The November international break has come at the perfect time for Unai Emery as Arsenal have been in a downward spiral for weeks and this will give him the chance to get them back on track.
The Gunners entered the last chunk of games third in the Premier League but their poor form finally caught up to them. They have dropped from third to sixth place and are currently below newly-promoted Sheffield United in the Premier League table. Such is the state of Arsenal’s decline right now.
It’s only November but Unai Emery and co are already eight points behind fourth-place Manchester City and a staggering 17 points behind leaders Liverpool (Skysports). Arsenal have taken a downhill fall from top-four contenders to Europa League regulars but even that status is under threat – based on the current circumstances.
Arsenal’s first game back after the international break sees them welcome relegation-threatened Southampton. On paper, it is a straightforward game but there are still things Emery will have to do to ensure that can be the case.
So far this season, his side have looked lost. Even at the Emirates where Arsenal have historically been strong, Emery has failed to take the game to his opponents.
Against Crystal Palace and Wolves, his side didn’t perform well at all and that alongside results will have to change when Premier League football returns. So what is on Emery’s to-do list over the break?
Sort out the defence – stop playing out from the back
It is pretty ridiculous and frustrating seeing Arsenal play out from the back over and over again. Why continue something that never seems to work? Over the years, Unai Emery made a name for himself with his attacking style of play that involved playing out from the back. At former clubs Sevilla and PSG, Emery’s philosophy of playing out from the back was one that seemed to be a success simply because he had the right personnel available to him in those clubs.
At Arsenal, it looked destined to fail right from the onset. The initial problems began last season when Emery’s approach was particularly problematic for former goalkeeper Petr Cech.
They seemed to subside a little when Bernd Leno, who is more comfortable with the ball at his feet, eventually replaced Cech as Arsenal’s No 1.
The change in the goal kick laws though, has brought with it new teething problems and, in fairness, not just for Arsenal.
With defenders now allowed inside their area to receive the ball from their goalkeeper that does, in theory, give teams a few added seconds to start attacks from the back.
The flipside of the change is it leaves teams at greater risk of conceding and closer to their own goal once the ball is deemed to be in play, triggering the opposition press, which is now as soon as it is kicked.
Against Liverpool, Arsenal were punished with their playing out from the back as the Liverpool forwards were afforded room to pile unnecessary pressure on the Gunners backline. Sokratis and Luiz are not the most stable options defensively, subjecting them to a further tactical demanding system is simply calling for danger.
To think Emery would have learnt from this, the most disappointing backlash of the back passing was against Watford – a fixture that began what would be the start of Emery’s mounting pressure. Against the Hornets, Sokratis’ attempted pass to Matteo Guendouzi did not even get out of the box before it was intercepted and Tom Cleverly equalised to kick-start the Hornet’s comeback from 2-0 down.
Not just that, the continued pressure at the back saw Watford take a record 31 shots against Arsenal. Even days when Watford got beaten 8-0 by Manchester City, Guardiola’s men never had such numbers. More-so, the Hornets were bottom of the league and without a win at the time.
31 – Arsenal faced 31 shots in their 2-2 draw against Watford, the most they have ever faced in a @premierleague fixture since Opta began collecting such data in the division in 2003-04. Barrage. pic.twitter.com/v6HET8uuEx
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) September 15, 2019
Decide his best formation – stick to a consistent XI
Emery’s side has lacked cohesion all season. In attack, they struggle to create opportunities for themselves and in defence they look far from a well-drilled unit.
As the season as evolved, the manager hasn’t helped by changing his tactics so often. In the early stages of the season, he had settled on a 4-3-3 but this soon changed.
The pragmatist that he is, Emery began changing Arsenal’s systems based on who he was facing that week. For instance, using a midfield diamond at Anfield in August. However, as with many of his decisions this season, he got that one drastically wrong. Liverpool’s full-backs were given acres of space to run into which allowed Jurgen Klopp’s side to get an even stronger grip on the game.
A recent article by Squawka simply highlighted that in Emery’s 75 games in charge at Arsenal, he has only used a formation ( 4-2-3-1) 50% of the time and has used more than six different formations since the start of last season.
In more recent weeks, Emery has reverted to a midfield diamond, used a flat 4-4-2 and fiddled with a three-man defence. Seemingly trying everything under the sun to get something right, he couldn’t.
Now, he has two weeks where he needs to figure out exactly how his team will play. If he saw enough encouraging signs from the back three against Leicester and Vitoria, then stick with it. Last season, he used a back three and actually did well most of the time with it so it might just be a case of familiarizing the players with the system again.
Whichever tactics he lands on, he will need to find something that gets Arsenal playing with the confidence they have lacked of late.
Bring out the best of Nicolas Pepe
In the first few months of the season, Emery seemed like he was being patient with Nicolas Pepe.
The Ivorian was showing glimpses of his talent but that was all. Despite this, Emery decided to keep playing him and understandably so. Arriving with the pressure of being Arsenal’s new record transfer, it was never going to be an easy transition but Emery’s patience has seemed to slip.
Dropped to the bench in Arsenal’s last two Premier League games, it has left fans scratching their heads over Emery’s usage of the winger. Against Wolves, Pepe was an unused substitute and away at Leicester he was only brought on for the final 13 minutes. Unable to make a difference, the only meaningful action he had was an argument with Ben Chilwell.
As per Transfermarkt, Pepe has only managed three goals and four assists in 15 appearances so far but there is a sense of under-performing from the Ivorian – based on his reputation and his exploits from last season. Interestingly, none of Pepe’s three goals for Arsenal so far have come from open play.
This will need to change after the international break as Pepe was brought in to be one of Arsenal’s key men this season. With Lille he showed how he can hurt teams when on the run but he hasn’t had that opportunity yet at Arsenal.
So far this season, Arsenal haven’t had a real flow to their attacks. At times, they end up passing the ball sideways around the box which doesn’t play to the Ivorian’s strengths. Therefore figuring out a way to isolate Pepe against full-backs should be a priority for Emery so he can really show what he can do.
With his two free-kicks against Vitoria, Pepe showed that the quality is there, it’s just a case of unlocking that on the big stage. Should the team come back with a better attacking plan after the international break, he may have more licence to play his natural game.
However, if Emery decides to keep using a back three after the international break, it’s hard to see where he will fit Pepe in.
It begs the question: Why bring in Nicolas Pepe as the club-record signing only to make him sit on the bench? He needs the continued confidence and that only come with consistent game-time.
Emery has a lot to solve if Arsenal are to get anything reasonable from the current season. With further struggles off the pitch and players linked with moves out of the club, a lot is at stake to save Arsenal’s season.