Unai Emery struggling to find tactical balance due to Arsenal injuries
Background photo: Zakarie Faibis, CC BY-SA 4.0
Arsenal deserved to win when they hosted Chelsea at the Emirates last weekend. The Premier League game revealed Unai Emery's tactical master plan. Despite the team sheet's defensive appearance, his attacking set-up worked as planned from the opening whistle. Any complaint over dropping two of his more creative players, Mesut Ozil and Alex Iwobi, were unjustified. More conservative choices Mateo Guendouzi and Aaron Ramsey enjoyed success against the Blues. The question is whether this is the lineup Emery should settle upon after tinkering for so long.
The question arises because he hasn't decided anything other than not to start Ozil. Iwobi began the match against Manchester United in the FA Cup in which the Gunners enjoyed far less success. To be fair to the former Paris Saint-Germain and Sevilla boss, Ozil exerted little influence when he came on against United whereas Iwobi had been a thorn in the Red Devils side.
Tinkering is fine to determine your best XI as a new manager must. It's also a viable option with a deep, balanced squad to adjust for differing tactics from different opponents. Sooner or later, however, an ambitious club must impose their will on matches, forcing opponents to make the adjustments.
One can't fault Emery for seeking a winning system that amplifies his squad's strengths and marginalises any weakness. Obviously, his intent is to afford opportunities for his industrious wingbacks while maintaining a compact midfield but you can't be consistent when chopping and changing at every position. Injury has much to do with the manager's indecision since his 22-game unbeaten run ended but not all
He rested Bernd Leno for the FA Cup which hampered the team playing out from the back. Anthony Martial's late goal came from a poor Petr Cech parry. In all fairness, the original volley would have given any keeper trouble.
One thing is clear, Emery needs more players to suit his style if he is going to have success with a single system.
Hector Bellerin's season-ending injury exacerbates the problem. It isn't the first to trouble Emery either. He favoured three-at-the-back but switched to two when Rob Holding was injured. He cannot go to one especially since both Sokratis and Laurent Koscielny had to come off during the FA Cup tilt. Meanwhile, can 32-year-old Nacho Monreal and 35-year-old Stefan Lichsteiner provide the pace and endurance the boss requires on the flanks?
In the middle, Lucas Torriera and Granit Xhaka seem to be his default midfield but the question is whether that will remain the case when Henrik Mkhitaryan returns from injury?
The Chelsea game proved his tactics can be effective. The early press allowed the Gunners to defend higher up the pitch as the game developed. Emery's Achilles heel remains the same as Maurizio Sarri's, however. Both need more end product. Arsenal attempted 13 shots at Sergio Romero in United's goal but put just five on target with the Argentine forced into a single difficult save from Aaron Ramsey's point-blank header early in the second half. Arsenal also struggled in the final third against West Ham which cost them a precious three points.
Arsenal must support their new manager in the transfer window to turn over an ageing roster and provide him the squad depth to perform consistently despite injuries.