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

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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

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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

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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

auba-amn

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.

In face of pressing demands, teams, players, show adaptability

Frenkie-De-Jong-3

One of the feel-good stories of the 2018/19 season was Ajax’s surprise Champions League run, and that was backed up by Netherlands excellent showing in the UEFA Nations League. Indeed, if Dutch football is on the up again, then that is embodied by midfielder, Frenkie De Jong, who was integral in both teams’ success. The 22 year-old has just signed for Barcelona, making the same move that a number of his peers have made before him, by going from Amsterdam to Catalunya, and he is expected to eventually fill the iconic number 6 position. That’s quite some backing and it should put De Jong at the forefront of how top level football is played in the next few years.

Certainly, last season, he already showed why he is the future with his style of play which is reminiscent of playing a small sided game on a larger pitch. Firstly, he takes the ball anywhere. In a 5-a-side game, you are expected to receive the ball inside your box and try to play out because the concept of “going long” doesn’t really exist. And De Jong does that, dribbling even, in his own area as the last man. In a sense, he’s Franz Beckenbauer reincarnate, though as former Ajax midfielder Arie Haan says, “he is a better version…you might laugh, but people must interpret that properly. What I really mean is that he also has speed and passes easily. That’s an enormous weapon.”

Secondly, he always seems to make the right decisions, or rather, a certain kind of decision. Because for him, it’s about finding the free-man, therefore he will rarely switch the play – something which some may count as a weakness, though, it further serves to highlight how he views the game, almost, as lots of small-sided games in one – but instead, look to zip the ball through to someone between-the-lines to find a team-mate on the turn. “His biggest quality?” explains Holland coach, Ronald Koeman. “In a lot of situations he has the ability to postpone the decision when in possession, and then to give a pass from which everyone thinks: ‘Hell yeah, excellent thinking, that’s how simple it can be’. His view of the game is exceptional.” Team-mate Georginio Wijnaldum expands by adding: “De Jong is always able to create space because he is a) always available and b) with his actions he creates a lot of situations: he forces opponents to choose, they have to come out of position, lose their marker, which can automatically make space or give us a free man.”

That hints at point number three of what makes De Jong so thoroughly modern because football, right now, is about how well you receive the ball than just being able to play it per se (because everyone knows how to play it by now). As Marc Overmars, Ajax’s Sporting Director says, “Frenkie de Jong was a small, skinny lad with spindly legs five years ago. No one paid attention to him, but something struck me about when he receives the ball – that is still his biggest quality. [editor: I would argue, maybe the most important quality now]. I knew he was the one we had to get, and I didn’t give up.”

That sense of daring that De Jong has, and the courage to give and take the ball anywhere, has been cultivated from a young age at academy level in Holland where playing out, and opening the pitch for passing lanes, is in the DNA. However, that style has been adopted by many countries now and indeed, watching this summer’s Nations League or Under-21 European Championship, you would have barely noticed any difference between how one country plays from another – it’s just that one does it better than the other, as England found out in their 3-1 defeat to the Dutch. (Faced by the man-marking of Holland, England, with a central midfield not as nimble and agile as their opponents, struggled to get their way around the trap. Holland, on the other hand, led by De Jong, always came to the ball with more time on the pitch).

Of course, it’s been a while since international football set the trends for how the game should be played, and as such, it is in club level, where you will see more variety. Still, the possession style, or building out from the back, is now the standard, the platform that forms the rest of how you play. As Stewart Robson said in commentary for AFCON 2019 recently, “practicing a pattern of play lays the groundwork for the rest of your game to work”. 10-15 years ago, in the age of the 4-2-3-1, just before, or at the cusp of when Pep Guardiola was making his mark perhaps, shape would have been the first thing that coaches built their team around. A little later on, when possession was the vogue, the real tactical battle would broadly about who had the numerical superiority in the midfield. Fast-forward a little more recently, and for a while we had a mini obsession with the 3-4-3. Teams facing that formation, – initially Antonio Conte’s Chelsea – rarely had an answer so as such felt compelled to match up, leading often to a stalemate.

These days there tends to be more of a variety in systems used and the willingness to use the back three in all its different guises, i.e. 3-5-2, 3-4-3, 3-4-1-2, is probably the best example of that.

Indeed, one of the reasons why the back three is back in vogue is because the centre-backs already form a natural line across the pitch to build from. Commonly, this has been done by asking the holding midfielder to drop in between the centre-backs in order to form a de facto back three but with teams pressing higher nowadays, it has become more of a risk to split the defence. That’s why it has become important goalkeepers to be technical because they can then take some of the responsibility of building up and opening the pitch away from the midfielder, and thus the team become more fool-proof to the press.

Centre-backs are more comfortable at passing out now, so much so that the best defenders now look to actively draw the press as David Luiz did in Chelsea’s 2-0 win over Manchester City earlier this season. This also means that coaches can take more of a gamble higher up the pitch and use their attacking players in different ways to allow them the freedom to cause damage. For example, Unai Emery has realised that the only real way he could partner Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang together, and field Mesut Ozil in the same-line up, was to use a back three. He started the season deploying a 4-2-3-1, but over-emphasis on building out from the back led to stuttering, and mostly dull football – not to mention that the team kept on leaking a high number of chances. With the back three, fortunes didn’t dramatically transform, but they did momentarily allow the team to play out with more security.

The dominating theme then, of modern elite-level football it seems, is still about possession and playing out. When Zinedine Zidane took over Real Madrid the first time round and began his mini-dynasty, he said he looked to focus first, on getting a good technical base and then building the rest of the team around that. Speaking to UEFA.com, he said: “Knowing that my players had the necessary skill set, I felt an obligation to strengthen our identity as a possession-based team – not possession for possession’s sake, but possession for the purposes of attacking our opponents. At the same time, having possession is no guarantee of victory!” His team shape, at first glance, seemed a little anarchic. He tended to favour a diamond formation which then morphed into a sort-of 4-4-2 to allow Ronaldo to get forward to devastating effect, but as former Real Betis coach, Quique Setién observed, that positional freedom was granted by the base behind – which is broadly the kind of set up that most teams use – a “1-2” in the middle with overlapping full-backs. “Real Madrid are a team who are a little anarchic,” said Setien. “They don’t have a permanent shape: although they will play with four at the back and with Casemiro, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric in the middle, the way they set up from there can change.”

The biggest match in club football, this year’s Champions League final between Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool, showed then, how possession still has a disproportionately large influence on a team’s approach. In truth, though it must be said, the game was largely a dull one with Liverpool prevailing 1-0 after a goal scored in the first two-minutes. As such, the rest of the game was about how Spurs would react and it turned out, given their semi-final heroics, in an unexpectedly calm and meticulous manner.

They were determined, in the face of the Liverpool block in front of them, not to be hurried because Mauricio Pochettino had laid-out a gameplan, and it would be foolish, to have practiced to for two weeks prior, to abandon it so early. Therefore Spurs looked to play out – painstakingly at times – and that marginalised one of their key players, Christian Eriksen, because the focus was on how they could draw Liverpool’s press deep and then spring attacks behind.

However, Liverpool were rarely ever tempted. Spurs did hold possession well – with Harry Winks in particular taking the ball in extremely tight areas – but were hamstrung as mentioned before, by (purposely it seems, as he was used deeper in the second-half) ignoring Eriksen from the build-up, and as such lacking risk takers on the ball. It turned out in the end, that Spurs’ most penetrating passer was Toby Alderwiereld, who after drawing Liverpool towards them, would try to go long – either to one of the three attackers stationed up the pitch – with freedom – or to the full-backs who pushed really high adding depth to attacks.

Indeed, going direct, it seems has become more of a viable tactic in these big games where teams are expected to press higher, as we saw actually, when Arsenal played Tottenham in a  1-1 draw in March. In that game, the pass accuracy was 64% to Arsenal whilst Spurs had 77%. In the Champions League final, it was roughly the same, with Liverpool, like Arsenal acting as the more defensive side, having 64% pass accuracy, and Spurs with 80%. Liverpool, though, did not press in their typically aggressive fashion. They instead, as Louis van Gaal touches on in this interview with the Guardian looked to “provoke space”. That is, he says “not pressing immediately but to come a little back, not parking the bus, but to the middle line and then the defenders halfway in our own half. Only with AZ did I do that before, also because of the lower level of my players, and of course I adapt to the quality of my players. You have to see it. Because I didn’t have the best quality of players, they could not perform the system to attack. For example, when Liverpool have to attack constantly, they have a problem, more a problem than, for example, Manchester City.

“I saw as Manchester United manager that the quality of the players of City, Tottenham, Chelsea, Arsenal was better. So what can I do? We were attacking. We were not defending and we were looking for tactical solutions adapted to the level of our players…I have tried [to provoke space] because of the speed of [Anthony] Martial and [Marcus] Rashford…and that was new in England. I think six months ago [Jürgen] Klopp has also seen the light because in former days he was always pressing.”

Liverpool, then, in the final dropped back a bit and looked to exploit the spaces behind. Of course, that was in many ways conditioned by the early goal although in any case, they have this season, reigned their pressing in somewhat and looked to increasingly use the skill and pace of Sadio Mane and Mohammed Salah. Even in the absence of the latter in the semi-final against Barcelona they were able to use the tactic to storm to a 4-3 aggregate comeback – just as did Tottenham in the same stage versus Ajax. Certainly, to have that counter-punching ability has been the key feature of recent knockout games because, as Van Gaal touches on, it’s so hard to “attack constantly” – that is to use possession as a means to push opponents back. As such, this is probably the most effective compromise – to use, pacy, direct players, but behind them is still the technical base that allows the team to get the ball there. Fabio Capello in the 2016/17 UEFA Technical Report: “We are certainly seeing an evolution in that the teams who opt for the Barcelona possession-based style that set the trends a few years ago, now seem to be running into difficulties. This is normal. Any successful model – the elements implemented by Arrigo Sacchi, Johan Cruyff or Pep Guardiola, for example – is analysed in depth. I would say that, now, the trend is that if you win the ball you immediately run at the opponents while they are out of balance and can be surprised. The key is to win the ball quickly and then mount direct collective attacks, entering the penalty area quickly.”

Certainly, Klopp realises that instead you have to have more rounded, but possession is still a big part of the game. He says last season that the team learnt “to control more games.” That is because “a lot of teams saw that we were good at counter-pressing and realised they were overplaying. If the team gives us the opportunity to do it we will still be there with the counter-press. But very often it is not possible.”

Liverpool have then, complemented their ability to press, with also being very good on the ball. They are probably the modern example of the complete team – the rightful heir to Arrigo Sacchi’s dominant Milan team of the early ’90s. That hints at where football is at the moment; at a high physical peak thereby exposing technique – the base that everything revolves around. As such, players, and teams, have to show they have a dab hand at everything: to pass the ball well, yes, although we have moved on from that idea simply; to be able to receive the ball in tight areas, dribble, and then to be devastating in front of goal. If players must be “universalists” as Sacchi says, then teams must be a whole galaxy.