Arsenal fans of a certain age will remember the ‘boring, boring Arsenal’ chant that echoed throughout Highbury in the early 1990s. Back then, it was sang with a certain affection (as well as irony) – later morphing into ‘1-0 to the Arsenal‘ – as The Gunners used to grind their way to victories that was predicated on a defensive set-up that would shut-out opponents before stinging them on the break. These days, however, that sentiment is usually evoked after a performance where it’s felt that Arsenal are betraying their more recent past of promising attractive football. Against Bournemouth, the insipid performance was almost to be expected, yet it’s the absence of a clear identity that has left fans questioning their enjoyment of watching The Gunners play.
Arsenal writer, Tim Stilman, summed it up best when he says it’s the lack of style which makes watching Arsenal now, under Unai Emery different to Arsene Wenger, or indeed, George Graham. “Generally I’m not one of these people that needs to see Arsenal play lots of short passes or anything like that,” he says. “If the plan was for Arsenal to be a solid team that grinds out 1-0 wins and they did it well, I’d honestly be more than happy with that. I’m for any style that works. The issue is that I watch Arsenal at the moment and I still have no idea what they’re trying to do, and I think the players look as confused as I am. Of course I am more than happy with the victory, but performances are the long term indicator of team ‘health’ and I’m….not convinced.”
Unai Emery is keenly aware of the need to build an identity – indeed, he said after the 1-0 defeat of Bournemouth that “our objective is to win, but also how we want to win is very important” – and certainly, you can’t argue that he hasn’t tried; it’s just that his implementation has been hamstrung by mixed-up thinking. His promise of turning Arsenal into protagonists – of having “possession of the ball and pressing when you don’t have it” – becomes nullified on a match day, by his need to constantly adjust to the quality of the opponents. Speaking after the Bournemouth win, Emery said: “We need to adapt to the opposition. We knew Standard Liege (Arsenal won 4-0) usually use that build-up of possession and we prepared the match for that high pressing. On Sunday we are going to also prepare the match dependent on how Bournemouth want to play against us.”
And indeed, for the first forty-minutes, Emery got it right versus Bournemouth, with Arsenal pressing high and controlling possession. Yet after the break, the team withdrew into a shell as they sat back whilst their opponents attacked with greater intensity, and although they were rarely threatened, it highlighted the flakiness of Emery’s plans. Because, if the team is set up to believe that the opponent will cause a threat sooner or later, would your first reaction not be to play with the handbrake on instead of truly pushing on? Of course, that would be a bit harsh on Emery, and his professionalism of his players, but it is the job firstly of the coach to convince his teams of his plans, and he said after the game that, “in the second half, maybe because the first chances arrived very early, we lost a bit of that confidence.”
It’s a criticism we have heard of Arsenal in the past, suggesting that part of playing a dominant style is convincing yourself that you are the dominant team. Emery, it can argued, hasn’t put in a comprehensive plan. Instead, he believes that progress is made game-by-game, “little-by-little, to take one step ahead to play with that energy, that intensity with and without the ball,” yet it makes it sound as if he adjusting Arsenal’s strategy on the fly. Certainly, that he has struggled to stick to a favoured formation suggests more than that he is just adapting to the opposition, and rather, he is struggling to really underpin what he really wants to do with his side. All managers adjusting their systems during the season, but it can be argued that what Arsenal actually need is some stability.
We know that Emery prefers to use a double pivot, and indeed, before the Tottentham draw, which was his 42nd league game in charge, he had never used a 4-3-3 – the system that perhaps best suited to what he wants to implement. The systems that he used last season, the 4-2-3-1 or 3-4-1-2 always featured a double-pivot. If he did deviate from those formations, he tended to opt for a diamond system because it offers the two things that those two aforementioned formations have in common – the use of a no.10 to press, or two midfielders who cover the flanks (in a diamond, that would be the two shuttlers).
However, it seems that recently he has found a happy compromise – one which plays to the strengths and weaknesses of his personnel, and fits his ideal of pressing and controlling possession, whilst being adaptable if needed. We saw how that might work first against Aston Villa, where like against Spurs, he started with a 4-3-3, but once the opponents opened the scoring, he adjusted the formation somewhat to allow Dani Ceballos to move more freely from a left side position into a no.10 role. The Gunners fell further behind and once Ainsley Maintland-Niles was dismissed, Emery had to abandon the set-up. In the next game away to Manchester United he reverted to a flatter 4-3-3 set-up which was focused more on restricting the opposition. The two games following, though, Emery has seemingly found the balance he wants to take forward – an asymmetric 4-3-3 that transforms into a 4-2-3-1.
Emery started the game using Guendouzi towards the right in a sort of 4-3-3, covering for AMN-Pepe. Arsenal got caught on a couple of breaks, then Villa scored. After the goal, Guendouzi moved to the other side, with Ceballos playing more of a free role. Red-card really damaging. pic.twitter.com/1am4Gt5nla
— Arsenal Column (@ArsenalColumn) September 22, 2019
We saw how that works first in the Europa League against Standard Liege in where Joe Willock, playing in a right-central-midfield role, would start high, and then drop into pockets deeper if needed – especially when Arsenal dropped in their own defensive half. His initial remit, however, was to press up the pitch as a no.10, and then getting close to the striker when Arsenal attacked, often bursting into the box. Against such weaker opponents, the balance appeared much more dynamic but of course, that depends on the personnel available and it is argued that in cup competitions, the youthfulness, the lack of shoe-horning, actually brings a slicker, fluid approach.
In the league however, the build-up tends to be a bit more laboured, especially as Emery tends to favour having both Matteo Guendouzi and Granit Xhaka in the same side, both who tend to play behind the ball. That wasn’t that much of a problem in the first-half against Bournemouth although the possession orientated approach didn’t produce too many chances. Indeed, Emery’s approach at the start of matches tends to be about feeling the team way their into games, about probing and establishing a foothold through the game plan rather than taking an attacking mentality per se.
Against Bournemouth he used the amorphous 4-3-3, with Guendouzi as the balancing player in the system. He played mainly to the right of central midfield, staying behind the ball mainly whilst Arsenal attacked to cover for Pepe, whilst Ceballos, towards the left, was granted a bit more freedom to press and join the attack. It worked particularly well at the start because Emery knew that Bournemouth like to build up with a holding midfield who drops deep, therefore Ceballos could follow him central, whilst simultaneously blocking the right winger, Harry Wilson, from moving inside as he is instructed to do.
Arsenal using nominally what is a 4-3-3, but with Guendouzi playing very right-sided and mainly behind the ball, and Ceballos pushing into the no.10 position, morphs into a 4-2-3-1. pic.twitter.com/ET4XKlpzqt
— Arsenal Column (@ArsenalColumn) October 6, 2019
This saw the formation flicker between a 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 depending where Arsenal were on the pitch with at times Guendouzi even joining Ceballos in pressing up the pitch whilst the Spaniard himself might come deeper to collect the ball. The pair fulfilled their functions in the first-half very well with Emery saying that they showed “good positioning on the pitch to keep the ball.” Guendouzi in particular has become more crucial to Arsenal’s cause because he provides the balance when the full-backs push forward, shuffling across slightly to help Xhaka create a double-pivot if the build-up is more left-sided, and provide cover for Pepe if they attack down the right. After the game, Emery stressed Guendouzi’s importance, saying, that “tactically he’s improving a lot in defensive moments, and also with the ball. We need him.”
In the second-half, Emery admitted that he tried to get Arsenal to play higher up the pitch, therefore the two ahead of Xhaka were detailed more as interiors. “I wanted more control with the ball but to connect with Matteo and Ceballos. We needed the centre back and Xhaka to break the first line and connect with them. Maybe we used the long ball more than I wanted, rather than using our quality and capacity to control the match and help us.”
The performance after the break though suggested, as has been the case under the manager, that more work is still needed to bring the fluidity the system promises, and to unlock the team’s attacking potential. It’s still very rigid, very wing-focused, and lacking real connections beyond the ways of getting the full-backs forward. As such, the wingers, whilst looking very dangerous, only attack sporadically. They need to get them both on the ball more, especially Pepe. How Emery does that might come down more to trial-and-error – about how well he sees the players react to his little adjustments – rather than any real piercing insight.