Arsenal finally parted ways with long-serving manager Arsene Wenger at the end of 2017/18 Premier League season. A new chapter now begins in Ashburton, with Unai Emery facing a difficult opening to his time with Arsenal Football Club.
In his country of origin, the Spaniard has a proud history of taking over clubs that lacked stability, turning them into success stories in impressive time. While Arsenal may not fall conventionally into the category of ‘lacking stability’, the changing of a manager – especially after decades, rather than years – is always a traumatic event. Manchester United, for instance, have gone six seasons without a Premier League title. That was unthinkable in the days of Sir Alex Ferguson, when the Red Devils never went more than three seasons between 1993 and 2013 without winning the big one.
While Arsenal never once looked like real title contenders in the second half of Arsene Wenger’s 22-year tenure at the club, the team will need to get off to a strong start to avoid declining as United did under David Moyes and Louis van Gaal. Current sports spread betting markets price Arsenal more distantly from the title race than ever, and if Emery is to defy this, he will stay true to his unorthodox 4-2-3-1 system. In this system, wide-sitting attacking midfielders can become makeshift strikers, and his usual formation and tactics will benefit five players in particular this season.
Granit Xhaka & Aaron Ramsey
He likes to hit them from range just as much as he likes to hit his opponents with a ferocious challenge. Xhaka is just as much at home in a more advanced position as he is in a deeper role, provided that there is a skilled outlet. Within this system, the two sitting midfielders can adopt a more fluid approach to positioning, in relation to the central attacking midfielder. It is what some may consider a modernised, or more relevant brand of ‘total football’, with the emphasis on midfield workrate being particularly well-suited to the high-tempo Premier League.
At Sevilla, Emery’s modus operandi was to ensure that his defensive midfielders pressed and harried the opposition at all times. This is where Aaron Ramsey would be most heavily involved, with his ability as a box-to-box disruptor widening Arsenal’s range of options. Ultimately, this can enable the three in front of him to pressurise the opposing central defenders, and force the wide players out of their natural position.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan & Mesut Özil
After two years of underachievement, both men could be about to experience a change in fortune. Arsenal’s play under much of Arsene Wenger’s tenure was reliant on good possession, but it did not do much to develop the ‘vision’ of both players. It was all about what the Gunners did on the ball, and they seldom had any equal in that department, but the possession play was rendered useless with the duo being away from the optimal position to receive the ball. Emery’s gameplan is the antithesis of that increasingly redundant system, with the focus being shifted towards off-the-ball anticipation.
On their day, Mkhitaryan and Özil can be just as deadly in counter-attack, provided that they have given their passer a clear route. Emery has a history of developing counter-attacking skills within ailing players, with that being a major trait of the Sevilla teams which won the Europa League under him. It is a trade that can only be perfected by hours of practice on the training pitch, and no small measure of innate skill, but with Özil being particularly hurt after Germany’s disastrous World Cup, the effort will always be there.
No season under Emery would be complete without the development of a young talent. The alumni of Emery’s ability in youth development include Juan Mata and Jordi Alba, both of whom have won a glut of silverware between them. Ainsley Maitland-Niles was a revelation in his Europa League appearances last season, and never once appeared out of his depth.
His versatility in all midfield areas will be a huge asset to Emery, who likes his midfield players to be as adaptive as possible. Make no mistake, if 2017/18 wasn’t quite ‘his season’, 2018/19 should see the completion of Maitland-Niles ‘making’ as a danger man for the Gunners.