Premier League: Five things Emery should do to turn Arsenal into top four challengers
Alex Keble takes a look at what Unai Emery needs to do to make Arsenal ready for a top four challenge...
"In time, Emery will turn Arsenal into a high-pressing team that looks to break quickly with direct, vertical passes into the final third, making the Gunners looks much more like Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool than Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City. However, to get there Emery needs to loosen some of his principles and make some key personnel changes."
A somewhat chaotic 3-1 victory over West Ham United last weekend has papered over some of the cracks for Arsenal and Unai Emery, but three weeks into the new campaign the Gunners' tactical transition has been handled fairly clumsily. They certainly have a long way to go before being ready to challenge for the top four, currently priced at 5/2 in the Betfair Sportsbook.
Ironically - given that Emery's tactical philosophy differs greatly from Arsene Wenger's - the current messiness looks pretty similar to the last few years at the Emirates; over-committing bodies and failing to track back has left Arsenal looking far too open, soft in the centre and vulnerable to teams with greater fighting spirit.
In time, Emery will turn Arsenal into a high-pressing team that looks to break quickly with direct, vertical passes into the final third, making the Gunners looks much more like Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool than Pep Guardiola's Manchester City. However, to get there Emery needs to loosen some of his principles and make some key personnel changes.
Here are five things he could do to improve Arsenal and turn them into top four challengers:
1) Replace Xhaka for Torreira to provide support behind the full-backs
The most obvious tactical flaw at the moment is leaving far too much space for opponents to counter. Both full-backs push high, the wingers occupy the channel between the opposition full-back and centre-back (then don't bust a gut to track back), and the back two sit on the halfway line without much screening cover in-front from Granit Xhaka.
Instructing the full-backs to alternate going forward (to create a back three at all times) isn't the right solution for what Emery wants to achieve; the constant threat from both flanks is a key part of the attacking strategy. Instead, Emery should give Lucas Torreira his first start of the season in place of Xhaka. The former is positionally intelligent, has the legs to get up and down the pitch, and will stamp out danger at its source, whereas Xhaka is pretty much the opposite of all those things.
Xhaka is slow on the turn and rarely sees danger in advance, instead constantly playing catch up as the counter-attack is launched. Arsenal won't make serious progress until the Switzerland international is out of the team.
2) Take Cech and Mkhitaryan out of the starting lineup
Henrikh Mkhitaryan is a big problem, too. He floats carelessly in opposition territory offering no support whatsoever to Hector Bellerin, the full-back who is most frequently needed to provide penetration in the final third. Torreira may help come across to the right to cover for the Spaniard, but Emery could benefit from moving Aaron Ramsey back out to the right.
This change can also benefit Arsenal's attacks. Much has been made of Emery's attempts to pass out from the back, but this isn't to implement a short-passing system. Arsenal are trying to draw their opponents forward, committing bodies and then breaking behind them; a counter-pressing manager like Emery doesn't just rely on winning the ball high. Ramsey can come short from the right to collect the ball and shift it quickly to outmanoeuvre the press, something Mkhitaryan cannot do.
However, the short goal kicks won't work until Emery drops Petr Cech for Bernd Leno. The 36-year-old cannot be expected to change his game, and as Manchester City proved last season a goalkeeper capable of recycling possession can have a dramatic impact on the side. Better distribution will suddenly release Ramsey and Mesut Ozil into the spaces they need.
3) Put Mesut Ozil back in a deep midfield role
For the opening day 2-0 defeat to Manchester City Ozil was deployed as part of a three-man midfield, sitting much deeper than he ever did under Wenger. Ozil is the ideal playmaker to drop deep under Emery and play an incisive through ball much earlier in a move, launching a rapid counter-attack for the likes of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
Ozil hasn't played there since, but it's about time the German gets a second chance in this role. He is more hard-working than people think and will gladly press if stationed in the centre of the park, plus his composed distribution can take high-pressing opponents out of the game.
Emery's desire to play long vertical forward passes, rather than build gradually towards goal, limits Ozil's usefulness from the number ten position. A new deeper role can rejuvenate his Arsenal career.
4) Drop the defensive line 10 yards deeper
On Sky Sport's Monday Night Football Gary Neville called Jamie Carragher's recommendation to drop deeper in order to get results "ignorant", suggesting Emery mustn't abandon his core beliefs just because it isn't working in the short term. There is a happy medium between these two opinions.
Arsenal's high line is clearly a problem, not just because the centre-backs are too slow but because they lack support (as mentioned above). The Gunners' shape isn't compressed enough because they are holding a high defensive line without pressing as a team - and you can't do one without the other. Don't press the ball and the opposition has time to clip a pass over the top, causing the whole team to frantically backpedal as the lines decompress.
Emery would not be abandoning his principles to drop the line by just ten yards, which would give the centre-backs a little bit more time to react - and stop opposition forwards from making simple arcing runs from within their own half.
Arsenal's defensive vulnerabilities are proof Emery is changing too much too quickly. It would be better to ease off slightly, gradually raising the line as the players get used to the Spaniard's tactics.
5) Start looking for a new left-back, centre-back, and right winger for January
Not all of their problem can be solved with the current set of players; many Arsenal fans would agree the squad is technically worse than their five rivals for a top four finish, and so Emery needs to be searching for new recruits for January.
The first few matches suggest Arsenal could do with a more dynamic left-back, with Nacho Monreal not mobile enough for such a demanding system. A centre-back with serious pace is a must, and if Emery sees Ramsey as an important central midfielder then Arsenal also need a new right winger.