley and Ngolo Kante respectively. Here, Arsenal used instead a sort of man-marking structure customised specifically for the way Chelsea build-up. Suffice to say it didn’t really work out as the Blues easily played through Arsenal, especially stretching Xhaka and Guendouzi sideways. Chelsea like to build with associations – triangles on either flank (Kante, Azpilicueta and Pedro on one side, Barkley, Alonso, and Willian on the other, more aggresive side) and as illustrated by the examples split Arsenal’s midfield, then took advantage with balls over the top as The Gunners struggled to get tight. Emery’s reaction in the second-half was seemingly therefore to drop off in the second-half and defend on the edge of the box to squeeze that space. By accident or design, however, it resulted in inviting more and more Chelsea towards their goal and it was no surprise that the winner came from Arsenal lacking an outlet to get out.
Early clips of the man-marking structure Arsenal used to press/defend Chelsea (Xhaka v Barkley, Guendouzi v Kante, Ozil v Jorginho) but look how stretched the two in the middle are as they look to follow man. Sarri-ball means triangles down the flanks, building through interiores pic.twitter.com/zIr5Na7IU3
— Arsenal Column (@ArsenalColumn) August 19, 2018
Essentially, however, in the first-half, neither side knew how to grapple with each other’s attacking system. Arsenal’s best moments were fleeting, though in them, created big chances. Ozil, Aubemayang, Mkhitaryan and Iwobi all missed from cutbacks or low, driven crosses. In these instances, Arsenal’s combination play was good, getting the really full-backs high, and allowing the two wide players to come inside and overwhelm the gapsto the side of the holding midfielder, Jorginho. Indeed, for the 18-pass move for the second goal, it was really enjoyable to see Mkhitaryan work across the pitch, overloading Jorginho’s zones before his low cross found Iwobi who similarly now drifted to the other side of the Chelsea man. Maurizio Sarri after the game, talked about how Chelsea in this period, needed to defend better the ball behind the midfield.
“We did very well in the last 25 minutes today, but we have to work and improve in the defensive phase, and we are not only talking about the defenders,” Sarri said. “If we want to defend by looking only at the ball, we need to stay very compact and press in the other half. In that 15 minutes, we were not able to do that, and so we were in trouble.
“We need to continue, and press and press and press in the other half, otherwise for us there may be a problem. We will be in trouble in the defensive phase and not able to move the ball like we did in the first 25 minutes. I hope in two months we will be able to play for 90 minutes like we did the first 25 minutes.”
The 2nd goal in full. Really enjoyed Mhkitaryan’s movement in this, moving from left to right of Jorginho to completely overwhelm him. pic.twitter.com/y2XBMCp0fb
— Arsenal Column (@ArsenalColumn) August 19, 2018
For Emery also, it is a work in progress. The signs are positive in terms of the philosophy, the process, yet it might be the manager himself, rather than the players, who need to be more flexible here. Traditionally, and Pep Guardiola has been caught on camera saying it too, Emery is a 4-2-3-1 man and quickly, he has reverted to it. He has shown adaptability at PSG, accepting the possession approach, and that has semingly changed his outlook. In an interview with Marti Perarnau, he said “..my two outlooks from a defensive point of view [are]: If the ball is in play, you press. If play stops, you reposition yourself. For me, the 4-1-4-1 is the system which facilitates that type of pressing. The 4-4-2 is designed more and more for zonal positioning. It’s less aggressive, but is more difficult to get past. That’s the case with Marcelino’s teams, Quique Sanchez Flores’ teams, Saint-Étienne when we last played them…
“I am not ruling out the possibility of a 4-4-2. That’s not the idea that I privilege, but if it allows me to be more competitive, then I’ll go towards it without hesitating. We sometimes used it in Sevilla. I would put Banega in a playmaker position, and have him move to the second striker position without the ball. With two strong, physical players behind him, it provided me with the necessary cohesion to press.
“In my case, the idea was not to win the ball back and counter as quickly as possible, but rather to equip ourselves once we had the ball. What Guardiola’s Barcelona did magnificently. We win the ball off of them, but those bastards always won it back. And Pep is doing it with City now. High pressure and win the ball back to start again once in position.”
In his first two games of the season, Emery has deployed a mixed approach of the two he described. The key is now finding the balance.