After eight games of the Premier League season, Arsenal find themselves only two points off the top. It’s a remarkable record for a side still in transition under new boss Unai Emery, but it’s somewhat difficult to explain precisely how they’ve strung together six consecutive league victories, considering their fractured performances thus far.
Emery is an interesting coach: neither a defensive or an attacking manager, not particularly renowned for one specific footballing concept. Summaries of Emery’s approach tend to focus upon his attention-to-detail rather than his overall footballing philosophy, and it feels odd that Arsenal, the grand philosophers of the Premier League over the past two decades, are not attempting to perfect a particularly specific approach.
Arguably the two most obvious consequences of Emery’s coaching have been simple: playing out from the back, and pressing from the front. Neither are revolutionary concepts, merely standard features of top-level modern sides, and neither have proved entirely effective thus far. Petr Cech has encountered problems when attempting to pass his way out of trouble, managing to concede corners on two occasions when badly miscuing passes. Bernd Leno may prove more reliable, but the German has only become a regular in Cech’s absence, when Emery might have been expected to prefer him from the outset, making a statement about his priorities.
There has, in fairness, been one major positive from the commitment to playing out — their equaliser in the 3-2 defeat at Stamford Bridge, which featured ten Arsenal players stringing together passes before Alex Iwobi finished calmly from close-range. That move, coming in Arsenal’s second game, will doubtless have been referenced several times by Emery, who has introduced more video sessions than Arsenal’s players were accustomed to.
Arsenal’s pressing has been considerably less effective. Their attackers have been bypassed far too readily when attempting to pressure the opposition in their own half, and while there’s no particular shame in that happening against Manchester City, Marco Silva’s Everton managed it fairly easily too.
These attempts at pressing are causing problems in deeper positions. Neither Sokratis Papastathopoulos nor Shkodran Mustafi look comfortable in a high defensive line, although the former did demonstrate a handy turn of speed to get the latter out of trouble in the 2-1 win away at Newcastle. Still, the likes of Chelsea and Watford have broken in behind too readily.
The centre-backs have also found themselves covering too much ground in wide areas, because Emery has allowed both Hector Bellerin and Nacho Monreal to push forward simultaneously. There have been some positive benefits here: Monreal scored Arsenal’s equaliser in the 3-1 victory over West Ham from a deflected Bellerin cross, and the latter’s constant overlapping has been a crucial feature of the Gunners’ attacking play.
Both full-backs pushing forward has nevertheless felt too risky, and it’s surprising Arsenal haven’t been caught out more from counter-attacks. West Ham should have punished them in those situations, particularly through Felipe Anderson, while the Gunners were fortunate that Isaac Success dinked against the far post on the break in Arsenal’s eventual 2-0 win over Watford.
Some protection has been provided by Arsenal’s central midfielders, and it’s notable that Emery has refused to use Aaron Ramsey in one of the two deeper midfield roles, his most common position when Arsenal used 4-2-3-1 under Wenger. Instead, it’s been two of Matteo Guendouzi, Granit Xhaka and Lucas Torreira, with the latter two most likely to continue as regulars. It’s Arsenal’s feistiest combination for years, and supporters love a committed tackler, but both need more positional discipline and a little less impetuousness.
Going forward, Emery has changed course. In the first three games of the campaign he started Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang upfront, with Alexandre Lacazette only on the bench. But after the Frenchman made a good impact as a substitute against Manchester City and, in particular, the 3-1 win over West Ham, he’s started upfront with Aubameyang playing from the left. Their combination play has sometimes worked excellently, including for Aubameyang’s lovely curling strike against Cardiff after Lacazette’s clever touch. Their relationship is excellent — even when Aubameyang was rested for the weekend victory over Fulham, Lacazette rushed over to celebrate his opener with him.
Again, though, that has compromised Arsenal’s balance. Monreal has been protected better when Alex Iwobi has been fielded down that flank, and Aubameyang’s determination to become a second striker has contributed to the openness at turnovers.
Perhaps the strangest thing about Arsenal is that Aaron Ramsey has been fielded as the number 10 in six of Arsenal’s eight Premier League matches, and rounded off arguably the best goal of the Premier League season in Sunday’s 5-1 win at Fulham, but he appears likely to leave the club next summer because of contractual issues. Emery will therefore be dissuaded from building the attack around him, which would probably mean Ozil returning to his favoured role — where he’s only started once this season, away at Chelsea, when he was substituted midway through the second half, for Ramsey.
And therefore, despite the six league victories in a row — nine in all competitions — it’s difficult to assess one area that looks right under Emery.
At a push, Arsenal have prospered so far because they’ve excelled in the penalty boxes. Upfront, Lacazette and Aubemeyang have managed four league goals apiece, but Arsenal’s Premier goals have been shared around by ten players, which becomes 13 when you consider the Europa League. At the back, Cech provided a man-of-the-match performance in the win over Everton, and Leno made some fine saves as a substitute against Watford.
It might sound harsh on a manager who has recorded nine victories from 11 matches in a new country, but it’s difficult to give Emery too much praise for these features. Arsenal have been impressive in terms of individual contributions at either end, but there remain major questions about the format of the attack, the structure of the midfield and the positioning of the defence. Maybe Arsenal will improve further when Emery fixes structural problems, maybe Emery’s coaching of individuals has improved their finishing. But thus far Arsenal have conceded too many chances, and depended upon shooting quality which might not prove sustainable.
By now, we might have expected Emery’s Arsenal to be decisively continuing along a particular tactical course but struggling to convert their intentions into points. Instead it’s the opposite: Arsenal are collecting points despite muddled intentions. Emery, you suspect, knows that better than anyone.