Unai Emery has announced a commitment to playing “The Arsenal Way” since his introductory press conference.
In the past, that has meant “Wengerball”—fielding as many attacking midfielders as possible and trying to pass the ball into the net, defense be damned.
But Emery is his own man and will bring his own style to the club.
Previously, his teams have utilized much more high press and energetic defense than Wenger teams.
He has expressed his commitment to exciting and attacking play—but just what will that look like with him at the helm?
This is the formation Emery has used everywhere he has previously managed.
Many fans were excited when the lineup for the Borehamwood friendly was announced. Not just because it was Emery’s first team sheet, but because it appeared as if he had gone 4-4-2 and created the deadly strike partnership fans were clamoring for.
A pure forward duo of Lacazette and Aubameyang would be a sight to see. However, it would be a break from Emery’s past and probably would not suit the team as a whole.
Arsenal do not possess a midfield that would make that formation work. The friendly ended up being played in a 4-3-3, with Aubameyang and Reiss Nelson on the wings.
But a 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 (depending on how you look at it) would suit the players currently in the squad.
The biggest worry that fans have is that this pushes Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang out wide. The sentiment is that this wastes the club’s hottest goal-scorer. But in fact, the position seems to suit him.
When he plays wide left, he is not a true “winger.” He is more of a striker that is tasked with playing on the left when the team doesn’t have the ball. When Arsenal regain possession, he goes forward and somewhat more central to join Lacazette.
He scored 10 goals and 4 assists in 13 Premier League appearances with Arsenal, many from that role.
So when the team sheet for the first game against Manchester City comes in and he is listed as a wide midfielder, remember: he’ll still bang in the goals!
2Midfield shape depends on Ramsey (and Özil)
Arsenal will no doubt use a central midfield trio under Emery. But how that triangle (or flat line) takes shape depends on two things: Aaron Ramsey staying, and how Emery uses Mesut Özil.
Aaron Ramsey is a true “box-to-box” midfielder. One who chips in goals of his own but is capable of throwing in a tackle as well.
The Welshman bagged 7 goals and 8 assists in the Premier League last season. Him staying amid swirling transfer rumors is key to Arsenal’s success. Playing him in the centre of the pitch gives Emery flexibility in choosing who to pair him with.
He can choose two attack-minded midfielders without leaving the team completely open; he can partner Ramsey with two defensive midfielders and bunker in without completely giving up on attack; or anywhere in between.
Signing him to a long-term contract should be looked at as Arsenal’s top priority this summer.
And for good measure, his Puskas Award-worthy goal:
Aaron Ramsey gets his second of the day on this beautiful little flick over the keeper!
Arsenal now lead 3-1. pic.twitter.com/6QcuRavB94
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) April 5, 2018
Mesut Özil is a fantastic and underappreciated player. When played out wide and/or given positional freedom, he can be devastating to opposing teams (see: Germany at the 2014 World Cup).
But it is this propensity to roam that leaves his team open to attack. It is not that he does not put in effort in defence, it is that he is all over the pitch trying to poke holes in the defense that when the ball is given away, his team is wide open at the back (see: Germany at the 2018 World Cup).
If he were to be played wide, that would necessitate dropping Henrikh Mkhitaryan (or moving him centrally). If he were to be played as part of the midfield three, he would need staunchly defensive midfield partners. A duo behind him of Mohamed Elneny and Lucas Torreira might do the trick. But that might make the team a bit TOO defensive.
Which will Emery choose?
Honestly, probably a bit of both. Against smaller opposition that will bunker in, he would be wise to play Özil in the middle and accommodate as many attacking players as he can.
If he wants to play Özil against the bigger teams, he will probably deploy him wide to keep the team’s shape and have three central midfielders that can handle the opposition.
The centerback partnership (and sometimes trio) has been in flux at Arsenal for quite some time. Not since Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny were both healthy has there been an established and agreed upon plan at the back. Emery will play with a back four, but who will he use?
Shkodran Mustafi is a once-promising World Cup-winning defender who has fallen on hard times. Rob Holding, Calum Chambers, and Konstantinos Mavrapanos are all promising youngsters. New signing Sokratis will factor as well. Laurent Koscielny is still coming off an injury that kept him out of France’s World Cup-winning squad.
To start the season, Mustafi and Sokratis would form the most experienced duo, but are not without flaws.
Mustafi will need to learn to be well disciplined under Emery to be successful. Under Wenger, he would make high-risk-high-reward tackles leaving a one-on-one with the keeper at least once per game.
Sokratis has been a solid defender at Borussia Dortmund overall, but there are worries that he does not possess the pace to cope with the Premier League. This is still the most likely duo to start on match day 1.
The fact that Manchester City are the opponents in that match means that Emery will need a sophisticated tactical gameplan to cover up their flaws unless he has turned water to wine with Mustafi.
The final question that remains is who will start between the posts.
Petr Cech is the established starter whose game has lost a step in recent years. David Ospina played well at times and went to the World Cup but is largely expected to be out the door. Finally, the club recently spent €22 million on Bernd Leno—a massive amount of cash to pay for a keeper.
One approach would be to initially start Cech, and let Leno learn under him and become accustomed to his new surroundings until he is ready.
But that is a massive amount of money to be spent on a backup goalkeeper.
Emery may opt to go with a system similar to Wenger’s: one keeper in cup competitions, one in the league. But what is most likely is for one to play the most important games, and another as rotation.
There will be pressure from upstairs to start Leno after spending all that money on him. Expect Leno to start the big games from day one, including the first two against Manchester City and Chelsea.
All in all, expect the first match team sheet to look something like this:
Statistics courtesy of WhoScored.com