Football Features

Five popular decisions Unai Emery should consider to rebuild bridges at Arsenal

By Harry Edwards

Published: 12:03, 29 October 2019

Arsenal may be sitting fifth in the Premier League, but the outlook certainly isn’t rosy at the Emirates.

The Gunners sit four points behind fourth-placed Chelsea and are without wins in their past two league games. A 1-0 defeat to Sheffield United was followed by a 2-2 draw with Crystal Palace. Between those two results was a Europa League win over Vitoria, but Arsenal went behind twice in that game, saved only by two wonderful Nicolas Pepe free-kicks.

Unai Emery’s appointment in 2018, which saw him replace Arsene Wenger, was supposed to usher in a new era where Arsenal were resumed competing at the top of English football. But as yet there have been few signs this will happen. And according to reports, we are already eight months away from a break clause that could bring about another managerial change.

While Emery may have been given some leeway in his first season as he worked with the remains of Wenger’s team, Arsenal fans are starting to lose their patience.

Already there are some supporters, both match-going and those who follow from afar, calling for Emery to be replaced. So what can Emery do to heal the discourse between himself and Arsenal fans and stop this?

1. Take Granit Xhaka out of the firing line by removing Arsenal captaincy

Let’s get this out of the way.

The major controversy from Arsenal’s recent draw against Crystal Palace, which showed just how bad the relationship between the club’s fans and some of the team, was the Granit Xhaka incident.

Arsenal’s captain was substituted in the second half on Sunday, with the game still level at 2-2. But while Arsenal fans would have wanted the Swiss midfielder to run off the pitch to allow Bukayo Saka to come on and push the Gunners to victory, Xhaka proceeded to walk off.

The slow departure swiftly saw Arsenal fans boo their captain, whose reaction was far from a good look. After swearing at his own fans, Xhaka cupped his ears, removed his shirt and headed straight down the tunnel.

Speaking after the game, Emery said Xhaka’s actions were wrong and insisted the club would be dealing with the situation internally. So, what’s going to happen?

Already Arsenal fans and former players are calling for Xhaka to be stripped of the captaincy. And if the Xhaka incident continues to go unpunished – or at least unaddressed – the Emirates support will ensure Emery is not allowed to forget it.

As former Arsenal defender Nigel Winterburn put it to Talksport: “If he backs Xhaka, he will realise what supporting Arsenal Football Club is all about because if the supporters don’t agree with him – and they obviously don’t agree with Xhaka being captain at the moment – then the manager himself will come under increasing pressure.”

This outcome may seem harsh on Xhaka, but the armband practically became a target the moment he was awarded it.

Arsenal have some suitable alternatives for the captaincy who generally attract less criticism. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, for example, is first vice-captain. His goals have earned vital points for Arsenal in the Premier League all season, and he has already pleased Emery through his on-field decision-making.

2. …and then patch things up with the Arsenal squad

This will be a tough one if Emery does bow to external pressure and relieve Xhaka of the captain’s duties. Let’s not forget who made Xhaka his skipper in the first place, and how.

Although Emery made the announcement, Xhaka was only officially handed the captaincy after the Arsenal manager had spoken to members of the squad, with Rob Holding revealing a vote was held.

“He likes his five captains. We all did a vote the other week so we’ll see what happens and see who gets named,” Holding said.

“It was just ‘write names down and then give them to the manager’, and he will go through them obviously with his input and we’ll see what happens.”

Xhaka has also received backing after his outburst from some of his team-mates, including Hector Bellerin, who was quick to remind those upset that the midfielder – just like everybody else – is only human and reacted as many people would.

Photos have also emerged of Lucas Torreira looking so upset at Xhaka’s reception from the Arsenal fans that he was moved to tears.

But, whatever Emery’s decision on Xhaka is, the Spaniard needs to unite the Arsenal team. If there is a divide – and some reports say he fears a backlash if Xhaka loses the captaincy – players won’t be capable of performing to their maximum until the divide is fixed.

3. Free Mezut Ozil

Perhaps as a show of defiance from Arsenal fans against Emery, Mesut Ozil’s name was sung around the Emirates late on Sunday afternoon, with the former German international yet again missing from the squad.

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Ozil has played just 142 minutes across all competitions this season, 71 in the Premier League and 71 in the Carabao Cup. Those 71 Premier League minutes were amassed from just one of the three occasions Ozil has been named on the Arsenal bench, with 10 games played.

Understandably, a small number of games missed at the start of the season came as a result of him being a victim of an attack alongside Sead Kolasinac, but the subsequent omissions are slightly more bizarre.

Although Ozil is not the player he once was, the 31-year-old remains Arsenal’s best creator, statistically at least.

Since Emery took charge in the summer of 2018, only Xhaka (47) has created more chances than Ozil (46) in the Premier League. But the Swiss international has played just over 1,400 minutes more than his teammate. Ozil’s 46 chances created have come at an average of 2.28 per 90 minutes, the best of any current Arsenal player across Emery’s reign.

Even if he’s given a cameo role, surely Ozil is better off being around the Arsenal team rather than watching them from home?

4. Play Lucas Torreira in his preferred role

Another of Emery’s starting XI decisions that appears to be confusing Arsenal fans is his use, or lack of in some circumstances, of Torreira.

The Uruguayan’s arrival last summer came with much fanfare and, after being eased into the team, Torreira quickly played his way into the heart of Arsenal fans with high commitment and good quality play at the base of the midfield.

But this season Torreira has started just two Premier League games for a total of 202 minutes, in addition to four starts in cup competitions. In those cup games, Torreira has been playing in his natural defensive role, marshalling in front of the defence.

Yet when the Premier League rolls around, Emery asks something completely different of Torreira. Instead of being a destructive force in midfield, Torreira is being asked to basically be Ozil, creating chances. And, for all the quality Torreira has, creativity is not his strong suit.

According to Emery, Torreira has the confidence to play in an advanced tole, but any confidence is not carrying over to the Uruguayan’s performances. Unfortunately, Torreira is looking a far cry from the star Arsenal bought last year, ineffective at times and powerless as the Gunners struggle.

5. Land on a first-choice system

It is possible that Emery’s fluctuating starting XI choices are borne out of the fact the Spaniard does not know his best formation, or team.

In 72 games since replacing Wenger, Emery has used eight different formations without ever fully committing to one.

Although tactical adaptation can be the sign of a high-quality manager, those at the top of the game often have a favourite formation, one they stick to for the majority of their games, changing only when absolutely necessary. But that doesn’t seem to be the case for Emery.

Over the years, Emery and the 4-2-3-1 had become synonymous. The Spaniard barely wavered from it between 2008 and 2016 while in charge of Valencia, Spartak Moscow and Sevilla. But the 47-year-old has used the 4-2-3-1 in fewer than half of his games in charge of Arsenal.

In his past six matches, Emery has tried a 4-4-2, 4-2-3-1, 4-1-4-1 and 4-3-3; Arsenal have won three games, drawing two and lost one, but two of those victories came in Europa League the Gunners were expected to win.

It cannot be beneficial for Arsenal players to be constantly switching formations, all of which must demand technical knowledge of players in both defence and attack. Tactical confusion is something to which former Arsenal striker Alan Smith previously alluded.

Smith said in September: “I have heard whispers, after all, that some of the players find their manager’s instructions confusing, that they do not really know what he wants them to do.

“If so, that does not bode well. A clarity of purpose is essential.”