How Unai Emery Could Set Up His Arsenal Team

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Unai Emery, Arsenal’s new manager, has overseen sustained success at his two previous clubs: three UEFA Europa Leagues in three consecutive seasons with Sevilla and a Ligue 1 title, two Coupes de France and two Coupes de la Ligue at Paris Saint-Germain. Emery has been tactically consistent across these two periods of success, as well. At Sevilla, he used a 4-2-3-1 and at PSG a 4-3-3, but both systems had significant features that overlapped; looking at these can give an indication of how Emery might choose to play at Arsenal and why that could suit the squad the Gunners have at their disposal, with a few additions.

In both instances, the midfield balance was important. At PSG, the 4-3-3 saw Thiago Motta lock down the central area ahead of the centre-backs, which allowed the full-backs to push high. At Sevilla, the 4-2-3-1 used might indicate that one player was advanced in to the creative ‘hole’ behind the strikers in a more attacking move than at PSG; in practice, at PSG one midfielder, either Marco Verrati, Javier Pastore, or Adrien Rabiot, would also push up in to that position, leaving two back, which gave the side more than a hint of the Sevilla 4-2-3-1. The key was not to overcommit numbers forwards: Emery likes his full-backs to push up, and, while the centre-backs can cover the wide spaces if needed, he tends to keep a double pivot of cover even if the flanking midfielders in a 4-3-3 are both naturally inclined to push up.

Ahead of this two or three man midfield, Emery’s Parisian adventure was blessed with players of enormous quality: a front three of Neymar, Edison Cavani, and Angel di Maria wins games in most circumstances. Emery’s use of them was, though, thoughtful. He encouraged PSG to drop off an tuck in before engaging a press out wide and countering effectively, often by getting di Maria and Neymar to drop quite deep so that they had room to run with the ball once it was won back. While Cavani usually stayed high, he would also withdraw, both to bolster the higher midfield press, and to create a dog-leg in the opposition back line by pulling a defender to him, which facilitated inside runs from the wider forwards. Rather than simply asking his team to get the ball to Neymar, he actively created on-pitch conditions to get the best from his Brazilian superstar.

Arsenal have the backbone of a squad that would work effectively with Emery’s tactics already; no major overhaul is needed. The front three of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Alexander Lacazette, and Alex Iwobi or the exciting prospect Joe Willock could function in a similar way to Emery’s PSG front three, without yet being quite as good. Granit Xhaka should play in the six/eight role on one side of the midfield three, while Aaron Ramsey works well as the midfielder who gets up more, and Jack Wilshere could also play this role or in the hole should Emery deploy more of a 4-2-3-1.

Arguably, as has been the case since the departure of Gilberto Silva, Arsenal need a holding midfielder. This is not, and never should have been Xhaka’s role; he is more creative and at Borussia Monchengladbach played in a more advanced position, as he will for Switzerland at the World Cup alongside a ball-winner like Denis Zakaria or Valon Behrami. There is no Thiago Motta-like player at Arsenal, and do not be surprised to see Emery go to La Liga or Ligue 1 to find one: Sevilla’s Guido Pizzaro, Eibar’s Dani Garcia, Levante’s Jefferson Lerma, or Lyon’s Lucas Tousart all look like good fits. Arsenal will also probably be in the hunt for a goalkeeper and Emery’s goalkeeper at Sevilla, Sergio Rico, is still quite young for the position and could be an astute acquisition.

Unai Emery’s success at Sevilla probably says more about his managerial abilities than his time at PSG, where he was blessed with a better squad and a less competitive league. What is clear is that he has the right blend of a strong tactical philosophy and an understanding of how to adapt it to circumstance to see him prosper at Arsenal. As a proven winner, he should be able to command the dressing room and, with a few signings and a quick uptake of his method of play, Arsenal will be in a strong position next season from the off.

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