Although Arsenal currently sit fifth in the Premier League, just two points outside the top four, frustration is growing at the Emirates.
Unai Emery’s arrival in the summer of 2018, replacing Arsene Wenger, was supposed to be the start of Arsenal’s revival. For too long, the Gunners had become Premier League also-rans, turning from title contenders to top four competitors – before eventually reaching the status of Europa League regulars.
Wenger’s last season at Arsenal saw the Gunners finish sixth in the Premier League, eight points off Liverpool in fourth. Emery’s first campaign brought a fifth-placed finish for Arsenal, one point behind fourth-placed Tottenham Hotspur, an improvement but still not enough to secure a Champions League return.
A second opportunity for Champions League football was also missed as Arsenal were humbled in the Europa League final, losing 4-1 to London rivals Chelsea.
And although this season is still very early, and the race for top four nowhere near over, some Arsenal fans are starting to worry about whether or not Emery is the man to take them forward.
The Gunners were abject in their recent 1-0 defeat to Sheffield United as Emery looked lost for inspiration after going behind. It led some to question whether Emery actually knows his best Arsenal team?
So, does he?
Frequently changing systems
The 1-0 defeat to Sheffield United on Monday was Emery’s 70th game in charge of the Gunners across all competitions, with the Spaniard boasting a record of 42 wins, 11 draws and 17 losses.
In those 70 games, Emery has started with eight different formations but his favourite set up, the 4-2-3-1, has been utilised in just half of Arsenal’s games under the Spaniard.
Over the years, Emery and the 4-2-3-1 had become synonymous, with the Spaniard barely wavering from it between 2008 and 2016 while in charge of Valencia, Spartak Moscow and Sevilla. But the system was quickly beaten out of him on arrival at Paris Saint-Germain, with the French side not keen on switching from their favoured 4-3-3.
This didn’t stop Emery from bringing it back when he joined Arsenal, setting the Gunners up in a 4-2-3-1 in his first nine games with some success. The Gunners overcame two defeats to Manchester City and Chelsea to win their next seven games while using a 4-2-3-1.
A potentially tricky away trip to Qarabag in the Europa League brought a switch to a three-man central defence for the first time, a variation of a 3-4-3 that he would use 17 times in total across the season. Though it would be short-lived for the time being, with Emery using a 4-4-2 in the next match against Fulham before trying a 4-3-3 against Sporting CP.
Four systems in 13 games may cause some concern, but the 4-2-3-1 remained Emery’s favourite, with only minor tactical changes coming based on opponents – as many managers will do throughout their career.
As the season went on, Emery began to test more formations including a 4-3-1-2, 5-4-1 and 3-5-2, while also using the aforementioned 3-4-3 variations more – switching between a 3-4-2-1 and 3-4-1-2 – using the system a total of 18 times. This included a 3-4-1-2 in the Europa League final as Arsenal looked to claim a trophy despite not having used that system in the Premier League in just over a month.
Again, the use of various different tactics can sometimes bring out a manager’s strengths, but when a team uses three formations in three games – as Arsenal did in April 2019 – the signs are slightly more negative.
This season, Arsenal have once again favoured the 4-2-3-1, using the formation six times, and winning all but one game while in that system. But Emery has also tested a 4-3-1-2, 4-3-3 and 4-1-4-1, introducing the latter for the first time at Arsenal.
Let’s compare this to a team currently at their peak under a manager who has very much found the system he wants to use: Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool.
In 67 games since the start of 2018/19, Klopp has used six different formations, only two fewer than Emery. But the German has a very clear favourite. Liverpool have set up in their now-predictable 4-3-3 system on 49 occasions across all competitions, including all 14 games this season.
Klopp has also switched to a 4-2-3-1 10 times when wanting to try something different, while a 4-2-2-2 has been used on five occasions. A 4-3-1-2, 4-4-2 and 4-1-4-1 have all been used once, but these formations all allow Klopp’s Liverpool to operate in similar ways. They’ll have two to three attackers and at least two central midfielders, with only minor changes depending on opponents.
And it’s working. The Reds are currently top of the Premier League and have won more points since the start of last season than any other team, adding to their Champions League triumph.
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Using too many men
Emery’s use of eight different formations could be forgiven if he knew which 11 players he wanted to send out each week.
In the Premier League alone – as cup competitions often bring rotation – Emery has used 34 different players since the start of last season, all of whom have amassed at least three appearances. No team has used more players, with Southampton joining Arsenal on 34, not exactly the company the Gunners want to be keeping.
As a result, it will come as no surprise that Emery has named an unchanged starting XI on just three occasions in 47 Premier League games, all of which came last season.
Again, this could be excused with Arsenal having to deal with various injury problems across the past 14 months, but when you delve deeper, things don’t shine too well on Emery.
Of the 34 players Emery has used in the Premier League so far, just one has started at least 40 of Arsenal’s 47 games. Bernd Leno has been the favourite, starting 40 times, though this is understandable as Arsenal’s first-choice goalkeeper.
Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang follows on 39 starts, having also made more Premier League appearances than any other Arsenal player under Emery with 45. Granit Xhaka, Sokratis, Matteo Guendouzi and Shkodran Mustafi are the four other Arsenal players to start at least 30 times under Emery in the Premier League, resembling a spine when combined with Aubameyang and Leno, but not the greatest one.
If you compare this to Liverpool, once again, Emery is left somewhat overshadowed by Klopp. Although the Reds have named just five unchanged Premier League XIs since the start of last season, Klopp has used just 24 different players. No team to have featured in both seasons has used fewer.
And Klopp has been very much set on his favoured stars, with six players starting at least 40 times, building the frame for a solid team with just a few other members needed.
“We found a rhythm, so there was no reason for changes, no need for rotation, why rotate to just show ‘you can play as well’? They know they can play as well.”
Virgil van Dijk, Andrew Robertson, Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane, Georginio Wijnaldum and Alisson have all started at least 40 times, with Roberto Firmino and Trent Alexander-Arnold joining them on 30+. That’s six players to Arsenal’s one with at least 40 starts.
When combined with the formations used, this is evidence that Klopp has faith in several of his players to perform when required. But it seems the same cannot be said about Emery.