Football Features

How Emery’s tactical tweaks have fuelled Arsenal confusion.. and questions over his future

By Ben Green

Published: 12:25, 25 November 2019 | Updated: 13:47, 27 November 2019

Unai Emery has been left scratching his head after Premier League strugglers Southampton inflicted the latest dent to Arsenal’s top-four aspirations. 

Ralph Hasenhuttl’s struggling side produced a valiant performance in the capital to secure a 2-2 draw, but it could have been so much better for the Saints were it not for an Alexandre Lacazette equaliser in the dying embers.

The Frenchman’s late leveller has done little to paper over the cracks of what was another uninspiring and lukewarm performance from the Gunners, culminating in a chorus of boos permeating the Emirates Stadium at the full-time whistle.

The result has left them hovering precariously in seventh place, without a league win in five games, and eight points adrift the Champions League qualification spots.

Even more concerning for Arsenal fans, in fact, is not just the result, but the manner of performance and questionable tactical tweaks from Emery.

The Spaniard doesn’t appear to know his best starting XI or preferred formation, leading to doubts on the terraces and uncertainty on the pitch. Indeed, Emery’s decision making has raised more questions than answers, so what exactly was his tactical blueprint for the Southampton game?

Robert Pires says Unai Emery is in “big trouble”

Defensive shape against Saints proves baffling

With Arsenal coming up against a side who have not beaten them away from home since 1987, as well as the fact they are currently 19th in the league having conceded more goals than any other team this season (31), Emery should have looked to attack the visitors from the off. 

Instead the Spaniard bizarrely opted to deploy a 3-5-2 formation, much to the chagrin of match-going supporters, and perhaps, an affront to Arsenal’s traditional attacking ethos.

The makers and shakers at Arsenal have already publicly pledged their backing to Emery – for now – but even they must have winced at the negativity of Emery’s starting XI, especially against a defence as leaky and fragile as Southampton’s.

It would have also been a considerable kick in the teeth for £72 million man Nicolas Pepe that he could only find a position on the bench and failing to get the best out of the Ivorian is becoming a sizeable stick to beat Emery with. Meanwhile, Southampton ended up playing with elan and panache – two traits almost synonymous with the early Arsene Wenger years.

Emery explained his decision to start out with a three-man central defence after the game, believing it would provide his side greater resilience at the back.

He stated: “That decision is because I need to find a solution. We play with three centre-backs to feel better defensively.”

Unfortunately for Emery his side were anything but defensively solid, instead Southampton broke the deadlock and exposed Arsenal’s soft underbelly in the opening 45 minutes, leading to a change at half-time.

Different system, same result

Arsenal were exceptionally underwhelming in the first half but entered the interval on level terms, prompting Emery to shuffle the pack and revert to a more attack-minded four-man backline, introducing Pepe in the process.

The proceeding 20 minutes proved very fruitful for Arsenal, who enjoyed their best spell of the game and appeared a more well-rounded side, but they just couldn’t find the required goal to rejuvenate spirits and dampen Southampton hearts.

Emery himself proclaimed that this short spell was Arsenal’s best of the entire 2019/20 campaign: “The best 20 minutes of the whole season came at the start of the second half but they scored when we were better, maybe.”

However, the wheels would eventually come loose and Arsenal’s failure to capitalise on this more productive period ultimately proved costly, as Southampton restored their one-goal cushion thanks to James Ward-Prowse in the 71st minute and began to reassert their authority.

In the immediate aftermath, Emery admitted the change in system perhaps backfired as Arsenal “lost a bit of balance”, though his blushes were somewhat spared as Lacazette netted at the death.

The most worrying thought for Arsenal fans must therefore be Emery’s indecisiveness, notably making wholesale changes almost on a weekly basis –  and during games – as well as leaving flair players like Pepe and Reiss Nelson on the bench for matches against relegation battlers.

The fact that Southampton created more chances than any other club in the Premier League this weekend (15) is eye-opening and makes a complete mockery of Emery’s comments to be “better defensively”, while the visitors also took on nearly the double number of shots when compared to Arsenal (21 to 12), which was the most taken by any club this weekend as well.

A strange showing all-round from Emery, whose future at the club is firmly fixed on the agenda ahead of Thursday’s Europa League clash with Eintracht Frankfurt.