Unai Emery could very well be heading into his final games in charge of Arsenal.
His appointment, following the resignation of long-serving manager Arsene Wenger in May 2018, was lauded by club owner Stan Kroenke as the capture of a “proven winner”.
With far more experience than Manchester City assistant coach Mikel Arteta – his chief rival candidate for the job – Emery’s background and CV suggested the Gunners’ post-Wenger period would be a lot smoother than what rivals Manchester United experienced when their own legendary manager stepped down.
However, after just one season and a bit, it feels like nothing has changed. Arsenal play an inconsistent brand of good football and their defence leaves a lot to be desired. Those attending games, as well as watching from afar, have started calling for a change.
Although Wenger is currently unemployed and represents one name linked with the task of succeeding Emery, the chances of the powers that be going back to the Frenchman appear very unlikely.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t other viable candidates, each of whom offers a distinct take on one question Emery seems unequipped to answer: what is Arsenal’s best XI?
1. The Magic Number (Max Allegri)
Emery wasn’t a fixed preference for Arsenal when it came to replacing Wenger. Rather, he was one of eight different coaches interviewed, and among those candidates was Massimiliano Allegri.
The Italian’s reluctance to leave Juventus, where he won a championship every season he managed at the club, and reached two European Cup finals, saw him swiftly ruled out. He’s currently available, though, following a parting of ways earlier this year.
Allegri no doubt is an interesting choice. He has not coached outside Italy, but his previous two jobs with regional powerhouses Juve and AC Milan suggest he can most certainly handle the heat.
But what could he bring? Allegri, rightly or wrongly, is seen as a reactive coach concerned with results over aesthetics. This may not go down well regarding certain sections of the Arsenal fanbase, but he is at least a ‘soft’ Jose Mourinho in this sense.
Tactically, you can’t accuse him of being rigid. During an illustrious five seasons with the Old Lady, the Livorno-born tactician has fielded various formations ranging from 4-4-2 to 3-5-2. It is with the latter Allegri may focus, given the Gunners’ deficiencies at the back.
Towards the end of his tenure in Turin, Allegri yielded major success with his famed three-at-the-back system, which saw Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini form a titanic centre-back trident, culminating in a 2017 Champions League final appearance.
The 3-5-2 formation made Juve one of the hardest defences to break down across Europe, so he will likely apply this same treatment to Arsenal, hoping to resolve their defensive frailties. Sokratis, David Luiz and Rob Holding are perfect candidates for the central defensive roles, with Hector Bellerin and Kieran Tierney operating as wing-backs.
Lucas Torreira, Matteo Guendouzi and Dani Ceballos can cover the centre of the park, with Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang running riot up-front. The France international, a more back-to-goal striker, would link play for his Gabonese counterpart, a la the Dybala-Ronaldo partnership Allegri never managed to perfect with the Old Lady.
This more pragmatic approach will obviously be designed to make Arsenal hard to crack, which they need to become, or they will be in serious danger of falling further away from their fellow top-four chasers.
2. A deal with the devil (Jose Mourinho)
Desperate times often call for desperate measures. Manchester United were in such a predicament upon dismissing Louis van Gaal in 2016, despite picking up silverware. The Red Devils turned to serial winner Jose Mourinho, who in his heyday represented guaranteed success. However, those days feel like a distant memory, but there’s no doubt he can whip a squad into shape (before it all goes horribly wrong).
Saying that, Mourinho has a past with Arsenal, which many passionate supporters haven’t forgotten in a hurry. Chances of him being welcomed with open arms don’t look good. And yet, at least you know what you’re getting with the Portuguese coach, who remains the only manager to lift the national championship in Europe’s three biggest leagues.
Since really making a name for himself at Porto, his tactical outlook has gradually evolved. Arsenal, with him at the helm, could look forward to a familiar 4-2-3-1.
This formation has generated the greatest success for Mourinho across his career, with the system working miraculously during Inter Milan’s famous treble-winning campaign in 2009/10. Arsenal have similar players in key areas, and could therefore mould a team perhaps reminiscent of that great Nerazzurri side.
There will be a great emphasis placed on the midfield, where two of Granit Xhaka (without the captain’s armband of course), Guendouzi and Torreira should feature.
As for the No. 10 – or the Wesley Sneijder role – that’ll be reserved for Mesut Ozil, a player who has previously shone under Mourinho at Real Madrid; across 157 appearances, the German playmaker mustered 27 goals and 80 assists (the most goals he’s produced under a single manager).
On the flanks you’ll likely find Nicolas Pepe and Aubameyang both in support of centre-forward Lacazette, while Bellerin and Tierney will offer a mix of tenacity, attacking verve and insatiable energy on the opposing bylines, similar to that of Maicon at the San Siro.
Mourinho has reportedly flirted with the idea of becoming Arsenal manager, so there could be considerable legs on this scenario actually transpiring, though don’t hold your breath just yet – the Bayern Munich position has just opened up.
3. Ushering in the ‘Barcajax’ school (Mikel Arteta)
Mourinho’s game is certainly not pretty, which is why many Arsenal supporters, who watched some of the most beautiful football under Wenger, will prefer a more proactive and forward-thinking coach. There aren’t that many around or currently available, but one could be, especially if he feels the time is now to stretch his own wings.
One serious option bandied about during the search for Wenger’s successor was Mikel Arteta. The former Gunners captain can today be found as Pep Guardiola’s right-hand man at Manchester City, where he’s no doubt soaking up every lesson from arguably Europe’s premier coach this decade.
Both are two peas from the same pod having graduated from the ‘Barcajax’ school, which Rinus Michels first brought to Barcelona from Amsterdam in the ’70s, before Johan Cruyff took it to another level. This pleasing-to-the-eye approach, when switched on, is largely dependent on creation of passing triangles and spatial awareness.
For all the flak they’ve been receiving, Arsenal aren’t exactly bereft of technically competent footballers, so they could very well thrive in this system.
Put them in an orthodox (Dutch-esque) 4-3-3 and let us see. Hypothetically speaking Torreira sits in front of the back-four, with Guendouzi playing alongside Ceballos further up as a No. 6 and No.8 in tandem. We’d see Aubameyang in the No. 9 role, due to his versatility, and speedy wingers Pepe and Bukayo Saka on the flanks.
Guardiola utilises a near-identical system at City, so Arteta will likely follow suit here. He has previously rejected a move to Arsenal, saying he is “not in a hurry” to reach the limelight, but having gained vital knowledge from Guardiola in the North West, he may feel the time is now right to start his own managerial venture.