Bukayo Saka, Arsenal’s chief off-the-ball threat

You’ve probably seen the video by now; Pep Guardiola is with Raheem Sterling on the training ground offering, very animated, one-to-one coaching with the winger on how to position his body to receive a pass, so that he can become a more effective attacking threat. The video then shows Sterling putting those teachings into practice by scoring a goal using almost exactly a mirror-copy of the movements Guardiola wanted him to produce.

In that season of 2017/18, Sterling exploded into form, scoring 23 goals in all competitions whereas previously he had never managed more than eleven. This transformation is outlined in an article for The Guardian, titled “The Romario-fication of Raheem, which itself is an excerpt from Pol Ballus and Lu Martin’s book, Pep’s City: The Making of a Superteam. I will use a select few quotes from that piece, and things that Mikel Arteta has mentioned during these last two seasons about Bukayo Saka, to highlight how the Arsenal youngster’s development in some ways echo Sterling’s.

But to first go back to that goal. Sterling has just dropped off into a bit of space just outside the opposition area, having deduced, by scanning over his shoulder, that if a defender tries to engage him, he can simply spin behind. That split-second advantage is crucial because Sterling, as Arteta says, for one has the acceleration that is hard to stop, but also, he’s positioned his body shape perfectly to get the return pass that Ilkay Gundogan plays to him. “If he’s found a space about three metres off his defender but he’s half-turned towards the goal,” says Arteta, “then his sprint takes him much more quickly to a space where he can shoot and that’s going to cause the rival much more damage. It’s also a tactic, dropping off a little, so that your defender gets drawn into a position he mightn’t want to be in. It leaves space behind him and Raheem can attack that space. If it’s close to, or in the penalty area, they also have to hesitate before putting in a challenge.”

Certainly, it’s by using this type of movement which you feel has set Bukayo Saka apart these last few months, transforming him from a left-sided utility player to a right-winger who is arguably Arsenal’s chief outlet. His most recent goal, against Benfica in the first leg of the Europa League, showed exactly that as Saka was rewarded for his persistence to just want to be there, a menace, all the time operating on the fringes of Benfica’s offside-line and threatening to run behind. Indeed, he eventually did, turning home at the end of an attack which began because of the run he made, latching onto a brilliant long-pass from Dani Ceballos.

Feb 18, 2021. Benfica 1-1 Arsenal – Saka scores

Pep Guardiola talks about Romario at Barcelona where, when as team-mates, when he saw the striker, on the “the half-turn, with his shoulder dipping as if he wanted the ball fed into his right or left foot, I knew he thought he could explode away from his marker. In that instance I always hit the pass immediately. Every time. I’d learned that his vision meant he’d had one eye on the distance between him and the opposition goal and the other eye on where the ball was. If he opened up his body shape like that and I fed him the ball, the defender was automatically done for.” For the Benfica goal above, there looks to be a fledgling relationship building between Ceballos and Saka, and indeed, in the first game that Saka was used by Arteta in the right-wing role, a 2-0 win in July 2020 versus Wolves, we can see Ceballos motioning to Saka during the drinks break how to make those runs (see here). The youngster has developed massively in that aspect in the last few months – certainly since Christmas – but with Ceballos featuring less, it is Thomas Partey now, who is the player from deep, that is the main benefactor of those runs. His passes to Saka over the top were a key factor initially in Arsenal’s 2-1 defeat to Wolves in February, and indeed, this analysis uses that game against Wolves and their encounter as mentioned already in the previous season where Saka was first used by Arteta at right-wing, as a convenient bookend to try and highlight how the youngster has improved with his movement behind.

Of course, there have been many standout moments for Bukayo Saka in between (and after) that period, the most high-profile being the comeback he inspired Arsenal to in the second-leg against Benfica. In that game he turned provider, stepping in from the inside-right channel to slip in Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang for the first goal, and then for the winner, crossing for the striker. In those two moments, Saka illustrated again his incredible ability on the ball, both in the effortlessly way he glides with it and his delivery of the final pass.

It’s with these strengths that he initially caught the eye of Unai Emery, the manager who first gave Saka his full debut as a 17-year-old, saying after his first start (a 1-0 win over Qarabag), that Saka showed great “personality to continue trying to do one-on-ones and break lines with his quality.” It would take a while for Saka to add a third dimension to his game – the ability to run behind – because emergency measures meant he was to be drafted into left-back and, he did so well there that many people felt it’d be his best position. (Indeed, Marcel Lucason, Arsenal’s Director of Development until November 2020, said: “Bukayo Saka is the best example of where we want to go with Arsenal. In the youth he was a winger, but because he is not Leroy Sané in the small spaces, he will not get further than the thirty best players in the world in that place. As an emerging wingback, he can become one of the best three in the world, because there is no one at speed to stop him and he can develop defensively with good coaching. With Mikel Arteta, these types of processes will hopefully gain momentum, because in terms of vision he is not far from what we want…”).

It’s interesting to note, however, that during the period Saka filled in there, Mikel Arteta was careful not to pigeon-hole him into any such role, often choosing to focus on in interviews, Saka’s continued development. Certainly, during his time at Manchester City, whilst he was being groomed as an eventual successor to Pep Guardiola, behind the scenes, Arteta was viewed as someone not necessarily devoted to the tactics board, but more as an educator, more invested in finding gains in the most tangible aspect of what makes a football team: the players. In Pep’s City: The Making of a Superteam, Arteta said his role there really was “to look for what’s missing in a player’s game. If I spot something, there’s no point in waiting for the guy to tell me about it. He might take three months to get round to it. Opening up like that to a coach, pointing out your own weaknesses, that’s not easy. What we do is create a safe place so that the players feel comfortable about sharing with us. That way we can then give them the tools to make the improvements they need.”

That was probably important for Bukayo Saka for whilst Arteta never publicly held reservations about his defensive acumen, Saka initially was reluctant to play at wing-back, saying that even when Ljungberg moved him to there, he was mainly willing to “master” the position so that he could learn how to “assist and score goals for the team.” Ljungberg still practiced with him how to run behind, but with needs must for Arsenal after Emery was sacked, Saka understood that this would have to be his role during the transition period.

Arteta always had it in the back of his mind to see Saka in the front three, and the tinkering of positions actually allowed him to gauge what Saka is good at, and then adapt his expectations based on that. “Bukayo is doing what he is doing because last year in certain moments he was managed and he was changing different positions,” Arteta said in January. “People would say ‘why? He needs to stick to one position’ but no; he needed to get richer in his understanding of the game. ‘He’s always a left-back, he needs to play left-back or on the left’ but no, he can play as an attacking midfielder as well.

“Then we see the cohesion he finds within the team and the position where he can be a game-winner, which he has the ability to do. Where is that position? Where are we missing a player like him? Then we try to fit him in and then we give him the games and consistency in the position, but first we have to find it.”

Saka first exploded into life on the right-flank in the 3-1 win against Chelsea, and his rapid adaptation was probably facilitated by Arteta finding a link-minded soul to partner him in Emile Smith-Rowe. With the pair now starting together in two of the three forward roles behind the striker, the manager’s previously fixed style now seemed naturally more fluid. Arteta explains his style: “For me, the way we occupy space and who is going to move in there is more important than the formation. And from there we have some very similar players that are not used to play in those positions so we have to keep changing the formation a little bit”. Thankfully, by finding Smith Rowe, he settled on the 4-2-3-1 and now with Martin Odegaard added to the side, he has the tools to keep developing Arsenal’s football.

Saka’s impact has stunted in the last few weeks, yet Arteta still continues to rely on him because in games where he doesn’t produce, his movement is still top-notch. In the 3-3 draw against West Ham, you could see how Saka was always buzzing in the spaces between the opponent’s defence and Odegaard especially seems to appreciate it.

March 25, 2021. West Ham 3-3 Arsenal – Snippet of Saka’s movement and relationship with Odegaard

Saka looks extremely natural now at right-wing, however, looking back to when Arteta first used him there, against Wolves last season, it’s quite notable how uncomfortable Saka found it playing in the role and being asked to do all these things. He still scored though, repaying Arteta’s faith, but the manager’s notes after the game was that the move was probably too early; he would have to revisit the transformation at a later date. “He has a lot of things to improve, that’s my message,” Arteta told Arsenal Digital. “He struggled in some moments in the game today in the first half. “I [played him] in a different position because I believe that he could hurt the opponent in there and he scored a really good goal. But what I like is that when things weren’t going for him, how he reacted and the personality to try and get the ball and fight for every ball and keep trying. He got rewarded.”

July 4 2020, Wolves 0-2 Arsenal – Saka first-half

In the compilation above, (of only the first-half – recorded on my phone!), I kept the build-up longer so that it could show how clumsy Saka looked initially at right-wing, at one point (5:06), not paying attention to the opponent and running into him. There is a notable difference between his performance above, in comparison to his performance below 7 months later against Wolves the same opponents, as Saka’s movements are much cleaner, more aware of his surroundings. He seems to be able to compute better the multitude of factors he has to consider before making his runs and threatened to score a number of times. Indeed, he probably should have with the chance early on, springing onto Thomas’ long pass. It’s the type of movement Ceballos was coaching him during the drinks break in the first Wolves game (4:27). Not only is the body shape better, more at an angle, rather than back to play, he is aware that there are other ways to skin a cat; stretch the pitch to play it into a teammate in space, or use the one-two. 

In the defeat, Saka also had another chance (1:25 below), getting onto a cut-back – which is actually an Arteta special, and it seems one Nicolas Pepe has mastered – which would have mirrored the goal that Saka actually scored in July 2020 against the same team (6:09 above).

Feb 2, 2021. Wolves 2-1 Arsenal – Saka first-half

Of course, because the off-the-ball improvements are more palpable, you might tend to overlook how effortless he makes things look on the ball. There is a graceful glide to the way he dribbles with it, displayed not only at right-wing, but when he played on the left-side, and from a starting position, the almost imperceptible shuffle that he has that lets him sidestep quickly from his opponents. That ability has probably been there from the start and likely didn’t need much nurturing, but encouraging. Fredrik Ljungberg notes that what separated him from the rest when Saka was younger was that simply “he knew what he was doing [at all times]. He played the right ball when he needed to…he’s not scared of things he can’t do and wants to get better all the time.”

The goal that Saka scored against Brighton was actually one that Ljungberg said he worked on with him, driving with the ball, because “in the beginning of his career, he got stuck with the ball, and he lost it” and praised his decision after to square the ball simply to Lacazette, “it’s not so easy”. For this goal, Saka showed his ability with his back to goal, something that stood out under Emery which suggested that he could adapt to a forward position. Under Arteta, he does this less often because his body shape is generally more at an angle – though he’s still supremely good at fending off defenders as shown by the clips I’ve posted against Wolves – which allows him to see more of the pitch, and with the way Arteta instructs his players to take up positions on the pitch, he is able to make more of a difference. As Arteta has said recently, “you can see that his teammates trust him.. and that’s great because then you don’t have one or two players, you have more players“. Saka has really learnt how to balance between coming to the ball and spinning behind, such that he is arguably the chief outlet for this Arsenal side, overtaking Aubameyang as their main goal-threat. Certainly that’s the area Saka confirms he’s focused on more now, and he will surely only get better. “Last year I created a lot of chances,” Saka said. “This season I’ve worked hard to improve my goal scoring.”


Arsenal 3-1 Chelsea: Arteta finds balance by going back-to-basics

Could this 3-1 win against Chelsea breathe new life into Mikel Arteta’s reign as Arsenal coach and kick-start the season? One would certainly hope so, because all the good things in display in this victory – high-intensity, purpose, confidence – have sorely been absent in the seven-weeks or so previously.

In that sense, you’d hope it’s not a one-off, because Chelsea are the type of opponents Arteta, in his one-year in charge, has traditionally favoured playing against – those who tend to have more of the ball, those have pre-set patterns of play, and that make it easier to prepare against.

Indeed, Mikel Arteta spoke about before the game, before Arsenal’s chastening 4-1 league cup defeat versus Manchester City, that he has “zero interest in ball possession. I’m interested in what we do with that ball and how efficient we are.” In that respect, the upcoming games against Brighton, Crystal Palace and Newcastle United, where Arsenal are expected to have more of the ball, will be a bigger indication of how healthy the team are under Arteta, whether the green shoots of recovery displayed here are longer term.

In any case, Arteta prepared the team perfectly against Chelsea from the off, using a 4-2-3-1 formation we have infrequently seen since he took over. The shape, first of all, provided a solid springboard for Arsenal to press and counter-attack, making great use of the youthful and energetic line-up the manager selected. The tempo was set in the midfield. Arteta knew that Frank Lampard likes his three central midfielders to line-up, almost flat, across the pitch; Ngolo Kante holding, with Matteo Kovacic and Mason Mount to the right and left of him respectively. Therefore Arteta essentially asked his three in the middle to man-mark (see image at top). However, this loosely included Mohamed Elneny – ostensibly the deepest midfielder – because he didn’t want him dragged out and lose structure, so he instead asked Bukayo Saka to shift inside and block Mount. So in a sense, it was 4v3 in the centre. Arsenal completely nullified them there such that Lampard was forced to make a change at half-time and push Kante to a more advanced role to draw the attentions away of Granit Xhaka who was marking him.

The other noticeable thing about the change in shape – or rather formation – was the relaxing somewhat, of the positional play philosophy that Arteta has attempted to implement since be took over. There were still specific instructions given to players about which areas of the pitch to occupy – for example, as mentioned, Saka was asked to move inside from the right flank, which in turn allowed Hector Bellerin to hug the touchline; whilst Emile Smith-Rowe was mainly told to gravitate towards the left as Gabriel Martinelli joined the centre forward, to create a certain symmetry in the build up – but overall, the positioning seemed less restrictive.

Perhaps it was more noticeable in this game because Arsenal eschewed possession for a more direct approach, and in the coming matches we may see a return of the former approach. Yet, it has also been evident in the lead up to this game that Arteta has loosened his ideals a bit, so as not to let his players be bogged down by the extra instruction, and to help them concentrate on their game. Previously, he had resorted to the 3-4-3 formation that had generally served them so well at the start of this, and towards the end of last season, but that only had its benefits to a point.

Initially, Arsenal were very good at playing out from the back, the formation morphing into a sort-of 4-2-4 to beat opponents press, yet over time, the team struggled increasingly in the middle and end parts of the pitch. Fans have tried to stay positive throughout this period because it was clear that it was the one high-class skill Arsenal had, of which allowed them to compete against the bigger sides particularly, but they had hoped Arteta would build on it and add other other traits, such as quick combinations and cut-backs which we saw when he was coach at Manchester City. However, the attack quickly deteriorated and in the end the team lacked ideas such that it restored to spamming crosses. As Thierry Henry said of Pep Guardiola, his job was to put “everything in place to get the ball up to the final third of the pitch and then trusts his team to finish the job in the only area of the field that can’t be planned for.

It can be argued that the team was never really suited to playing this way and the ideals needed scaling back. Even at the start of Arteta’s reign, his team struggled to hit many shots, xg continues to plummet, whilst now, it seems that this Arsenal is the least creative of incarnations we’ve ever seen at the Emirates. Arteta is aware of this this issue saying by losing these no.10s, Rosicky, Wilshere, Ramsey, Mhkitaryan, Iwobi, he’s had to try and recast this side, find different ways to attack. “Liverpool, for example, do it in a different way,” he says. “Without using the pockets in that manner, and they are still very effective. You see the assists created by their two full-backs compared to the No 10s that Manchester City have, for example. It’s an equal number but a completely different style. So there are different ways to do it.

That “different” way was probably highlighted best when Arsenal beat Chelsea 2-1 in the FA Cup final. In winning the trophy, Arteta seemed to have assessed the profile of his players such that he didn’t necessarily need to use them in their best positions, but used them in he could take advantage of their strengths. Therefore, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang still played a mainly left-sided role, but he had freedom to make the runs as he might as a central striker, as much as possible. Alexandre Lacazette dropped off and linked play like a false 9 (which in turn, bolstered the midfield); Hector Bellerin and Nicolas Pepe seemed more in tune with each other than before, whilst on the other side, the positioning of Mainland-Niles and Kieran Tierney allowed the formation to switch seamlessly to a 4-4-2.

But as mentioned, since about November 1, when Arsenal defeated Manchester United 1-0 in the league playing this same way, things have dissipated. That one way of playing became predictable, stale, and effectively lacking cohesion in the final third. It will be interesting to see if this Chelsea win becomes the template.

Certainly the personnel chosen brought renewed zest to the front line. It also seems like Arteta went back to basics somewhat and allowed the players to use a bit of their intuition to figure out what to do. That was highlighted by the improvisation shown by Saka when chipping the goalkeeper for Arsenal’s third, whilst the inclusion of Smith-Rowe signalled the need to have players who can take control of the ball in the final third. The youngster played in the no.10 role, mainly towards the left-side, but would follow the ball to the right if it went there, and indeed, came up with the assist for Saka’s aforementioned goal by drifting to the flank. Smith-Rowe viscerally makes Arsenal look more fluid because his understanding of space is superb, knowing which areas to occupy and when. Arteta loves these players and indeed, it makes implementing his positional style easier. He’s very much hands-on still with how he wants his team to but players like Saka, Smith-Rowe just make it seem a bit more off-the-cuff.

Peviously, it may have been argued, shorn of such individuals, he tended to overcomplicate the way Arsenal attacked, putting too much emphasis on coaching to get it right. (For example, he asked the team to look to create triangles on the flanks in order to get into good areas to cross the ball, but by doing so, he took a bit of initiative out of the side, and inventiveness).

Granit Xhaka also had an exemplary game, scoring a stunning free-kick for the second, and playing a gorgeous pass to Kieran Tierney in the lead up to the opener. His role noticeable shifted too, less concerned about dropping into left-back, and more central to play. He really sensed the spaces to be when Mohamed Elneny moved towards the right slightly, and then was able to pick up the ball in central positions and spray passes.

This Mikel Arteta’s 53rd game in change of Arsenal, and broadly, you could say that this was his third formation change – going from the 4-2-3-1 he started with, switching to 3-4-3 and then now settling on a back-to-basics of sorts 4-2-3-1, but without the numerous positional distractions. One wonders how the system develops because it’s expected Arteta will want more control, more domination. But for now, he’s not too concerned with that. It’s all about moments; what you can do with it when you have it. Certainly, it’s the time for Arteta to deliver at Arsenal.

Fulham 0-3 Arsenal: Arteta builds on from where he left off + AMN role

There were 11 passes that led to the goal, however, all but one player featured in the build-up. It was the same story when Arsenal scored two more goals of startling similarity – against Liverpool in the Community Shield and in the semi-final of the FA Cup versus Man City – to add to the most recent, the third in Arsenal’s 3-0 win over Fulham in the new 2020/21 season. They were all flowing team goals, yet, despite not being involved in any of them, Ainsley Mainland-Niles has still seen his stock rise from bit-part player to a crucial member of Mikel Arteta’s new Arsenal. 


Watch the goals again, and you’ll see that Mainland-Niles has an underrated role, a sort of a high-class decoy, by taking up positions to allow Arsenal to progress the ball freely. Against City, he acts as the extra midfielder, occupying De Bruyne to make sure he can’t press high up the pitch. Whilst against Liverpool and Fulham, two which goals are very alike, he makes runs beyond Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Mainland-Niles’ spacial awareness is very evident in those two goals, as he starts in a central position, but then bursts up the pitch to take runners away with him opening up the space for Aubameyang to shoot. 


It’s this role which has made Mainland-Niles indispensable to Arteta recently, because his positioning, more than others it seems, allows Arsenal’s system to readily morph between a back 3 and a back 4, or rather, a 3-4-3, to a 4-3-3/4-2-4. (Though Kieran Tierney also lays a good claim to that because he flits in between a left-sided centre-back and a wing-back, but then again, you can pinpoint others who have amibiguous, and amorphous roles – Aubameyang for example constantly switches between winger and a striker, whilst Bellerin and Willian can be seen stepping inside). AMN’s positioning is perhaps more extreme. In the game against Fulham, I observed 5 different functions he undertook at various moments, depending on where he moved on the pitch.


Rio Ferdinand gave a good breakdown on this on BT Sport: “Maitland-Niles is a wing back and when you speak about wing backs you’d expect him to be in the wide areas, coming out consistently throughout the game. He’s done anything but that, he comes in, passes the ball and his first run after that is to run inside and create an overload in midfield. He comes straight into the midfield area and what that does is it causes confusion and causes them to have more numbers in there than they’d usually have.

“After that you’ve got the width being created by Aubameyang, your main goalscoring threat, and the left-sided centre-half, Tierney, he’s the man who creates the width. It’s so different to what you expect from a three at the back. You normally see it being quite rigid and you know where people are. When you’re a player out there and you don’t see players in the positions you expect to see them in, that is a confusing element. That’s what Arteta seems to be doing and we see are they a well-drilled team.”

Yet, despite this multi-pronged role, Mainland-Niles seems both there and on the fringes at the same time. At Craven Cottage, he only completed 36 passes which is quite low for a wing-back (compared to Bellerin with 55). In fact, Tierney is the usual outlet on that side. What AMN does well if he doesn’t get the ball, is assume the role of facilitator by either overloading the flank, or moving inside to make the extra man. Arsenal can then do a number of things from there; go wide, hit Aubameyang early (or even play the ball to AMN spin a pass around the corner) or give space to Xhaka to come to the ball. Against Fulham, Arsenal favoured the left side from deep because they knew they out outnumbered their opponents there, and then after drawing them to one side, were able to switch the ball across. Goals one and three were expertly crafted in such a way.

The presence of Gabriel further allowed to build on that left-side bias as he naturally shaped to go down that flank.

It’s to be seen whether Arteta can make the adjustments that still make Arsenal effective in the same system without a player like AMN. Saka can feasibly play that role, although, the manager has said the aim is for the team to have more tricks up it’s sleeves. He said that he would like to have more “versatility. We will be more difficult to control if we are able to master two or three different formations without driving the players crazy. Always with the same principles, but being able to change system, and to attack and defend in different ways.”

Unai Emery also wanted the same thing, however, Arteta has shown better signs of being adaptable because for a start, his base is always a “4-2” shape with the 4 attackers ahead. This makes it easier to transfer between systems.

Certainly, the team has shown they are just as comfortable getting back into a defensive block as they are building play from the back. “Total domination”, as it was when he was assistant manager to Pep Guardiola at Man City, seems less of an obsession for him right now, but instead, he is more concerned about dominating in the moments when the team does have the ball – probably because he knows he doesn’t have the personnel to play that way all the time.

Indeed, that would be the next step for Arteta to improve as last season, it felt as if the team drew too many games because they couldn’t rise above the system and what was asked for them. The goals they scored in the opening day show that they do that part very well, but 13 shots overall is probably a only par return. Of course, Arteta realises this therefore he says his aim is to get the team “to arrive in better positions as many times as possible for them to be able to create as many situations as we want. We have to have the play sustained behind them, to tie everything together.” Creativity need not just be from an obvious central source. There are many ways he can cultuvate it. “Some teams do it differently,” he says.

“Liverpool, for example, do it in a different way, without using the pockets in that manner, and they are still very effective. You see the assists created by their two full-backs compared to the No 10s that Manchester City have, for example. It’s an equal number but a completely different style. So there are different ways to do it.”

At times against Fulham, Arsenal attacked with 4 or 5 players in the box. By the looks of it, Arteta is totally set on building an intrepid and unpredictable Arsenal.

Mikel Arteta shows adaptability in promising first season at Arsenal

Arsenal v Chelsea - FA Cup Final

When Mikel Arteta was assistant coach at Manchester City, he gained a reputation as a master of analysing the fine details. Two months into his new role at the club, Pep Guardiola gave Arteta the chance to lead Man City in a league match against Arsenalbecause he said he knew everything to “expect from them”, and he duly delivered with a 2-1 victory. Since then, Arteta was Guardiola’s go-to guy when he needed a little bit more from his side. When the two teams faced each other again in August 2018, it was Arteta’s insight again that led to victory, as he instructed Benjamin Mendy to try and look for the “double-pass” with Raheem Sterling before making a cut-back across the floor. When Bernardo Silva came up with the winner from such a move, Guardiola went straight up to Arteta to congratulate him.

Such examples highlighted Arteta’s tactical nous so it was no surprise then that he quickly gained a reputation as Guardiola Mk. II. Certainly they have a shared background in being trained – at least in their playing careers – in the Cruyffian way, yet Arteta says his role there was, in the main, not devoted to the tactics board, but to finding gains in the most tangible aspect of what makes a football team: the players. In Pep’s City: The Making of a Superteam, written by Pol Ballus and Lu Martin, Arteta said his role there really was “to look for what’s missing in a player’s game. If I spot something, there’s no point in waiting for the guy to tell me about it. He might take three months to get round to it. Opening up like that to a coach, pointing out your own weaknesses, that’s not easy. What we do is create a safe place so that the players feel comfortable about sharing with us. That way we can then give them the tools to make the improvements they need.”

Arteta is credited for transforming the impact of both Sterling and Leroy Sane, helping them understand better how to receive the ball and to attack spaces, whilst Fabian Delph has underlined how Arteta shaped his move from central midfield to left-back. Indeed, that was one of the first improvements Arteta made when he took over Arsenal at the start of this year, with Bukayo Saka explaining in detail the different ways he has been coached to view situations in games, whilst Ainsley Mainland-Niles and Dani Ceballos have been reinvigorated in new roles.

Of course, to make the step up from no.2 to no.1 you need to find the right balance between development and results and indeed, at the conclusion of his first season as manager of Arsenal, it can be said that Arteta achieved that.

The FA Cup win capped a promising first campaign, not least because he steadied what seemed like a sinking ship under Unai Emery. However, he experienced a few bumps of his own along the way therefore as such, it may even be argued that the humility make changes to his own approach was actually the main positive to take out of the season.

With the team suffering two sobering back-to-back defeats post-lockdown, Arteta attempted to make Arsenal steelier, switching formations from the asymmetric 4-3-3 he started with, to a 3-4-3 that mainly ceded possession and was best on the counter-attack. It was said to be a compromise of his ideals of sorts because of the dominant, front-foot style used by Man City when he was coach. There, he said, one of the first things that struck him was that, on “the very first day Pep took training, he got the whole squad out on the pitch and told them: ‘Manchester City does this when we have the ball and we do that when we don’t have it.’ And all of them understood exactly how we were going to play. It was non-negotiable. That talk lasted 15 minutes, but in those 15 minutes City was born. Everyone knew what would be asked of them from then on.

“He explained that sometimes we would adapt our game: ‘There’ll be alterations here and there depending on how our opponents attack and defend but basically our football will be exactly as I’ve just said.’

“We’d all watched his Barça and Bayern play and Pep insisted that this philosophy would continue. He showed the players footage and kept talking them through his ideas. It was clear that there was no going back. We knew how Pep’s Manchester City was going to be. And all it took was 15 minutes.”

People were surprised how quickly too, Arteta was able to transmit the same such ideas in his first game as manager, which was a 1-1 draw with Bournemouth, however, soon after lockdown he realised his team needed a change. He acknowledged that they didn’t have the personnel to implement this style – whilst some, like Mesut Ozil and Matteo Guendouzi didn’t adhere to his supposed “non-negotiables” (though others like Mainland-Niles and Ceballos went the other way and improved their commitment) – therefore, he fell back on what made him a success as an assistant: to look for ways to bring the best out of his players.

Will he try to go back to the style of play that he began with? That really, though is a non-question because he never truly did move away from it; he just realised his team were unable to control the game for extended periods. He admitted this after his sixth game in charge, against Sheffield United: “I think there were things we could have done better to put more pressure on the opponent, to bring the ball into certain areas where we could rest with the ball and control the game better.”

As such, he has adapted the system so that the team could stamp their technical quality in moments rather than exaggerated periods in matches. The semi-final goal in the 2-0 win over Manchester City was a good example of that, with the team for the most part, content in the game to soak up pressure. But when they did have possession, they were not scared to go backwards and reset, to play out of the box with their goalkeeper, before a move which saw all but one player touch the ball, ended with a goal. If Arsenal under Arteta are not having as much of the ball – they average just 46% possession in all competitions – when they do have it, they still have an unwavering commitment to do it the right way, displaying the same principles of a team that wants to dominate.

Indeed, Arteta knows that to be successful, you have to pass out well, but perhaps what has changed recently is that the homogeneous possession style that Pep popularised, need not be be the only way to play. It is merely the base; the key is how you create numerical superiorities between-the-lines and that, numerous teams have shown, can be cultivated in different ways. “Sometimes it is down to individual quality, but the whole structure is probably even more important in order to be a threat in the spaces that you want to attack,” said Arteta in an interview with Sky Sports. “How consistent you are in maintaining those attacks also depends on the structure behind the ball. Everything is linked together and the players have to understand that.

“It takes time because in small spaces, every detail, every touch, every movement is critical. And sometimes it’s not just about giving the ball to somebody, it’s about when. Do I do it now? Or do I do it one second later? A difference of 30 millimetres on a pass can change everything.”

He adds that because Arsenal have lost their creative edge in recent years, he’s had to recast the side and find other ways to attack. “Look at the players that we had in the past at this club in those positions,” said Arteta. “You go back to (Santi) Cazorla, to (Tomas) Rosicky, to (Andrey) Arshavin when he played there, to (Aaron) Ramsey when he played there, to (Henrikh) Mkhitaryan when he came in. Even Jack Wilshere used to play in those pockets all the time.

“That is a lot of players who are now not here. We have to renew that cycle, because if not, those kind of players won’t be there for us anymore.

“That [signing more creative players] is one of the areas we can improve, but also, how important those players are will depend on the way we are going to attack, because some different teams do it differently.

“Liverpool, for example, do it in a different way, without using the pockets in that manner, and they are still very effective. You see the assists created by their two full-backs compared to the No 10s that Manchester City have, for example. It’s an equal number but a completely different style. So there are different ways to do it.”

That “different” way was probably highlighted best in the 2-1 FA Cup final win over Chelsea where the plans he had been working on in the previous matches, seemed to culminate in the perfect balance. That is not to say it is the same as him using his players in their favoured positions; but more so he used them where he could take advantage of their strengths. Therefore, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang still played a mainly left-sided role, but he had freedom to make the runs as he might as a central striker, as much as possible. Alexandre Lacazette dropped off and linked play like a false 9 (which in turn, bolstered the midfield); Hector Bellerin and Nicolas Pepe seemed more in tune with each other than before, whilst on the other side, the positioning of Mainland-Niles and Kieran Tierney allowed the formation to switch seamlessly to a 4-4-2.

This fluidity is afforded by the “structure and gameplan” that Arteta has implemented where all the players know which zones to occupy and are spaced in a synchronised and specific. Emiliano Martínez spoke about this after the game:  “Arteta is a great coach,” he said in an interview with Marca. “He is one of the best modern trainers today. In six months he has won a title, the FA Cup, one of the best cups in England and one of the oldest in history. He is going to be one of the best coaches in the world. Guardiola said that at Man City everyone had learned from Arteta. In training we see that he has a clear idea of the game, he surprises us day by day.”

What’s great about Arteta is that takes a holistic approach to team-building. His selections are mainly based on the principles of play that he preaches, but it also takes into account the opponent and how comfortable the players are in the system. This is not a new idea of course, but these days coaches are so hung up on “philosophy” that they find it difficult to look for another solution when they get stuck. To strike a compromise is almost dirty. For Arteta, however, philosophy, though very important, seemingly cannot be separated from pragmatism. That is to say, he has shown so far that he believes that theories and ideas are only useful insofar that they can be put into practice. Although, perhaps that should not be unexpected of a man who played under David Moyes, and mainly excelled as a deep-lying midfielder for a manager like Arsene Wenger who actually didn’t care much positional play in his own half because he didn’t want to put his team into trouble.

The flexibility of approach that Arteta has shown – to be able to find answers in ways nobody expected him to, is probably the biggest takeaway of Arsenal’s season going forward. It’s clear that he still has his core ideas [which is broadly this: “We can’t demand attacking players to generate things just like this. We have to have the play sustained behind them, to tie everything together. We need to arrive in better positions as many times as possible for them to be able to create as many situations as we want. It is the overall structure, the way we play and approach the game”] so whilst it is expected, for the 2020/21 season, he will revert to a 4-3-3 of type and try to play a more dominant, fixed-possession style, he realises he can only do it by adjusting to the tools he has in front of him and find a way that suits them. By signing Willian, Sporting Director Edu, has indicated the the steps they are taking to “rebalance” the squad to the way Arteta wants – but the fact the manager mentions, Willian’s “versatility” suggests adaptability will still be a key featyre of his approach.

As Guardiola said of his then-assistant in September 2019, Arteta “has an incredible work ethic, and he has a special talent to analyse what happens, and to find the solutions.” It seems as if Arteta is doing that already at Arsenal.

Unai Emery failed to deliver on promise to make Arsenal “protagonists”


From the offset, the hiring of Unai Emery as manager of Arsenal Football Club was a curious one. Conversely, he had the credentials; on paper, he was a serial winner, most notably in cup competitions where he famously achieved an unprecedented three consecutive Europa League victories. However, that hinted at a ceiling, and his time at Paris Saint Germain was fraught with warning signs; the falling out and constant power-play with star players, and the loss of Ligue 1 to Monaco in his first season.

But what mostly didn’t quite make him the perfect fit at the club was his reputation as a counter-attacking coach, a rigid 4-2-3-1 man. At PSG, Emery was fortunate that he didn’t have to alter much and was ultimately forced to bend to the will of his players. (The technical base that Laurent Blanc left, with the help of his assistant, Jean-Louis Gasset, of Verrati, Motta and Matuidi, went mostly untouched, whilst Emery admitted, he mostly had to adapt to his individuals). When he joined Arsenal, his ability to talk a good game landed him the job (apparently, his presentation, “blew away” club officials) – but ironically, it would also prove to be his downfall as he was mocked for his inability to pronounce certain words, and in interviews, often resorted to using the same platitudes and buzzwords (we must “control” the game better etc).

In what would prove to be his final game in charge, he gave himself a simple objective that he thought would reverse Arsenal’s recent poor form (they were 7 games without a win): “We were speaking about how we can improve and the first way of changing that is by being more compact,” said Emery before his team eventually succumbed meekly 2-1 to Eintracht Frankfurt. The Gunners, under Emery, have been a disaster defensively, and the failure to even deliver on this simple promise summed up his reign as Arsenal manager.

When Unai Emery was announced, he mold a bold claim that would come to haunt him. “My idea is to be protagonists,” he boldly proclaimed. “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.”Quickly, though, he reverted to type. As soon as the first game in fact, where Pep Guardiola comfortably predicted that against his Manchester City, Emery would use a 4-2-3-1 despite practicising (most probably to get The Gunners to a certain technical base) in pre-season, with a 4-1-4-1. Of course, Emery was allowed some leeway to get used to his players, and reinvent a playing style that under Arsene Wenger was highly idiosyncratic and probably not in keeping with the modern game. To his credit, Emery realised this, and tried implement to some degree a build-up style that Guardiola popularised – and of which was lacking previously. (Remember, Wenger hated the ball being in his half, and thus tasked his attackers to push up the pitch, and leave the playing out to the centre-backs. There was also an absence of a robust type of positional play; instead, it was reliant on quick interchange, and off-the-ball movement).

The initial matches showed signs of growing pains, though in between, Arsenal scored some stunning teams goals – Ramsey’s back-flick at Fulham, and the two goals against Leicester City spring to mind. However, that quickly led to staleness, whilst the problems at the other end, where chances were offered with alarming regularity never went away. Emery was unable to address either problems from the start right to the end of his reign.

In fact, whatever he did seemed to do to try and fix the problems lead to, if not confusion, then nothingness. With each adjustment, tweak the same problems persisted. He chopped and changed systems, which at the start seemed to hint at a refreshing tactical flexibility, but over time, only eroded what core principles he was trying to adopt at the start.

This was broadly, to play with one of two wide players who step inside and create (Mhkitaryan: ““I was starting as a winger, but had to build play with the defensive midfielder”) whilst the full-backs bomb forward, and the double pivot sit back to cover. The team would mainly build down the flanks, starting with the ball with the goalkeeper.

In the end, whilst he was known as a 4-2-3-1 man, Emery began using the system less and less. There was at least a hint of identity – the consistency of the double-pivot, and use of the flanks to attack – but play became predictable and heavily reliant on his goalscorers finishing the scant chances they get (Arsenal average an average 12 shots a game this season). In the few times he did deviate from the double pivot, plus or minus a number 10, he opted for a diamond system. Indeed, it was until his 42nd league game in charge, in the 2-2 draw with Tottenham that he finally used a 4-1-4-1, the formation perhaps best suited to his description of a  “protagonist” style of football. But whatever system he used, his team was always held back by his over-bearing caution on match days.

This was the other reason Emery was never able to reach the level that he desired because his team selections, as he says, depended “30% on the opposition, and 70% for us.” As such, he was only able to motivate his team to a level but he was never able to add the extra value that would overwhelm teams; there was always undue focus on the opposition. Conversely, it’s not that he didn’t have a specific idea of what he wants in match – to control matches, stop counters – but it’s almost as if it’s enough that the team “tries, work hard” to fulfill it; but he couldn’t add anything beyond. As Daniel Zeqiri wrote for The Independent: “By design or dysfunction, Emery’s Arsenal have a strange habit of finding parity with opposition no matter their level – with the exception of fixtures against Liverpool and Manchester City..” After the 1-1 draw with Wolverhampton Wanderers, Emery proclaimed his team did “tactically well”, almost making it sound as if the proposition of playing Wolves, (and grappling with each game, the change of system), harder than it should be. That’s why any promises he makes to improve things come with the same disclaimers; that the team will always set up as underdogs and if there’s a suggestion of a step forward in one game, he’s liable to change things again the next.

In the end, Emery had to go because his philosophy was muddled, rather than his performance as a whole, and there was little indication that he would get the team to the level he desired. He never tried to implement a pressing style, mainly because he never got to grips with finding a defensive balance, and in fact, up until his last game in charge, he was still trying to correct the building out from the back – the first thing he tried to implement at the club. But the advantage that Arsenal  initially gained from Emery’s focus on playing out dissipated, and if anything, was becoming a bit counter-productive because the team was essentially grappling with the manager’s vanity project.

I say this because the build-up was flawed, unconventional, and perhaps a statement by Emery to show that he could create a distinctive playing style, just as Wenger did, but at the same time, to make Arsenal “competitive.” He used two holding midfielders almost always behind the ball, which essentially showed up the fallacy of his idea of “controlling” matches because the team was unable to effectively force opponents back. With the build-up inevitably being funneled wide, it meant the team couldn’t create numerical superiority between-the-lines, and beyond the Iwobi-Kolasinac link-up in the first-season, you can argue that Emery didn’t established even one definitive partnership which the team could fall back on (i.e like Alexis and Ozil, Fabregas, Nasri and Van Persie). It’s no wonder then, that the no.10 was often marginalised, mainly because there was nobody to properly link up with.

Ultimately, the tweaks that Emery made from game-to-game were having a minimal effect, indicating that he was actually hindering his players rather than allowing them to “play”. That was always the danger in his second season, after signing Nicolas Pepe, because that would mean he would have to find a way to compromise between his cautious style, whilst also allowing the players to play with a degree of freedom. In his final few games, he relegated Arsenal’s record signing to the bench. How could the team play like “protagonists”, as he promised, if he didn’t grant them any autonomy?

Unai Emery’s reign therefore can only be summed up by the promises he failed to deliver on. He had a chance to build his own masterpiece, but that meant a reworking of his core principles and ideals, and in the end, that was a step too far from Emery. The galling thing really, is that Emery brought a certain level of coaching which you felt should be the groundwork for more, but often ended up nothing much more than close to his, and the team’s, ceiling.

A timeline of tweets:

1. First reaction to Emery’s hiring

2. Digging out his history

3. He says all the right things

4. Some pre-season observations

5. The obsession begins

6. Establishing an early identity

7. The honeymoon period is over, now the identity is glanced with a critical eye

8. Too much focus on opposition, not enough on letting the team “play”

9. Feels like the beginning of the end, and it’s only 7 months in

10. Not shooting enough..again

11. Emery starting to double-down on identity, of making Arsenal protagonists, instead opting to be more “competitive”

12. Would the transfer window see a more forward-thinking Emery?

13. No

14: When I’m not objective anymore, you know it’s over

Arsenal 2-2 Crystal Palace: Emery attempts to find creativity in switch to 4-4-2

In hindsight, the recipe for things to bubble over were obvious. It had been leading to a boiling point since the end of last season and as soon as the new one started, it was starting to become clear that not much had changed. Dissatisfaction starting on forums slowly spread to the ground. Compound this with the shortcomings of the new VAR system, and mix it together in the cauldron pot that is the Emirates, and it’s no surprise that sooner or  things would come to a head.

That ire on Sunday, though, was placed less at the coach, or the referee – though that was also pretty severe; it’s just that with the new review system, it’s hard for fans to know that he’s wrong – but on Granit Xhaka, the Arsenal captain, who in some ways is meant to embody the Unai Emery on the pitch.

First it began with cheers which, from where I was sitting in the East Stand (though not necessarily emanating from there), they were loud and humiliating, and then after culminated into boos as Xhaka, his dignity suffering an affront very publicly, decided to goad the fans further.

It was an extraordinary and distasteful moment, one which I admit left me feeling a little emotional and almost ready to walk out of the stadium in solidarity if there wasn’t a match to win. And this The Gunners somehow threw away, undone in the end by VAR twice, sandwiching the Xhaka incident, and raising the Arsenal fans indignation even more.

The capitulation felt inevitable even if Arsenal started strongly, scoring two goals in 10 the first minutes. They were both from corners and although Alexander Lacazette forced a good save shortly after, the team laboured to create any real good openings from open play. By contrast, Crystal Palace dominated and probably deserved their penalty to pull one back. Arsenal sat back, though this was also part of their plan because Emery chose to use a 4-4-2 and as such, with the system could dovetail between being compact and defending deeper, with still having having possession deeper but with the potential of playing the forwards in quickly. A chameleon system. It was unexpected to see him make this compromise because so far this season he has practiced a variation of a three-man midfield.

However, a few things haven’t quite gone to plan. The alienation of Mesut Ozil means there is a lack of link player in advanced midfield and whilst he necessarily doesn’t play with a playmaking no.10 – rather they are valued more for their physical attributes – he still expects that player to get into pockets of space.

He began the season with Joe Willock and then recently brought him back to the fold. The result has been a disastrous example of man-management, particularly of a young player, as he has hauled him off the last two times at half-time, almost scapegoating him for the fact that his system makes it almost impossible for the number 10 not to be peripheral.

Indeed, the way Emery sets out his midfield means they tend to play in a straight line, whether that’s if he uses his favoured double-pivot, or more recently, experimenting with a 4-3-3 stretched across the pitch. With (one) less player(s) stepping into the final-third, between-the-lines, it’s no surprise that most of the attacks are funneled wide, though it’s unarguable that he wants his side to attack down the flanks, and the no.10 marginalised.

The topic of creativity was spoken about pre-Crystal Palace with Emery giving a impassioned defence on how he can help Arsenal improve in this aspect.

“Sometimes we forget the memory and we need remember,” he said. “When I arrived here, this team needed to improve being more competitive. This team in the history was winning 1-0 and being very competitive, but it wasn’t enough. Then one process being competitive and with improved creativity.

“When I arrived here, the creativity is more or less good, but being competitive was worse. It was not enough.

“I think last year I started to improve being competitive, also more or less creativity with some very good matches playing with that creativity. This year we are in that process if only we change one step more, but also with patience because our strategy as a club is some new players, young players, we changed 10 players who were leaving and continuing being competitive.

“We are being competitive. Creativity, maybe we lost some thing a little, but I know we are going to recover that and my point of view is, the matches we played against Nottingham, OK Championship, Standard Liege, OK Belgian League, Frankfurt, these are the matches.

“In the Premier League, we won at home, we play some moments with very good creativity and spirit, for example the second half against Tottenham, and this is the next step I want to give the team and also to show our supporters our energy, our intensity because I think that is one thing we improved last year and this year, intensity, energy. I remember a lot of matches at home we won playing with a big connection with our supporters.”

So Emery thinks creativity can be improved by increasing intensity, but how can his Arsenal under him, known for painstakingly meticulous, slow, and flawed build-up with the ball deep, do this higher up the pitch? In a sense, moving to the 4-4-2 against Crystal Palace was the first step to achieve this, because he chose a system that still retained the deep build-up style of having two central midfielders behind the ball, but he hoped, by deploying Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang together, that the team would be able to hit the two strikers quicker.

Creativity by definition, then, is plural. It doesn’t just come from line-splitting passes, but also by runs that open up the defence; from players that can dribble with the ball, and like Matteo Guendouzi and Pepe, players who are able to take the game by the scruff of the neck. Emery further explains this in his pre-match conference.

“We have players to improve our creativity,” Emery said. “But we can analyse and explain different matches this season, less and more, less than we want but with a big creativity. For example on Monday in Sheffield in the creativity in the first build-up we did better than in a lot of matches. In the last attacking third it was the most difficult because they had a lot of people there.

“But It’s the not the issue for one or two players, it’s for all. Sometimes it’s going inside, or doing 1-2, sometimes it’s going for right or left side, sometimes it’s to go behind with passes. We have players to do that but not just one.”

Still, Arsenal failed to be truly threatening until they had to chase the win. The start was encouraging as they started with a good intensity, and forced the two early goals – both from corner-kicks. But Crystal Palace were able to get back into the game and dominated the first-half. Arsenal found that they couldn’t really press their opponents and Luka Milojevic, playing holding midfield in a 4-3-3, was able to dictate play. The 4-4-2 worked mostly fine with the ball, but out of possession, lacked the required intensity. It needed at least one of two changes; for one of the strikers to drop off and get close to Milojevic, or for a more mobile midfielder alongside Guendouzi to step out and harass.

This last part is probably one of the reasons why fans grew more irked at Xhaka because in this game, he seemed a little redundant. Guendouzi took ownership of possession deep, and even when the Frenchman didn’t immediately get the ball from the back, David Luiz would look to step out into midfield and provoke the opponents to come out. Xhaka still offered himself as much as possible on the ball, but found that he was forced to pick up the ball in advanced areas as a more natural number 8 would be expected to. He was also a bit clumsy chasing opponents, and in the end, was a bit slow to react to Crystal Palace’s equaliser when James McArthur ran beyond him.

The change in formation, then, didn’t produce the desired impact Emery wanted. His final attempt to bring creativity to the line-up was to start Dani Ceballos left-midfield, the position he plays for his national team. The Spaniard began promisingly and actually brought a bit of fluidity to the set-up, helping the two man-midfield to bring balance in possession, and then using that ambiguity to get into pockets of space to create. His final ball, however, was underwhelming, and looked even more suspect when he moved centrally in the second-half, under-cooking a few passes. It’s clear that Ceballos is lacking confidence and doesn’t even appear convinced himself what is his best role.

It seems as if Emery signed him initially to use him as a mix between an 8 and a 10, but the more he has played, the more unconventional he has looked as a central midfielder, usually favouring the left side to pick the ball up rather than necessarily the middle. Left-midfield is probably his best role as it allows him to move into pockets with freedom and indeed, using him in this way is almost an Arsene Wenger type of move from Emery, to help balance a top-heavy attack. It remains to be seen whether Emery will persist with this set-up – whatever he uses is usually opponent-dependent anyway – but the draw to Crystal Palace left an unsavoury taste in more ways than one.

Arsenal 1-0 Bournemouth: Emery seemingly settles on system, Gunners do just enough


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.

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.

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.

Watford 2-2 Arsenal: Hornets pressing stings Arsenal

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There was something all too familiar about Arsenal’s tame collapse against Watford. Some had maybe thought they had seen the worst of it under Arsene Wenger with Per Mertesacker saying before the game that in the past, “when we lost one game, we often lost a few in a row. We didn’t have the ability to shift quickly and keep our faith after a disappointment.” The 2-2 draw against Watford carried the same hallmarks even if it is too early to say if this setback will prove to be just as terminal.

The Gunners didn’t lose, but already, there are question marks about whether Unai Emery has the leadership to reverse Arsenal’s reputation as being mentally fragile. Granit Xhaka’s words at the end of the game were the most damning, saying: “We were scared in the second half….You have to say we are happy to take a point. At half‑time we went to the dressing room and everything was good. Everyone was happy but we came out and played such a bad second half. We knew they would come at us and push us hard but we have to show more character and not be scared. We have spoken about it. We cannot give a performance like this in the second half.”

Indeed, if there is one improvement that Emery has made to Arsenal’s playing style is that he’s added a certain technical base to the team that, when they are under pressure, or playing badly, they can fall back on. It was one of the reasons why Wenger consistently struggled to arrest a downturn of results following a bad performance. But here, it proved to be part of Arsenal’s downfall as Sokratis, attempting to play out from the back from a goal-kick, passed the ball straight to an opponent to start Watford’s comeback. When it was complete, it was another error, this time from David Luiz as he brought down Roberto Pereyra in the box, that saw Arsenal only come away with a single point.

In truth, Arsenal were lucky to leave Vicarage Road with anything. They were, bar a 15-minute spell in the first-half where Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang scored two goals, under the cosh from the first whistle as the team struggled to impose themselves using a diamond formation that frequently left them bare at the back. Emery presumably began with the system as he expected Watford to use a 4-2-2-2 formation themselves and as such, he was wary of being overrun in the centre. (Or maybe it was because he thought that this was the best way to use Nicholas Pepe, Aubameyang, and Mesut Ozil in the same line-up?).

Certainly, he chops and changes formation because he believes this is the only way you can be truly competitive, by “adapting yourself to the reality of your opponent. Sometimes, you win because you use the ball better, and sometimes you have to adapt and give in to the idea that you don’t have it.” Here, against Watford, the plan was to have the ball at the back and to use it to draw the opponents on and break their pressing with good passing. If there is an identity, an idea that Emery has tried to instill, then this is it, beginning with meticulous building from the back.

It worked for Arsenal’s second-goal, a twenty pass move that drew Watford from right to left, before coming back again to the player in space – here it was Mesut Ozil – before he fed the run to the advancing full-back – the other key weapon in his plan – to cross home for Aubameyang. “My idea is the same,” says Emery. “I want a team with good positioning, good combinations between the players and also good experience in all situations, being able to attack and play with a big intensity. I like the energy, I like to be the protagonists. I think we can take some matches last year where we can see this is our philosophy, our match, the intensity we want to create 100 per cent. At other times we could not do that.”

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However, those types of attacks are few and far between. When it works, Emery might feel as if it’s a justification for his methods, but often, the implementation is flawed, undone by a cautiousness in matches. His default system of choice is anything that features the double-pivot. So far, in the 43 league games that he has overseen as coach, he has deviated from the 4-2-3-1 or 3-4-1-2 just 7 times – and in those instances, as like here, he has used a diamond formation. For some reason, he has little faith in using a 4-3-3 – indeed, the 2-2 draw with Tottenham last gameweek was the first time he ever used it as Arsenal boss – this despite saying, it’s the best system for “pressing, for provoking the opponent.” But he adds “it’s a more aggressive idea, which exposes you more. Bielsa’s style, Guardiola’s style.” This is maybe why he is reluctant to use it with Arsenal as “with worse players, it is easier to control” (he said this in reference to the Spain national team).

This quest then for control, balance plagues Emery. It is also feasible that he’s trying to make his own stylistic statement, knowing that he has taken over a respected attacking coach and therefore would like to leave his own legacy. Yet, his methods are filled with contradictions. It is difficult to attack fluently with only four attacking players plus the full-backs, if you insist on leaving the double-pivot back at all times. Therefore, with one less body stepping into the final third, it’s no surprise that most of your attacks are funneled out wide – although, you can argue, that he wants this – and the number 10 (ahem, Ozil) is marginalised. When the ball is deep, Arsenal are actually pretty good at evading pressure, but as Watford eventually cottoned on to, they can also be quite predictable. The two holders tend to play in a flat line, therefore they don’t really offer the type of rotation needed if an opponent man-marks.

Against Watford, it was defensively that Emery left the team painfully exposed. Expecting Watford to use a 4-2-2-2, their opponents instead began with a 4-2-3-1 and constantly attacked down the left-hand side. Ainsley Maintland-Niles had a torrid game, always exposed 1v1 against Gerard Deulofeu and never able to get tight to him due to the lack of protection in front. It was strange that Emery tasked minimal defensive responsibilities to the front three apart from creating a block in the centre. Instead, Matteo Guendouzi and then later, Lucas Torreira were asked to press wide, usually with great intensity (indeed, that was why Emery was forced to replace Dani Ceballos) which was almost impossible if this was done on the edge of your own box.

Emery said he kept the front three high because he wanted to exploit the moments when Watford were drawn towards pressing Arsenal, and then break their lines them through good passing. There was a period in the first-half where you could argue they did this comfortably – or rather, they did so because Watford dropped their intensity (and Arsenal upped theirs, especially for the first goal, where good work from Ceballos and Sead Kolasinac won the ball back for Arsenal to score. Quique Sanchez Flores: “We played well in the first 20- 25 minutes. It was difficult to recover after the first goal. It was in our brain that we were playing well so the players were a little bit down. We had to recuperate the memory of what happened before the goal and I was happy with the reaction in the second-half.). Yet, there was a feeling the team was a mistake away from conceding. They should have done so twice actually before the break, when Guendouzi relinquished possession on the edge of his own box. Watford gained confidence from that and very soon after the interval, they scored when Sokratis gave the ball away straight from a goal kick to Tom Cleverley. “I feel like we were well organised from their goal kicks,” said the Watford midfielder. “It is something we worked on all week. We weren’t surprised they tried to play like that. It was just more of a surprise they didn’t adapt during the game and they were pretty stubborn with it.”

Emery: “Our game plan was the same, like at the beginning, to break their pressing – if they decided to do that – and if we break that pressing we can connect with our midfielders, with our team’s players and after have space to continue imposing our game plan. But [it’s] really frustrating, because second half we couldn’t do that. We couldn’t control the match and we couldn’t break their pressing, first because they are a good team, they played last year here with that spirit, that capacity and they are physically strong. They pushed and they controlled the match with their pressing, taking confidence and giving us some mistakes and scoring the first goal gave them confidence for continuing that. That moment is when we needed to have calm and again control like in the first half, but we couldn’t do [that].

Under concerted pressure in the second-half, Arsenal even resorted to a Plan B of sorts, using David Luiz’s long-passing from goal-kicks, asking him to go short – in fact, really close to Bend Leno – in an attempt to call their opponents bluff, and then launch it over the top for Pepe and Aubameyang to run onto. “In the second half we continued trying [to play out] because we need to do that work and that is my responsibility. Also when we can change and have a second plan – it’s doing long balls and the second action – they were very strong and we didn’t earn balls in that planning also.”

Eventually, for the last 10 minutes, Emery switched to a 4-2-3-1 but at that point, the team had relinquished all control of the match such that any counter attacks they had mustered, were tired attempts. In the end, the hornets stung, and it hurt pretty badly.

Arsenal 2-1 Burnley: Dani Ceballos provides the spark in win


The chant ringing around the stadium was familiar, as was the shuffle of the feet that instigated it, the same close control and manipulation of the ball that captivated the Emirates crowd not long ago. However, when Dani Ceballos ran to the corner flag to celebrate setting up the second goal, the relief on his face was of someone determined to make his own mark at the club. “The truth is that for me it has been one of the most special days of my life,” he said after the 2-1 win over Burnley. “I think that starting at home by winning and with this passion at the end of the match, I think it will be hard to forget this day for me. I really want this year to truly demonstrate the football that I have inside. I have a lot of enthusiasm for this season & give a lot of joy to these people.”

For Ceballos, the chance to forge his own name has been a long time coming. He moved to Real Madrid in 2017 after impressing in the European Under-21 Championship and this summer, two years later, as one of the over-age players, he did the same, winning the Player of the Tournament, yet he still found himself surplus to requirements at the Spanish giants. Arsenal threw him a lifeline, and on his home debut he duly delivered, producing a performance that evoked memories of one former fan favourite, Santi Cazorla.

Ceballos dazzled the home crowd with his quick feet, evading challenges with ease or drawing fouls when his opponents didn’t have the smarts anymore to keep up. He also showcased what has become his signature move, a sidestep away from the defender and then looking to bend a shot into the far corner. He did this with two attempts in the game but alas, he was unable to cap off a dream debut with a goal. In the end, he would have to make do with two assists, the first coming from a corner-kick, which he took in the absence of Granit Xhaka, and the second, when he seized on a loose ball (that he initially gave away himself), displaying his tenacious side, and then playing in Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.

From the start, Ceballos was given the freedom to move as he pleased. He began in the no.10 role but frequently, as is his predilection, he dropped back into midfield to pick up possession. It’s clear that he’s not natural as a no.10, whilst even as a no.8 he probably prefers to play on the left side of the 4-3-3 rather than in a double pivot. As such, Unai Emery granted him this freedom to move where he feels most comfortable, and that often meant dropping into the no.8 position and swapping with Joe Willock.“With him, it’s for us to use his qualities in the best position in our team with our ideas,” said Emery after the game. “I spoke with him – before coming here – to play like an eight and a 10. Today he started like a 10, but a lot of times he was changing with Willock into the eight position, where he can feel better on the pitch.”


This led to a rather tight midfield three, and if it worked it was because of the individual qualities of the three central players, and a sort of improvised understanding of each other. Ceballos would drop deep, and at times, that would see all three bunched in the same area. Willock showed more initiative than Matteo Guendouzi to push into the zone vacated by Ceballos but generally, they would only do it once they combined with each other to put them into that position. As such, most of Arsenal’s early play was deep in their own half.

Of course, this was partly also forced by Burnley’s high pressing, but for the most part the midfielders seemed to be guided by habit. It caused a bit of a disconnect between the back and the front three which Emery’s rectified somewhat in the second-half by bringing on Nicolas Pepe for the ineffective Reiss Nelson. The change opened up the pitch a bit more and allowed the likes of Ceballos and Willock to move into pockets, whilst the right-hand side of the pitch was now finally an option to progress the – crucially unlocking Aubameyang.

Because now, playing from the left in the second-half, Aubameyang was less worried about hugging the touchline – in any case it was not his brief entirely but with Nelson also moving inside in the first-half, it was a struggle to get the forward into play enough. With Pepe now stretching the pitch and helping Arsenal funnel more of their attacks down the right, Aubameyang was able to move more freely into the centre-forward position. When he scored his goal, it was a culmination of those things coming together; Ceballos moving into the left half-space, towards his favoured side and the area Aubameyang was wont to vacate, and the striker now getting close to Lacazette. Pepe on the other side seemed to be a further distraction that Burnley weren’t able to cope with. Sean Dyche said after the game: “I’m pleased with the performance though, particularly in the first half when we were very good. We mixed up our play and our pressing lines were very good. We made it very difficult for them to play out and numerous times we turned the ball over.

“In the second half they got more of a foothold in the game, but I always think putting £70m players on probably helps!”

For Emery, it’s still not clear what will be his preferred balance given the forward options he has at his disposal. What we do know, however, is that it’ll be packaged in the 4-2-3-1, although he did use a 3-4-1-2 for the last twenty minutes against Burnley.

The manager evidently prefers this set up as a base to attack, using the double-pivot’s positioning to help circulate the ball from side-to-side and progressing down the flanks. The variation that he used against Burnley – allowing Ceballos to join the two sitting midfielders – is maybe a sign of how he might tinker the team’s build up so that it is better at drawing and evading the opponent’s press, and then, with the extra space it creates behind, to play in the front three. Certainly, to find the right balance, it’s hard to see Emery making large, overarching tweaks to his philosophy, but rather, it will probably be subtle changes that allow the individuals to flourish, that make all the difference.

Newcastle 0-1 Arsenal: The same thing, but better somehow


So what can we expect from Year 2 of the Unai Emery Project? Well it seems, after Arsenal’s 1-0 victory over Newcastle United, just more of the same. Of course, it would be a bit presumptuous to claim that after only the first game of the season and with many likely first team players not starting – as such, making this away victory all the more impressive – but it feels like it would require some sort of softening the manager’s make-up and mentality, if not his approach, to expect change quickly.

That’s not to say Emery is not open to change because off the pitch, he has undergone a makover – the teeth have been straightened and bleached, his hair no longer touches his collar and he has traded his old lenses, for rounder, more fashionable ones.

On the pitch, the manager has looked to build on the same tenets that he tried introduced last season of “control”, “possession”, “positioning” and “pressing”. The results, in the first match of the season, were solid if not spectacular as Arsenal to produce a professional performance to grind out a narrow 1-0 win secured by Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang after good work from Ainsley Maitland-Niles.

The goal came just at the time in the second-half where the match was becoming a little stretched. Newcastle maybe sensed that so the manager, Steve Bruce, made a change that would prove to be fateful, bringing on wing-back Jetro Willems who instantly looked short of the pace, entering the pitch initially in central midfield, and then, when a ball was played across to him, was caught flat-footed and Maitland-Niles stole in. It was a relief for Arsenal because they laboured for the most part to get into Newcastle’s box, much in the same way that they struggled to convincingly be dynamic last season. In the end, they only managed 8 shots, underlining again, the clinical efficiency of their strikers. (Last season they only average around 12 shots a game, which is mid-table standard at best).

The basic premise last season was sound – it improved Arsenal because they were better playing out – but they were often undermined by caution. Emery realises that this year there is a need for his team to be a bit more attacking, owing to the players that he has at his disposal. “Our idea is to continue being one team, mostly offensive”, he said, but adds, “we need to also take the balance defensively.” This is his challenge for the current campaign, to create a cohesive outlet that he says can “create good combinations, good situations, to create chances  and after each player has his quality to score, to do the pass, the assist and to do the job defensively.”

To achieve this he says the team will play a back four, which is a positive move as the impact of switching to three at the back during the midway point of last season was overstated. It initially brought defensive stability following the 4-2 win over Spurs, and worked better when Aaron Ramsey was reinstated to the centre of midfield towards the end of the campaign, but with the switch, he abandoned some of the core principles he tried to develop at the start of the season, of playing through pressure, and generally getting two attacking midfielders to step just inside, in the half-spaces. Of course, he needed to make the team defensively more secure, but with constantly changing the system, mainly to some variant of the back three, he became victim to is own tactical flexibility. Which is to say that tactical flexibility is not simply about changing formations from game-to-game, but rather is really about making tweaks around a larger, guiding set of principles that you develop during the season.

Emery expands on the decision to use a back four this season: “Our first objective is to play with a back four…Last year we used different systems during the season. Each moment, each match was thinking about how we were better in our positioning for defence or attack.

“We are starting in general working with a back four and trying to use two players like Ainsley and Sead, and maybe Nacho, [though] his natural habit was to play back four and sometimes like a left centre back in a back three. But we want to use two systems and we are working with two systems, but our first objective is to play with a back four. We are continuing working on that and, above all, feel that we defensively get stronger with a back four with Sead, with Ainsley, with Sead, and with Hector when he comes back.”

Against Newcastle, Emery used a 4-2-3-1 and the average pass positions of his players broadly showed the shape he wants to achieve. The two full-backs push forward to create the width, whilst Matteo Guendouzi and Granit Xhaka cover to the right and left respectively, circulating the ball and helping ensure this shape remains at all times. The execution of the tactics was initially frustrating. It was clear Arsenal were struggling to get behind Newcastle’s midfield – their opponents used a flat 3-5-2 in the middle, thus the only real outlet to link play was Joe Willock playing as a no.10. In the end, the youngster only passed the ball 14 times, but he was energetic and tended mainly to move to the left side to receive the ball.

Part of his ineffectiveness was that he was unable to get support from one of the two sitting midfielders who preferred to play behind the ball. It’s part of my criticism of Guendouzi, who whilst being supremely composed in possession, rarely bursts without the ball into spaces between the lines to either evade the attention of his markers, or to create space for the centre-backs and Xhaka if he drops to receive it, to pass the ball. Most of his movements are geared towards getting himself on the ball and facing play. Xhaka, I should add, feels the brunt of this criticism less in this match because his movement was generally more helpful, away from the congested part, and usually towards the left were Arsenal were strongest progressing the ball.


The other reason why Willock maybe struggled to make an impact was because often, in the halfspaces, the two wingers, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Reiss Nelson, moved into his areas. It seems the positioning of these players, plus the double-pivot, was clearly a purposeful ploy by the manager, thus it’s really hard to be critical of the players. It will lead to passages in the game where the play is stale, as the team meticulously looks the build side-to-side but the aim is to try and find an overload on one side or a switch to the other. This worked better on the left because Willock tended to drift there, as did Xhaka, whilst on the other side, Mhkitaryan tended to want to get into the no.10 position as much as possible, usually leaving Maintland-Niles with no choice but to drive forward by himself with the ball.

It will be interesting to see how the attacking balance changes with the integration of Nicolas Pepe and Alexandre Lacazette. Will Emery use all three together with Aubameyang on one flank or, as he did in pre-season, use as the secondary formation, a 4-4-2? Can Pepe, Lacazette and Aubameyang work in a 4-2-3-1? Highly Unlikely. He touched on this balance in July, before Pepe signed, saying that the profile of the wingers will dictate his approach. Here against newcastle, Nelson and Mhkitaryan are more combination players so he instructed one or both at the same time, to step inside. In pre-season, though, he used Aubameyang as a winger mainly. “Sometimes we are playing with one striker or two strikers or with one as a winger. Aubameyang can play like a striker alone, like a striker with two and can play as a winger on the right or the left. But above all with him we want to be very aggressive in the attacking third and moving forward to score with him. When we are deciding to play with another player maybe they are more of a one-to-one winger or a player like Mesut, a player who goes deep to take the ball and keep our possession with him in the pitch. It’s different in each moment and each match. But above all, with Aubameyang, we can take different options with him and he is very good and very rich for us.”

In the end, Aubameyang made the difference. Though the performance was much of the same what we are used to seeing under Emery, it also seemed a little different somehow. There seemed to be more fire in the players, a greater determination and discipline that was sometimes missing last season. Indeed, one year on, the build up has definitely improved, the players understand each other better and know exactly what Emery wants from them. It feels therefore, that so much rests on Emery getting it right, but the superior level of the players may be enough to elevate his approach to the next level.