Tactical analysis of Unai Emery’s early reign at Arsenal
Although Unai Emery‘s tenure at Arsenal hasn’t all been plain sailing, his impact since replacing the legendary Arsène Wenger in the summer has been overwhelmingly positive. The Spanish tactician’s wasted little time on stamping his mark on the Gunners, as he’s added some much-needed intensity, tenacity and aggression into the side. Meticulous and demanding, he hasn’t been afraid to make the hard calls, for he’s regularly chopped and changed personnel and formation, as he’s looked to tailor his setup depending on the opposition and the game state. Having used many shapes including 4-2-3-1, 4-2-2-2, 4-3-3, 4-4-2 diamond, 4-4-2, 3-5-2, 3-4-1-2 and 3-4-3, he’s been brave in his tactical choices. Showing his tactical flexibility, acuity and bravery to address issues and switch things up during matches, his tinkering has often been the catalyst towards Arsenal winning. An obvious highlight of his impressive start has been the remarkable 22 matches unbeaten streak he oversaw, where he maximised the Gunners’ strengths, which offered a fine example of the new found mental toughness he’s instilled into the players, for Arsenal rarely led at half-time in this run. And therefore needed to regularly dig in and fight back to earn their victories.
Upon analysing some of the key tenets of his offensive framework, there’s no doubting he deserves credit for his success in this phase. Having already scored an eye-catching 46 goals in their 21 Premier League games so far, which ranks joint third with Tottenham Hotspur in this metric behind only Manchester City and Liverpool, his multifaceted offensive mechanics are certainly bearing fruit. To start with, his insistence on building out from the back has been crucial towards the Gunners’ success, with Arsenal intent on moving the ball quickly and inviting pressure to create space between the opposition’s lines and within their structure horizontally. Whether building with two wide splitting centre-backs, a back three or opting to drop a midfielder in between the centre-backs, Emery’s looked to create numerical and positional superiorities over his adversaries to break through their first line of pressure.
In addition to this, he’ll typically push his fullbacks high, something that makes room in the half spaces for a midfielder to drop into or a central defender to dribble forward, to hope to provoke a pressing action to create a free man or open a passing lane upfield.
Seeing as his wingers will frequently be instructed to drift infield to occupy dangerous central spaces, this has importantly made openings for the fullbacks/wingbacks to overlap while giving Arsenal better connectivity and presence in the 10 spaces. Some other byproducts of these indented wide men have arisen from how they often receive in pockets in a position to drive at their opposition backline, partake in some incisive combination play in and around the box or embark on dangerous runs into the box from their advanced central location. Arsenal’s pacey forwards, Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, play a pivotal role too, for their blistering speed and ability to beautifully time, angle and direct their runs in behind effectively stretches their foes’ defensive shape.
This notably puts them in ideal areas to latch onto through balls, in the air and on the ground, while also widening the space between the opposition’s defensive and midfield lines that can be exploited by their fellow attackers.
Through the aforementioned duo’s dynamism and intelligence, they’re a constant menace to any team, for they parlay power, finesse, intelligence and lethal finishing wonderfully. Forever manipulating defensive units, the jet-heeled forwards crucially open spaces in between defenders for penetrative runs from deep to be made, which the likes of Granit Xhaka, Aaron Ramsey, Matteo Guendouzi and Lucas Torreira are only too happy to utilise. From crossing and cutback scenarios, Emery has ensured many runners flood the box in differing zones to further amplify their scoring chances. Hoping to open spaces in advantageous positions to disrupt their opponents’ defensive organisation with their staggered movement this has aided their quest to generate high-quality shooting opportunities.
It’s been important to note that when Arsenal are hemmed in and pressed effectively in their attempts to pass out from the back, they are content to go direct with a long ball. From here, they’ll then look to win the second balls and attack again high up.
The way Arsenal’s midfielders, wingbacks/fullbacks and attackers perform slick rotations has been a further source of encouragement. Be it strikers interchanging with wingers, wingers rotating with their fullback/wingback or a wide player switching with their nearby central midfielder and many more variations, these mechanics have added some extra menace. By never letting opponents settle into a rhythm or how best to contain them by persistently altering their reference points, the aforementioned has worked well to manufacture some excellent openings.
Many of these smooth rotations will occur in wide areas, where Arsenal try to position themselves in a triangle and diamond-like structures to create overloads to progress, with these interchanges serving them neatly in terms of freeing up a teammate. When funnelling their possession forays in wide and wide of centre areas, this inherently moves the opposition block over to one side, which leaves the far side open. And Emery’s side hasn’t been shy in using the overload to isolate principle to immediately move the ball to the far side and put a wide player in ideal 1v1 or 2v1 situations (if the fullback and winger are both there) to charge ahead into space.
Inheriting attacking minded players with many interesting profiles, it’s been promising to see Emery blend many different offensive strategies to unlock his enemies. As time goes on and Emery’s methods are perfected, it’ll be expected Arsenal’s skilful, technical and powerful attackers will continue to improve their already impressive production. Having conceded 31 goals already, the equal 10th worst defensive record in the league, Emery acknowledges the fact his team need to improve in this regard. Not helped by injuries to key men like Laurent Koscielny, Sokratis Papastathopoulos, Nacho Monreal, Hector Bellerin and Rob Holding (who’ll miss the rest of the season), it’s certainly been tough going to put his ideal unit together. With Arsenal so eager to push numbers forward when attacking, this has sometimes exposed the central defenders far too much on the counter-attack.
While Emery demands his players counter-press as soon as they lose possession, in order to regain the ball high up to attack again, if the opposition overcomes this, Arsenal has often been left shorthanded. This can be down to the sheer volume of players positioned high up, which usually includes both full backs and at least one central midfielder. In addition, if their offensive spacing is unbalanced, their access to press their opposition is reduced, which will compound Arsenal’s issues in preventing the transition. Emery’s clearly working on getting the balance right on attacking forcefully while supplying adequate protection, something his recent comments after the Fulham win illustrated. “We are very happy with the attacking players and scoring a lot of goals like today. We are a high team in terms of scoring,” he insisted. “We need defence also to take more balance and improve. We need to work. We need to prepare for the second half of the season. We need to do better in the second half of the season, tactically and we are going to do that. Our challenge now is to improve defensively.”
It must be said, however, there has been plenty of upsides to be drawn from the North Londoners’ high pressing, as Emery’s noticeably enhanced the team’s work here since taking over the reign from Wenger. Intent on applying vigorous pressure on his opposition’s build-up, Arsenal have done a top job of applying fierce pressure while also trying to use their cover shadows to block passing lanes behind them. By curving their harrying efforts, this has allowed them to push team’s wide and block access back into the middle.
Seeing as Arsenal keep a high line and respond quickly to pressing triggers like a striker dropping to link play, an opponent receiving in an open body posture or with their back to goal, when an underhit pass is hit or when a pass goes wide during build-up, they’ve successfully condensed the pitch and forced many turnovers or unclean actions due to their pressing prowess. The summer signing from Sampdoria, Torreira, deserves special mention for his stopping exploits, for he’s been exceptional at breaking up attacks and winning the ball back, with his tenacity, athleticism, physicality, awareness and exemplary timing of his interventions being pivotal. Some interesting statistics to emerge from Emery’s intriguing opening period in charge have been from how Arsenal are averaging 2.16 goals per game from 1.61 xG pg, unleashing 12.16 shots pg, enjoying 58.82% of possession pg, are embarking on 4.22 counter attacks ending with a shot pg and completing 74.5% of their 64.78 attempted passes into the final third.
All in all, Emery‘s first six months in charge has seen some quite significant changes, as he’s strongly imposed his views on the Gunners. Even though there are some issues to address, if the first six months are any indication, the signs are certainly looking positive that Emery will once again get Arsenal challenging at the top of the table and in contention to qualify for the Champions League. It might not happen in his first season, but given time and patience to completely bed in his ideas and concepts, the formidable groundwork he’s laying down now should put Arsenal in good stead to become a real force to be reckoned with in years to come.