Unai Emery and the rest of the Arsenal backroom have announced their intentions to make a strong effort at a top-four finish for the upcoming Premier League season. They have a logjam at the attacking midfielder and striker positions, so here some ways Emery can fit all the talent on the pitch at once.
Many years have passed since anyone thought Arsenal had too much talent at any single position, but in 2018, here we are again. The Gunners have two world-class attacking midfielders and two world-class No. 9s, which gives Arsene Wenger’s heir an embarrassment of riches when it comes to picking a first-choice XI.
In recent transfer windows, the club has prioritized signing experienced players who will instantly impact the squad, and the same trend continued this summer, along with chief scout Sven Mislintat’s trend of bringing his former Dortmund colleagues over to north London.
In 2017/18, the Gunners conceded 13 more goals in the league than the next-best top-six defense. Fifth-placed Chelsea conceded 38 while sixth-placed Arsenal let 51 goals in. The club’s scouting department took note of that deficiency on the back line and signed one goalkeeper, two defenders, and two defensive midfielders.
Arsenal have consistently needed more physicality in their squad since Patrick Vieira left over a decade ago, and with the signings of Lucas Torreira, Stephan Lichtsteiner, and Sokratis Papastathopoulos in particular, Emery got what the club needed.
In one of his first interviews as Arsenal head coach, the Spaniard talked about how he wants to primarily use a 4-3-3 and press the opposition, but he also alluded to tactical flexibility and changing formation based on the requirements of each match. Arsene Wenger rarely adjusted his team’s style of play based on the opponent, and that caused the Gunners to drop points on many occasions.
The club added five new players and it has a few youth prospects looking ready to jump into the first-team picture. The big squad might give Emery some selection headaches: at the moment, he has five center backs to choose from, not counting the injured Laurent Koscielny. He also has six central midfield players at his disposal.
Football has become a faster sport in the past decade, and by the time he resigned as Arsenal manager, it was clear that Arsene Wenger had not adjusted. Emery has worked closely with Sven Mislintat, Raul Sanllehi, and Ivan Gazidis this summer to build a side that looks closer to being a winning team than any Arsenal team has in recent history.
Acquiring the personnel is half the battle for the Gunners. The club still needs Emery to employ tactics well-suited to the players he has. On that note, take a look at some formations and tactics he could use in the early stages of his reign as Arsenal head coach.
This formation takes a page out of Chelsea’s book since they have reaped the rewards of playing a three-man central midfield in the recent past. Torreira would sit at the base just in front of the back line and fill the Kanté role of nonstop running to break down any attack coming Arsenal’s way. Torreira’s presence in the middle of the park frees up Granit Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey to focus primarily on attacking. Both of those midfielders have struggled to find the balance between joining the attack and overcommitting to it, so the Uruguayan will give them the physical and mental freedom to go forward without hesitation.
The back line will likely be exactly what Gooners expect when the club kicks off against Manchester City on 12 August, although Emery might opt for Calum Chambers or Rob Holding to add some pace since Papastathopolous and Shkodran Mustafi severely lack it.
Selection choices will become tricky for Emery when he sets up the attack. He has classy talents in Mesut Özil, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Alex Iwobi, Alexandre Lacazette, and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to choose from, and he can’t fit them all on a pitch at once without sacrificing his team’s integrity at the back.
In this case, he opts for Lacazette to lead the line with Özil roaming into space off the right side and Aubameyang cutting inside and using his pace on the left flank to add a direct attacking outlet. Playing the German and the Gabonian internationals slightly out of position is a risky prospect, but it could pay dividends if they adjust well. If it fails, the World Cup winner could move inside to a more traditional No. 10 role and Aubameyang could line up next to Lacazette in a 4-3-1-2 formation.
Arsene Wenger heavily relied on the 4-2-3-1 for the majority of the latter stages of his career as Arsenal manager, and that is both a good and bad thing, depending on which year one looks at. Here’s the attacking version of the hypothetical 4-2-3-1 Unai Emery could use, but the Spaniard could also mimic France’s World Cup-winning 4-2-3-1 by playing Ramsey on the wing to add another effective two-way player in the team, similar to what Didier Deschamps did with Blaise Matuidi.
Playing a double pivot in midfield is risky because Sokratis and Mustafi have no pace, but adding Xhaka to the mix would not add much athleticism to the team anyway. If Arsenal use this formation, they will resemble Liverpool in the first half of the 2017/18 season: a lot of speed and goals, but a lot of goals conceded, too.
The addition of Mkhitaryan is the biggest difference between this formation and the last. His dribbling, passing, and ability to use both feet make him a valuable asset, and he would relieve Özil and Ramsey of some of their playmaking responsibilities. The Armenian international scored two goals and provided four assists in 11 league appearances for the Gunners before a knee injury prematurely ended his season.
It appears that Xhaka and Mkhitaryan will battle for the last spot on the teamsheet as Emery decides whether he wants to play three attackers or four.
The vast majority of Arsenal’s squad has no recent experience playing in a two-striker formation, but Emery’s 4-4-2 diamond could be the most effective formation for the north London side this season. The Spaniard helped bring this formation back into style during his streak of winning three straight Europa League trophies with Sevilla, and the club’s current personnel fit perfectly into it.
This lineup gives Arsenal’s back four the protection they need as a result of Xhaka, Ramsey, and Torreira playing in midfield, but it still manages to pack a punch going forward because of the stellar front three of Özil, Aubameyang, and Lacazette. And if Emery sees his side in a deficit on the scoreboard, he could always put on Iwobi or Mkhitaryan for Xhaka or Ramsey and have the substitute focus solely on attacking and pressing the defense.
Having two full-fledged strikers leading the line is the biggest change for the Gunners here. They have not done that consistently in at least a decade and it will force the team to sacrifice the attractive pass-and-move build-up play that both Arsene Wenger and Unai Emery have an affinity for.
The ex-PSG manager is a lot bolder tactically than the Frenchman. That’s not a high bar due to Wenger’s stubbornness for the last five years of his tenure as Arsenal manager, but it makes it more likely that the club might try something new under the new head coach. Lacazette would be the one to drop further into midfield to help build up attacks while Aubameyang will try to use his pace to get behind the opponent’s defense.
Emery loves this formation and it has potential to carve the league up if it works, but the lack of width going forward could lead Hector Bellerin and Sead Kolasinac to get too eager when attacking which would cause Arsenal to look identical to Germany in Russia back in June.
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