OPINION: Emery must swallow his pride to succeed at Arsenal

Alan O’Brien 

After 14 years of protracted decline under Arsene Wenger, Arsenal fans are entitled to feel excited. Unai Emery, a so-called serial winner, represents a welcome new dawn for Gunners supporters. Unlike Wenger, the Basque has not adhered rigidly to one true style of play throughout his managerial career.

In three full seasons at Sevilla, armed with a counterattacking 4-2-3-1, Emery won the Europa League every time. At PSG, however, Emery found European success elusive with a possession-based, pressing-oriented 4-3-3. Which of those masks the former midfielder chooses to wear, and when, will ultimately decide his Emirates Stadium fate.

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Unai Emery’s likely system of choice at Arsenal; a 4-3-3, with both wide players drifting inside, and the full-backs advancing freely

All soundbites collected to date suggest that Emery will simply port his Parc des Princes blueprint over the channel. Speaking on appointment, Emery spoke freely about his footballing philosophy: “My idea is to be the protagonist all of the match. [Arsenal] love to play in possession of the ball.”

“I like this personality and when we don’t have the ball I want a squad to play with intensive pressure,” the Basque continued. Music to the ears of striker Alexandre Lacazette, who spoke warmly about joining the high-pressing club at a recent sponsor event in Singapore.

“High pressure and positioning. We want to keep the ball,” Lacazette responded succinctly, when quizzed about his new manager’s approach. “This [pressing] can be good because we can have the ball higher and we can have more chances than last season.”

Pretty conclusive, then: the new regime will join Manchester City, Tottenham, and Liverpool on the gegenpressing bandwagon, while also remaining faithful to the club’s longstanding marriage to possession football. Question marks remain, however: is this what’s best for Emery, and is it what’s best for the players at his disposal?

Familiar

It’s difficult to quibble with a domestic treble, clinched by Emery in May to cap his final season in Paris. But in Europe, where PSG were not overmatched against all their opponents, Emery disappointed. Pipped to the Ligue 1 title by Monaco in his first season at the club, Emery nonetheless took more heat after the infamous March 2017 capitulation to Barcelona. Ahead 4-0 after the first leg, the brittle French side somehow lost the return 6-1.

And, although PSG regained their league mantle last season, another last-16 exit to Real Madrid sealed Emery’s fate. Throughout that tie, both clubs demonstrated precious little cohesive team play, suggesting that Emery had failed to coalesce his constellation of stars into a well-oiled unit.

The Basque’s insistence upon being the “protagonist” throughout a 3-1 first leg defeat at the Bernabeu did the damage. PSG came to dominate possession and to press high, but Madrid’s individual quality ruthlessly punished their naivety. Errors abounded, particularly from Giovanni Lo Celso who looked out of his depth in Thiago Motta’s guard-dog role. From then on, Emery was a bust flush; the ensuing domestic treble was ultimately meaningless.

All of the above will sound eerily familiar to the average Arsenal fan. Starved of league glory throughout a barren 14-year run, they watched grimly as Wenger tempted countless humiliating defeats by sticking to his tactical guns. Both Rafael Benitez and José Mourinho arrived on English shores in the direct wake of Arsenal’s invincible 2003/04 season, bringing detailed opposition scouting with them. Wenger never adapted to this new reality; he, too, always wanted to be the “protagonist”.

Counterattack

Herein lies the great irony of Emery’s (relative) failure in Paris: all of his prior success was earned with a diametrically opposite approach. Throughout three full seasons at Sevilla, Emery’s charges never once averaged above 50% possession in a full campaign. Possession and high-pressing were not necessary to overachieve in La Liga and dominate Europe’s second competition.

Instead, counterattack was very much the order of the day. Under Emery, Sevilla were organised in an ultra-compact 4-2-3-1, with a relatively high defensive line, designed to deny the opposition space in midfield. Short distances between the players made ball-winning easier and also proved a boon on the break, too. In fact, it was this very pragmatism that enticed PSG to replace the tactically suspect Laurent Blanc with Emery in the first place.

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Emery and the Europa League trophy he garnered for Sevilla on three consecutive occasions

Faced for the first time with a “big job”, Emery felt compelled to swing from reactive to proactive. And to some extent that was understandable: more monied and star-studded than all other Ligue 1 clubs, PSG couldn’t realistically expect to play on the break every week. Sometimes, however, doing just that is appropriate, no matter how much cash you have to play with.

Indeed, two of Emery’s greatest triumphs at PSG were secured via counterattacking masterclasses. A 4-0 home win over Barcelona in February 2017 will live long in Luis Enrique’s memory, while last season’s 3-0 home win over Bayern Munich got Carlo Ancelotti the sack. In both cases, Emery aped his Sevilla approach (albeit in a 4-3-3 formation) with exhilarating results. Yet, whenever possible, the Basque still reverted to “protagonist” mode, with an indulged squad who didn’t look interested in making it work for their manager.

Transformative Torreira

Could it be, then, that Emery sees Arsenal as a shot at redemption; a chance to make his proactive plan work with more pliable players? If so, there are reasons for Gunners fans to be cheerful. Lucas Torreira, for example, is a potentially transformative signing, the kind of genuine defensive midfielder that Wenger long refused to recruit.

Only 22, the Uruguayan has already starred at the base of a diamond for both Sampdoria and his country, showing powers of interception far beyond his years. Unlike Lo Celso, he is the perfect man for the deepest role in Emery’s 4-3-3.

Torreira’s safeguarding at the bottom of a midfield triangle should also help both Aaron Ramsey and Granit Xhaka. Dating back to the 2013/14 season, Ramsey has boasted one of Britain’s best box-to-box games. Few Premier League midfielders share the Welshman’s adeptness at arriving late in the opposition area.

But Ramsey has long been restricted by his deployment in a double-pivot, alongside a Xhaka-type who isn’t capable of letting him go. Torreira’s arrival, therefore, should see Ramsey return to goalscoring form. Xhaka, meanwhile, can focus on making the play. The rash Swiss international will no longer be required to perform a protector role for which is he completely ill-suited.

Front three

Further ahead, Mesut Ozil will also flourish in one of Emery’s two number-10 roles. The Basque expects both wingers to drift inside, allowing the full-backs to advance and stretch the play. The goal is to pull opposition defenders out of position, creating gaps for through-balls. And through-balls, of course, are Ozil’s forte. Pressing, however is not, and that may open the door for Henrikh Mkhitaryan to claim the right-sided role instead.

Elsewhere, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Lacazatte are shoo-ins for the left-wing and striker roles respectively. The two dovetailed well together in Arsenal’s opening ICC friendly against Atletico Madrid, in which Emery trialed his 4-3-3, and 19-year-old Matteo Guendouzi served Torreira notice of competition.

The subsequent 5-1 victory against a third-string PSG saw Aubameyang start up top in a 4-2-3-1, with Ozil in his customary number-10 role. Mohamed Elneny joined Guendouzi at the base of midfield. Manchester City may yet face this configuration on the opening weekend, but at the moment 4-3-3 is more likely.

Personnel problems

Whatever shape Emery opts for against last season’s runaway champions, his overall approach is infinitely more important. A high-block paired with intent to dominate possession risks oblivion at Pep Guardiola’s hands. The Basque’s ongoing personnel problems in defence will surely see to that.

Although encouraging, both ICC friendlies saw Sead Kolasinac ruthlessly targeted down Arsenal’s left-hand side. It appears Wenger saw the Bosnian as a wing-back only, and not a full-back, for a reason. Skinned regularly in both games, Kolasinac conceded a penalty-kick with a rash recovery challenge on PSG’s Tim Weah. And the 25-year-old was AWOL for Atletico’s opener, too. Rob Holding, the left-sided centre-back on the day, was fatally drawn out of position to compensate.

Although energetic enough to cover the left flank alone as Emery’s system requires, Kolasinac looks a real weak link that opponents will target. Nacho Monreal represents a safer option, but at 32 is not the mobile full-back he once was.

Given the ongoing injury problems suffered by Laurent Koscielny, Emery will not have a natural covering defender at his disposal against City either. Instead, the Basque will have to slot either Sokratis or Shkodhran Mustafi alongside Kolasinac. Both are aggressive, front-foot defenders and neither are good on the turn; a recipe for disaster, especially if Emery employs a high line.

Conclusion

At least Bernd Leno represents an upgrade between the sticks, but the German goalkeeper may find himself swamped on his first day in the job. That depends on his new manager’s ego and willingness to cede the initiative. Emery’s dreams of being the hero in his own swashbuckling, possession-hogging story may well prove Arsenal’s undoing.

Sometimes choosing to be the villain, to be reactive rather than proactive, is wiser. Such an understanding was beyond Wenger, and it may have escaped his successor during his time at PSG, too. If redemption is to follow at Arsenal, starting with survival against Manchester City, Emery desperately needs to swallow his pride.

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