There has been much debate over Arsenal’s ‘style’ or ‘philosophy’ since Unai Emery was appointed last summer. The manager himself spoke in fairly vague terms about wanting his team to be ‘protagonists’ and to press high up the pitch at his unveiling. It’s fair to say that Arsenal have, for better or worse, not followed a particular template in the intervening 15 months or so.
At the moment, we don’t know if Emery was just speaking for the sake of avoiding dead air in his opening press conference and perhaps didn’t expect to be taken at his word so vigorously. Or else, maybe he had a blueprint in mind but quickly realised he couldn’t achieve it with the players he had at his disposal.
There seemed to be a clear idea of how Emery teams played prior to his arrival and, sure enough, he started with his favoured 4-2-3-1 in his opening matches in charge, with Aaron Ramsey in an advanced midfield position, Mesut Özil on the right and Pierre Emerick Aubameyang eventually moved to the left after Alex Lacazette had made himself indispensable.
Soon enough, Emery discarded the system and began to favour a more flexible approach. Ahead of the Europa League final, the coach did issue something of a correction on his opening gambit. “I want us to be a chameleon team, able to play in possession, in static attack against close opponents, or to counterattack.”
It sounds like Emery reassessed the tools in his toolbox, leading to a shift in philosophy- namely, not to have a prevailing philosophy. This is a huge change for Arsenal fans, of course, after 22 years with an ideologue like Wenger, who signed off his closing soliloquy as manager with the phrase, “take care of the values of the club.”
Not only did Emery inherit a squad that was ill-fitting to his personal philosophy, he took on a Frankenstein assembly whose sole creator could not even forge into something coherent. Trying to balance a top-heavy squad between defence and attack has been a Herculean undertaking and Emery hasn’t made improvements here yet.
However, recent games against Manchester United and Bournemouth have shown some tentative steps to stem the bleed of shots on their goal. After Spurs managed 8 shots on target, Watford had 10 and Aston Villa managed 6, Manchester United only rustled up 4 strikes that troubled Bernd Leno, while Bournemouth engaged him just twice.
Arsenal have also dispensed with the idea of playing out from the back under all circumstances, as Adrian Clarke highlighted in his Breakdown of the Bournemouth game. The result, of course, has been more moribund attacking displays. The blanket is just never quite big enough. Arsenal have struggled for attacking identity under Emery, but there is some mitigation for the Spaniard this season as he inducts new attacking talent into crucial positions via the likes of Pepe, Ceballos and Willock, with Nelson and Saka promoted into the first team too.
Interestingly, in the aforementioned interview ahead of the Europa League Final, Emery namechecked Mesut Özil as one of his ‘protagonists’, “For the first [possession based play], Ozil suits very well, he has the virtue of discovering spaces. For the second, Aubameyang. To the extent that we are able to combine it, we will grow.” Özil has, of course, been sidelined again this season for non-footballing reasons.
This thread is interesting not because it’s about Ozil but because it hints at something I think we all suspect; arsenal avoid central spaces in the attacking third & don’t create chances from those positions, opting instead for wide buildup & chance creation. For better or worse https://t.co/SnRm7Jry6z
— YankeeGunner (@YankeeGunner) October 12, 2019
Like Alexis, Özil had previously been a ‘style leader’ for the Arsenal team. It danced to his tune and tolerated his flaws. Alexis and Özil were stylistically dominant characters. Alexis’ replacement was, essentially, Pierre Emerick Aubameyang and the Gabonese is an outstanding goalscorer, but leaves no stylistic imprint on the team because he only really operates in the final 30 yards of the pitch.
Even when Özil has played under Emery, he has generally struggled to assert himself because Emery teams prefer to attack through wide spaces. (Though it is worth noting that Mesut’s decline predates Unai’s appointment). The German is not the only player that has struggled to interpret the coach’s demands of the number 10 role. Ramsey never really got the hang of it either, the Welshman looked far more comfortable as a freer number 8 in a 352.
In the opening match of the 2018-19 season, against Manchester City, Aaron Ramsey touched the ball just 18 times in the role behind the strikers. That was Manchester City of course, but after the autumn, he did not operate in that role again. On the first day of this season, Joe Willock played a similar position in a 4-2-3-1 formation at Newcastle.
Willock touched the ball on 35 occasions, far fewer than his attacking colleagues Aubameyang (44), Nelson (57) and Mkhitaryan (67). Bernd Leno had possession on 45 occasions that afternoon. Emery often uses a central number 10 as a decoy so that the ball can be funnelled towards the half spaces. Effectively, playing as a number 10 under Emery is a bit like being an NFL blocker, which is difficult and often unsatisfying for the characters that typically play the position.
These players are often the ones that give a team its attacking character. The coach prefers for his wide players- be they wide forwards or full-backs- to give the team its attacking impetus. Pepe has struggled to do this so far for many reasons, but the absence of Hector Bellerin and, ironically, the lack of a number 10 to combine with has hampered him.
Putting to one side ‘the Özil question’ this, I think, is a good snapshot of why Pepe hasn’t quite clicked yet. Arsenal are asking quite a lot of him. https://t.co/6iZ0kuN8li
— Tim Stillman (@Stillberto) October 7, 2019
This has been exacerbated by the absence of Alex Lacazette, who drops back into areas often occupied by a number 10. His qualities are more physical than creative, but Pepe has certainly missed a colleague for the odd wall-pass so that he is not expected to dribble past a throng of defenders every time he receives the ball.
Saka and Nelson are still a little green to dominate the team stylistically, though Gabriel Martinelli looks more like that type of character in his handful of appearances thus far. In lieu of Emery arriving at a ‘philosophy’, Arsenal don’t have many alpha players, stylistically speaking, as they did with Alexis, van Persie, Fabregas or Henry, who bent teams to their ideological will.
Identifying a footballing genre for your team has climbed the supporter’s Maslow triangle of needs. The lack of wealth distribution means that teams are often partitioned off into a specific area of the league. Arsenal do better out of this deal than most of their contemporaries, but they still know they cannot win the league title and in the absence of that realistic ambition, fans need a sense that this all means something. Arsenal lacks a narrative arc partly because it lacks authors.