Last April, I published my first article. I chose to write about Unai Emery’s impact at Arsenal. At the time, we were in a great position to qualify for the Champions League through our domestic position, and we also had a Europa league semi-final around the corner. I was feeling optimistic about the future, if I’m honest. However, since then we’ve imploded. An embarrassing display in Baku followed up with an underwhelming start to the 2019/20 season has led to uncertainty about the future of the Spaniard. Throughout this piece, I will examine the pros and cons of our head coach and give my assessment as to whether he’s the right man for the job or not.
In Defence Of Emery:
- He hasn’t had a chance this season with our key defenders. Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few years, you’ll be fully aware that Arsenal have been defensively frail, to put it mildly. We lead the league standings for individual errors leading to goals since the start of the 2018/19 season, when Unai was first appointed. However, we addressed this issue as best we could in the summer transfer window. The arrival of Kieran Tierney will be a huge boost, as will William Saliba when he joins in July. David Luiz was signed as a stop gap, but he hasn’t exactly hit the ground running. In defence of Unai, individual errors are somewhat out of his control, and he hasn’t had an opportunity to work with Héctor Bellerín or Rob Holding for almost the entirety of 2019. I’m not exactly holding my breath, but possibly we’ll see a new and improved defence once these players return to the XI, alongside our new Scottish left-back.
- He inherited a squad with no confidence and numerous key issues. When Arsène Wenger departed, our squad wasn’t exactly in a healthy position. Almost every member of the camp had next to no confidence and there were numerous positions which evidently needed to be addressed. As a result, I personally believe that it would be unfair to judge Unai Emery solely on his first season at the club. Although it was a disappointment, he was left with the job of lifting the confidence of the squad along with improving results on the pitch. However, now that he’s been here for over a year, this excuse is no longer valid. It’s time to kick on. We’ve shown little to no signs of it thus far in the 2019/20 campaign, but hopefully our key defenders returning from injury will allow some progress in the near future.
- Our unbeaten run last season and European journey. Although last season ended in major disappointment, two of the only positives we can take are our run in the first half of the season & our European performance - up until the final itself. Following our opening two fixtures against Manchester City and Chelsea, we went on a 22-game unbeaten streak, across all competitions. During this period, we were lucky at times, but the football was much better than what we’ve seen in recent months. Unai was unlucky with injuries to Héctor and Rob, as mentioned before, and both our football and results have deteriorated significantly since. Both defenders were key components to the Spaniard’s system, and we’ve never really replaced them during their absences. Another positive from an underwhelming was the road to Baku. Obviously, there’s no denying that we embarrassed ourselves in Azerbaijan against Chelsea, but there were some top performances during our route to the final - Napoli and Valencia spring to mind. If we can get back to the level we produced at The Mestalla, we can undoubtedly go on to have a successful season but, based on our recent displays, that looks quite unlikely.
- Chances for youth products. Last season, one major criticism of Emery was his failure to integrate academy graduates into the first team. So far this season, that hasn’t been the case. The new role of Freddie Ljungberg as assistant manager has had a positive effect. The Swede has helped youth players feel at ease in the first team environment. He’s also helped Unai with knowledge about our young talents. Their strengths, their weaknesses, and so on. We have a phenomenal group of youngsters at our disposal, so I view this as a positive for the future.
Negatives Regarding Emery:
- Lack of identity. It isn’t uncommon for a manager to take a few months to adjust to his surroundings and implement his tactics successfully. However, Unai is no longer a new appointment. He’s been at the helm for over a year, and there has been little to no developments of a certified style. When you think of Arsenal, you think of quick passing, fluid movement and adventurous football. This has not been the case under his guidance. While fans were after a change in approach following Arsène Wenger’s departure, I don’t think this was what they had in mind. If we had sacrificed some of our attacking flair in order to bolster our defence, no one would be complaining. However, we don’t appear to be any more solid defensively than when the Frenchman left. We’ve sacrificed our biggest asset and gained nothing in return. So far this season, we have played five games. In these games, we’ve had more shots than our opposition on just one occasion. While this is relatively expected ahead of a trip to Anfield, facing a similar fate against Burnley, Newcastle and Watford is simply unacceptable. During our 2-2 draw at Vicarage Road, The Hornets managed a whopping 31 shots. This is the highest figure that we’ve conceded since the 2003/04 season. When Guardiola and Klopp arrived in England, their success wasn’t instant, but you could always see the changes that they were trying to implement. Liverpool began pressing relentlessly from the offset and Manchester City were taught to play out from the back, regardless of any setbacks that may occur in the meantime. Whilst this let to problems initially, these are now two of the strongest outfits in Europe, let alone England. This is arguably my biggest concern with Emery. We don’t appear to have an end goal. The performances which we’ve seen so far this campaign have been almost identical to what we became accustomed to last year. No notable improvements. The same issues creeping up again and again. Despite new players coming into the XI, the same problems are still visible. This begs the question, is it the players or the system itself?
- Consistent changes to the system. Despite being here for almost 15 months, it is quite apparent that Emery is still unsure of his strongest system. Wenger’s was 4-2-3-1, Klopp’s is 4-3-3, Simeone’s is 4-4-2. When you think of a top manager, there is generally a set-up which comes to mind. Since Unai has been appointed, we’ve seen the Spaniard experiment with numerous systems. 3-4-1-2, 3-4-3, 4-4-2, 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3, etc. You could argue that having numerous systems in which the players feel comfortable is a positive, and you’d be correct. However, what’s very evident is that the players don’t feel comfortable. At all. Nobody seems entirely sure of their role and results are very common as a result. In a recent interview, Alan Smith revealed that he has been told that various players are left confused as to what their coach is asking from them. This is incredibly worrying. I don’t know whether it’s down to a language barrier, incompetence from the players involved or conflicting messages from Unai himself, but it must be seriously addressed regardless. If we had one constant system, or possibly even two, the players could learn from their mistakes and improve on a week-to-week basis. In the defence of the players, it can be tough to improve on your mistakes if you’re playing in a different system the next week. Take Kolašinac for example. If he is being told to bomb forward when the team plays a 3-4-1-2 system and he has than ingrained in his brain, it will become part of his natural game. So if he’s playing in a flat back four the following matchday, the advice which he’s been considering over the past week is largely useless, as it would leave our two centre backs exposed in this week’s system. Personally, I don’t think we’ll be able to reach our potential collectively until we have a go-to system.
- Failing to get the best out of key players. Since the Spaniard’s arrival, there has been a clear conflict of interest between Mesut Özil and the man in charge. The German was a key player under Arsène Wenger, but he doesn’t seem to fit into his successor’s philosophy. Mesut is an incredibly gifted footballer, but his ‘heart’ has been questioned on numerous by fans, the media and ex-players alike. He is almost never selected for away games and has only featured sporadically during Unai’s tenure. Rather interestingly, a lot of his performances came during our unbeaten streak last season and our European run. As much as I like Özil, I can’t deny that his form has dipped over the past 18 months or som but I still believe he’s an important member of the squad. Leaving him out in order to play three defensive-minded midfielders leaves our forwards starved of service and has a detrimental effect on the team, for me. Similarly, Emery has failed to find a system which consistently gets the best out of both Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette. We’ve often seen our number 14 utilised out wide. While his output has remained impressive, there is no denying that he is more useful to the side when deployed through the middle. Alternatively, if he plays through the middle, Lacazette doesn’t naturally fit into the team. The Frenchman won our player of the season award last year, so to leave him out seems criminal. In my opinion, Unai has to find a way to get the most out of all of the players at his disposal, which is something that he’s failed to do thus far.
- Unconvincing football has been matched by the results. During our unbeaten run last season, numerous members of the media claimed that ‘Arsenal were getting lucky’. Unconvincing performances were being turned into victories due to individual brilliance, rather than impressive team displays. At the time, I was dismissive of comments like this. I presumed that this level of football was an intermediate between the Arsène Wenger era and Emery putting his stamp on the club. However, we’re still experiencing the same style, or the lack there of. Whilst results are what’s most important, playing a high level of football can somewhat act as a positive during times of poor form. When Arsenal drop points nowadays, you don’t come out of the game feeling like we were unlucky. It feels like we have been out-footballed. This isn’t only the case against Manchester City and Liverpool, the same things apply after games vs Watford and Burnley. I must emphasise that good football does not make up for poor results, but it can show that the team is progressing. When results are going against you, you don’t really have much of an excuse when the performances match the poor form.
Overall, it’s a tricky situation at Arsenal right now. There is no question that the players are underperforming, but the same can be said regarding Unai. If I’m honest, I think that there are probably more negatives associated than positives. I think we’ll have to take it on a game-by-game basis. The Spaniard’s deal expires next summer, so I think our options will be reassessed when the season comes to a close. As of right now, I think we should part ways if Champions League football isn’t secured. It is probably best for all involved, as nobody appears to be benefiting from the current set-up.