Inside Arsenal’s tactical revolution under Unai Emery after Arsene Wenger era – Mirror Online

When Unai Emery was unveiled as Arsenal’s new manager in May 2018, it marked the dawn of a new era in north London.

After 22 years under the legendary Arsene Wenger, the Spaniard was given the keys to one of the most intriguing jobs in football.

For many fans, Wenger’s departure was long overdue. For Emery, it was a chance to lead a revolution at a club which gradually slipped away from Europe’s elite and an opportunity to mastermind their rise back to the top.

“Now is the time for us to turn a new page and look forward with confidence,” Emery declared at his first press conference. “There’s a special feeling here and we need to recapture this and push this club forward.”

Unai Emery has been in charge of Arsenal’s post-Arsene Wenger revolution
(Image: Arsenal FC via Getty Images)

 

Fast forward 17 months, and for many, the jury is still out on Emery. Monday’s tame draw with Manchester United highlighted the decline of a rivalry which was at the forefront of the Premier League title race not so long ago.

Arsenal came within a whisker of returning to Champions League football last season but, ultimately, fell short of their ambitions in Emery’s first season in charge.

So what has changed? Here’s a statistical breakdown of Unai Emery’s tactical revolution at Arsenal and the ways he has tried to change a club which was rooted in Wenger’s philosophy.

New attacking philosophy

When Emery took over at Arsenal, he commented on the importance of possession-based football, which became a staple under Wenger.

“Arsenal play ­possession football and throughout my career, I’ve ­always been a coach who wants ­possession,” he said. 

But it has become clear Emery values a different type of possession, instead focusing on the intent of passes rather than simply keeping the ball.

The Spaniard has instilled a new attacking philosophy, introducing club-record signing Nicolas Pepe in a bid to create a front-three which could mirror Liverpool’s fearsome trio. 

Feeding Pepe, Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang more directly is now a focus, even if they run the risk of losing possession.

Arsenal’s attackers are at the centre of Unai Emery’s plans
(Image: PA)

 

In Wenger’s last season in charge, the Gunners averaged 59.06% possession each game, completing nearly 600 accurate passes. Those numbers have dramatically dropped under Emery, with just 531 accurate passes per game last season and just over 500 so far this season. 

Arsenal currently average 55.53% possession each game – but they have seemingly cut out the short, backwards passes which saw them regularly keep things ticking over and maintain control under Wenger.

For instance, the Gunners used to pass laterally over 225 times per game under Wenger, and over 80 times backwards. Under Emery, lateral passes are down to just 182 per game, with 73 backwards balls.

Instead, the likes of Aubameyang and Pepe are given more licence to attack their men with the ball at their feet in order to work openings.

Arsenal completed almost 600 passes per game in Wenger’s final season
(Image: Wyscout SPA)

 

They are now passing just 500 times per game under Emery this season
(Image: Wyscout SPA)

The result of a more direct approach? Arsenal are averaging over two goals per game and have rarely looked short of goals.

But many believe the knock-on effect is being left in less control of the tempo of the game, leading to defensive exposure which has failed to conquer their concerns at the back. 

Defensive uncertainty

The main criticism of Unai Emery since taking over at Arsenal comes defensively.

For years, the Gunners were mocked for their weaknesses at the back under Wenger.

Emery has been unable to change that – but it has not been through the want of trying.

It is Emery’s efforts to solve their defensive woes which highlights how he is still learning about his side.

Arsenal have been unable to conquer their defensive troubles so far
(Image: REUTERS)

 

Last season, he opted to play five at the back over the second half of the season, but this campaign, the arrival of David Luiz has seen him revert to a four.

The result? A more fragile defensive setup, allowing an average of 15.38 shots per game and conceding 1.25 goals. By contrast, Wenger’s Arsenal, in his final season, allowed just under 11 shots per game, conceding slightly fewer goals per game.

The only consistency in Emery’s defensive philosophy is simple – his players press, but stand off. They allow more passes per defensive action – 11.3 this season and 9.41 in Wenger’s last season – and look to push their attackers into safe areas without jumping in.

Emery’s Arsenal get much less involved in duels with attackers as they press
(Image: Wyscout SPA)

 

Wenger’s Arsenal were willing to tackle much more than the current side
(Image: Wyscout SPA)

Emery’s side are involved in around 60 defensive duels each game, with Wenger’s Arsenal involved in 70 and showing more success in winning back possession.

It is clear Emery’s side view defending in a different way, focused on carefully-considered pressing rather than jumping in for tackles. 

Will this eventually work and solve Arsenal’s defensive problems? We’ll have to wait and see…

Tweaking tactics

A key difference between Wenger and Emery appears to be the Spaniard’s desire to tweak his tactics.

“The system for me isn’t the most important,” Emery has previously stated. “For me, the most important thing is to be and to create one competitive team. And then, we have the quality.”

Under Wenger, the Gunners largely had faith in their philosophy and would not alter their game plan drastically for individual opponents.

In the 2016/17 season, they lined up in a 4-3-2-1 formation 72% of the time, and it was similar the previous year.

Wenger stuck faith in his chosen formation the majority of the time
(Image: Wyscout SPA)

 

Emery has been much more inclined to tweak his side depending on the situation
(Image: Wyscout SPA)

By contrast, Emery regularly changed his setup last season, often playing only one of Aubameyang or Lacazette away from home and looking to tailor his plans for what they were up against. 

Against Manchester United, Emery opted for three defensive-minded midfielders, who largely helped keep their opponents quiet. Against lesser teams, especially at home, he has offered the creativity of Dani Ceballos to give them greater options going forward.

Ceballos is arguably Arsenal’s most creative midfielder but did not start at Man Utd
(Image: PA)

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Wenger’s big-game record was often criticised late in his Arsenal career. For Emery, the jury is still out – but tactical tweaks such as against local rivals Tottenham last year have suggested his willingness to change approach on the fly can pay dividends.

Verdict

Unai Emery clearly had a big task to change Arsene Wenger’s deep-rooted Arsenal philosophy.

In some ways, it appears his own plan is not clear, and a flexible philosophy to adapt to what is put in front of him might well be what Arsenal needs at this moment in time.

Results have been mixed and performances inconsistent, but flashes of Arsenal’s potential under Emery still show cause for optimism.

Arsenal fans – and maybe even Emery himself – are learning that change takes time. But they are now beginning to see Emery’s vision take shape as he continues to learn about the club and his players.

A return to Champions League football is the ultimate goal this season, and if that can be achieved during a season of transition, even if not always pretty, it will signal his Arsenal revolution being on track.

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