Unai Emery: Not the right man to take Arsenal forward

Things are going from bad to worse for Unai Emery at Arsenal. The Hard Tackle assesses why the Spaniard needs to be given the boot by the North Londoners.

His appointment was supposed to bring about a new dawn at Arsenal, a chance to move on after the travails towards the fag end of Arsene Wenger’s tenure. But, 18 months into his arrival at the Emirates, and the Gunners seem to be going backwards under the tutelage of Unai Emery.

The signs have been there for everyone to see since the final months of the 2018-19 season. Arsenal won just two of final seven Premier League games last season, going from a comfortable third to finish fifth and outside the top four for the third consecutive season.

The other route back to the Champions League ended up being a dead end as well, as Chelsea squashed their fellow Londoners in the Europa League final. Meanwhile, combine their results in the top-flight this term and Arsenal have been victorious in just six of their last 19 Premier League games.

That’s a tally that would be paltry even for a mid-table club, let alone one that is aspiring to regain its status as a Champions League regular. To make matters more concerning, Emery also fails to measure up to Wenger 50 Premier League games into his Arsenal stint.

In their last 50 league games that Wenger oversaw, considered arguably the worst period for the club under the Frenchman’s charge, Arsenal won more times than they have in Emery’s first 50 (27 wins to 25), found the back of the net more often (96 to 89) and kept more clean sheets (18 to 10).

The numbers are, quite simply, damning for Emery. And so, it is quite perplexing that Arsenal continue to put their faith in the Basque coach instead of pulling the trigger. The Hard Tackle now attempts a deep dive into the club’s problems and why Emery must be given the boot.

A Lack of Identity

In recent weeks, the Emirates faithful have started to make their annoyance towards Arsenal’s sub-par performances vocal. Cries of “you don’t know what you’re doing” have been audible enough, walk-outs are starting to become a norm rather than an exception. And, the fans are quite right in voicing their displeasure, seeing as Emery has done a complete u-turn in the style of play he has employed.

When he arrived at Arsenal, Emery had made it clear that he wanted his players to be some of the most hard working in the Premier League and press aggressively to win the ball back high up the pitch. But, so far this season, the Gunners do not seem to be doing that.

For years, Arsenal have been renowned as a team that prides itself on playing beautiful possession-based football, something that was evident several months into Emery’s spell. But, fast forward to the current campaign, and Arsenal have apparently aborted that outlook as well.

In fact, they are playing fewer passes than they ever have in this decade, not even touching 500 passes per game for the first time and lagging far behind some of the best teams in the division. Instead, Arsenal are looking to be more direct and play on the counter this term.

But, the change in outlook is hardly yielding the desired results, as Arsenal are creating fewer big chances than they ever did under Wenger, failing to average even 2 per game. As for key passes, 9 other teams have made more than Arsenal, including Tottenham, Everton and Manchester United, all of whom have struggled for consistency this season.

Arsenal have lacked an identity under Unai Emery. (Photo by Miguel Riopa/AFP via Getty Images)
Arsenal have lacked an identity under Unai Emery. (Photo by Miguel Riopa/AFP via Getty Images)

Things reached a head in their recent Europa League tie against Vitoria de Guimaraes, a game in which oddly enough they dominated possession, wherein the most common passing combinations for the Gunners only involved the defenders and the goalkeeper. By the time they managed their first pass inside the opposition’s box, the game was into the final 10 minutes.

The very next game, Arsenal had reverted to sitting back and playing on the counter. Sure enough, it did not work, as Leicester City handed them a 2-0 loss; this time Arsenal had managed just one shot on target, only creating a solitary big chance in 90 minutes.

Simply put, ditching a more possession-based style for a more pragmatic brand of football is just not working out for Arsenal. And, the change in the system has only piled on the woes for their defence, which has often crumbled under the pressure of relentless waves of attack from the opposition, as we will explore in the next section.

Failure to Fix Defence

Far too often this season, Arsenal have been happy to sit back and defend. But, this stance is rather perplexing, considering just how little Lucas Torreira, the club’s only natural holding midfielder, has played so far. When Torreira has played, he has oddly been used in an advanced midfield position, which has failed to bring the best out of him.

Before his verbal altercation with the supporters, Granit Xhaka was the designated defensive midfielder for Arsenal. But, the Swiss star’s lack of mobility was horribly exposed time and again. Xhaka just was not the man to provide cover to a defence that already had its fair share of problems heading into the season.

It is, therefore, hardly surprising just how many times Arsenal have relinquished a lead this season, so much so that it has become a trend in the last month or so. They led by two goals against Crystal Palace, only to be held to a 2-2 draw. In the Carabao Cup tie at Liverpool, they were ahead twice before being beaten on penalties. Similarly, Arsenal also squandered leads against Vitoria SC and Wolves.

Arsenal have looked much more in control with Torreira playing. (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
Arsenal have looked much more in control with Torreira playing. (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)

The 1-1 draw with Wolves presented a particularly alarming situation. Over the course of the game, Bernd Leno had seen Wolves take aim at his goal 25 times, the most shots that any Premier League team has faced at home this season.

With that, the Gunners faced the ignominy of having conceded the most shots in a game both home and away this term, having faced 31 shots in the 2-2 draw at Watford – the most shots conceded in a game by any Premier League team so far in the 2019-20 season.

In another trend, as is the case with their passing and chance creation metrics, Arsenal are facing more shots under Emery than they ever did under Wenger this decade. More damning is the figure of shots conceded per game when compared to other Premier League teams – only Aston Villa and Norwich City have faced more than the 16.4 per game that Arsenal are conceding.

In another flashback to the 1-1 draw at Vitoria SC, despite hogging just 35 percent of the possession, it was the hosts who had mustered up more efforts at goal – a staggering 15 times, with four of those being on target. Add to it the fact that Arsenal are bottom of the pile for interceptions – a scant 7.8 per game – and it is plainly obvious that they are worryingly easy to play against.

And, who can even blame the players after a certain point when the manager has used every player but Torreira as a holding midfielder this season. Even so, this is not the end as far as Emery’s shortcomings as the Arsenal boss are concerned.

Poor Man Management

Emery's treatment of Ozil has been appalling. (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
Emery’s treatment of Ozil has been appalling. (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)

The problems pertaining to attack and defence are still solvable with the right coaching. But, where Emery has been a colossal failure is his management of players, players, who could have aided Arsenal’s cause at different junctures this season.

The biggest case study is that of Mesut Ozil. Emery infamously often kept Ozil out of the starting XI on Arsenal’s travels and by the end of the season, the Gunners’ best creative midfielder had started a mere 20 games. Fast forward to this season, and Emery completely alienated Ozil until he had no chance but to play him.

In what was only his third start of the season against Liverpool in the Carabao Cup, Ozil was a clear standout. He has since started both the subsequent Premier League games, impressing against Wolves before being a part of a collective failure at Leicester City.

With a hungry and clinical striker like Alexandre Lacazette in front of him and flanked by runners like Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Nicolas Pepe, Ozil is just the kind of player who can make Arsenal tick. But, for reasons known to Emery, the German has just not been utilised enough until very recently.

Another interesting case is that of Lucas Torreira. At a time when Arsenal are one of the poorest Premier League teams from a defensive standpoint, constantly keeping someone like Torreira on the sidelines is nothing short of baffling. The situation has become so alarming that the player’s agent has stirred up rumours of an imminent departure, claiming that the Uruguayan is “no longer at ease” at Arsenal.

Emery has not exactly done well in the soap opera surrounding Granit Xhaka. Named club captain earlier this season, the Swiss midfielder has now become an also-ran following the outburst he directed towards the fans. That Emery hesitated and took weeks to name Xhaka as the Arsenal captain in the first place is symbolic of the cluelessness that has been plaguing him lately.

Not to mention the delay in tying down key players to new contract and the pulling up of new skipper Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang for his closeness with an AFTV personality and it is clear just how big of a mess Arsenal find themselves in with Emery in-charge.


Time's up, Unai. (Photo by Naomi Baker/Getty Images)
Time’s up, Unai. (Photo by Naomi Baker/Getty Images)

The ever reliable David Ornstein recently claimed that Arsenal are “100% behind Unai Emery”, and will wait until next summer before deciding on his future. But, after embarking on their worst start to a top-flight season since 1982-83, the chips are starting to fall for Emery. If anything, Arsenal seem to have taken a step back since appointing Emery as Arsene Wenger’s successor.

Wenger was criticised to no end when Arsenal had lost that zeal in their play, but it is Emery is actually performing worse in just about every aspect of the game since taking over as the Arsenal boss. The trigger, therefore, has to be pulled sooner rather than later, lest Arsenal run the risk of seeing their season spiral completely out of control, if it hasn’t already.

The dust has not even settled yet following the dismissal of Mauricio Pochettino as the Tottenham manager, and another sacking is warranted in North London. For keeping Emery would be a sign that mediocrity has become acceptable at Arsenal, at a time when they should be aiming to return to the heady heights of Champions League football.

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