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.
Average positions shows clearly the shape Emery wants to achieve – he did this in first-half of last season – a 4-2-3-1 with the pivot covering the full-backs and the wingers stepping inside to combine (interesting how this changes with Pepe), but no.10 rarely getting the ball. pic.twitter.com/u8Uokjn78Y
— Arsenal Column (@ArsenalColumn) August 11, 2019
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.
Annoying what Guendouzi is doing in the build-up, not doing enough to drag his marker away from him – instead almost standing with him, hiding. The better option – the Wenger option – would be to burst up the pitch to create space for the passers or to get on the ball himself
— Arsenal Column (@ArsenalColumn) August 11, 2019
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.