Unai Emery’s Broken Kaleidoscope Was a Small Part of Arsenal’s Problem
And so the grumbling of results and offers has claimed another victim. By the end, Unai Emery cut a hapless figure, mumbling incoherently after defeat to Eintracht Frankfurt as the world collapsed around him. He was a scapegoat, as managers always are, barely less a patsy in his role as Arsène Wenger’s successor than he had been as Neymar’s minder at Paris Saint-Germain. He certainly should not be immune from criticism, but equally nobody should think his replacement will bring about improvement merely by not being Emery.
Emery joined as a Europa League manager for a Europa League club; he will leave as somebody who has struggled in three jobs outside Spain, compromised, despite his best efforts to speak English, by an inability to communicate.
Whatever conviction may once have underlain his actions had vanished by the end, replaced by a desperate shaking of the tactical kaleidoscope, hoping beyond hope that it might turn up something that worked. It never did.
Last season, Emery portrayed himself as a pressing coach, but this season Arsenal have defended much deeper, perhaps because of the arrival of David Luiz, whose relative lack of pace makes a high line impractical.
Emery wanted to play out from the back, but Bernd Leno increasingly came to kick long. A month ago, Emery revealed that he and the board had taken a collective decision to omit Mesut Özil to try to force him to leave and relieve the club of the burden of his extraordinary salary. Yet after impressing in the 5-5 League Cup game at Liverpool, he has started the past three Premier League games.
Emery had Arsenal line up with a back three in 13 of last season’s 38 league games but this season the plan was clearly for a back four until two games ago, when suddenly the back three emerged again. While it is true there is no sense sticking stubbornly to a plan that isn’t working, equally it felt as though Emery was blowing with the wind.
It may be that a 3-4-1-2 is the way to get the best out of this group of players. David Luiz has always looked more comfortable as part of a back three rather than as one of two central defenders. With a player either side of him, his lack of positional discipline and instinct to go looking for the ball can be accommodated. He can then step into space and make the most of his long‑passing ability.
All four full-backs at the club (if you include Ainsley Maitland‑Niles but not Calum Chambers, which is being only slightly generous with the definitions) are naturally attackers.
Fielding Matteo Guendouzi and Lucas Torreira – or Granit Xhaka if his ostracism is over – at the back of midfield provides a platform for Özil, and allowed Emery to field Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette, probably the two most gifted players in the squad, as a front two.
All of that made sense, but there is one obvious issue: where does it leave Nicolas Pépé, the wide forward who arrived to such excitement for £72m in the summer? On a similar, if slightly less dramatic theme, where does it leave Dani Ceballos, on loan from Real Madrid, who looked so impressive when he made his first start at home to Burnley on the opening day of the season? Ceballos, perhaps, would be a third midfielder, a more attacking option in place of one of the two holders, or a less creative alternative to Özil. Pépé, though, would seem to have no obvious role in that structure.
There is always something a little unseemly about the rush to judgment on players taking their first steps in a new league and it may be that Pépé proves himself a very useful acquisition. So far, though, the impression has been of a very one-footed player who essentially has to start wide on the right and cut in on to his left foot. In itself that is not hugely problematic but it does limit a manager’s tactical options. The hope in the summer was that Pépé could play on the right of a front three with Aubameyang cutting in from the left but that risks not getting the best out of the Gabon international, whose preference for playing through the middle is clear.
That hints at something more fundamental. What exactly was the thinking behind the signing of Pépé? Did anybody at Arsenal, whether Emery or the head of football, Raul Sanllehi, or the technical director, Edu (who was appointed three weeks before Pépé signed), or anybody else on the board sit down and work out how the team might fit together?
Perhaps there was a belief that Aubameyang could shift to the left but if there was, it soon evaporated: the three of Pépé, Aubameyang and Lacazette have started two games together, the draws against Tottenham and Palace.
Increasingly, Pépé feels like a trophy signing. He is an exciting player and Arsenal could get him and so they did, sating the demand from fans for a glitzy acquisition – even though the talk at the time was that the fee represented the transfer budget not only for this season but for a couple of years into the future as well.
How Pépé might fit into the team appears to have been a secondary consideration, one that comes to appear negligent given the deficiencies elsewhere in the squad – in central defence and central midfield most obviously.
That is not Pépé’s fault and it wasn’t really Emery’s. He is far from blameless but, as so often when big clubs go bad, the manager is only part of the problem. As at Manchester United, this is an issue of structure and leadership and, as at United, it is in part the result of the difficulty of replacing a long-serving overarching genius. Absentee owners who lack football expertise and seem more concerned with dividends than trophies probably don’t help.
It was Emery who paid the price. His replacement may bring an upturn in form, as blood-letting often does, but the deeper structural issues remain.