Unai Emery and His Many Formations

After the opening two defeats, the first season under Unai Emery has gone as well as any of us could have hoped. While the results have all been positive, there have been concerns about some of the performances, but it felt like everything came together for the first time against Fulham.

What has really struck me about this first block of matches has been the variation in formations used by Unai Emery. That could in part to the head coach trying to learn about his players and not being afraid Arsenal Manager Unai Emeryto try different things to get the best out of the squad. In the last two games alone, four different formations were used with a 3-4-2-1 and 4-2-3-1 against Qarabag, and the 4-4-2 at Fulham before it finished as more of a 4-4-1-1.

We became used to what Arsene Wenger’s preferred system was, and even with the introduction of the back three in 2017, most of the time, it was easy to guess how the team would be set up. Trying to second guess Unai Emery and work out any patterns has been one of the things to make this season really interesting so far.

From what I can tell in the small sample size we’ve had, the head coach wants to have a variety of tactical options and formations available to him and that he’s then not afraid to pick a team suited to that system, rather than picking a few players and building a system around them. If certain players are unavailable, he will also tailor his team set up to suit those who are available, rather than playing the same system and trying to make do with putting square players in round holes.

We saw the benefit of this on Sunday when Mesut Ozil was unavailable because of a back problem. I think the German has quietly had a good start to the season and looked particularly influential when moved into the number 10 position in the second half against Watford, but in his absence and faced with an opposition playing a back three, Emery was able to select a line-up that suited the players at his disposal. Iwobi and Mkhitaryan have been the most impressive wide players this season, so were able to play as genuine wingers, while the combined pace and hold-up play of Danny Welbeck and Alexandre Lacazette was well suited to those two being a strike partnership after Aubameyang had been unwell during the week.

As much as I really enjoyed the throwback to 4-4-2 at the weekend, especially when it is rarely used at the elite level of modern football, I don’t think Sunday’s comprehensive win will signal its permanent return as Arsenal’s defining system. Against stronger opposition, Arsenal could be overrun in midfield and there would be less joy down the flanks against a team with proper full-backs rather than wing-backs. It also doesn’t really suit Mesut Ozil and Aaron Ramsey, and while the latter finished off the majestic third goal when playing down the right, he was quick to move into the center when the additional holding midfielder came on.

But 4-4-2 is now a genuine option as a system going forward. This tactical flexibility will be really important as the season progresses, and the challenge for Unai Emery will be making sure he picks the right formation for the opposition. If that means leaving out more established players for the good of the team, then Emery has shown so far that he isn’t adverse from making that decision.

The other side to this has been the way Unai Emery has rotated and used his squad in the three competitions so far. On seeing the starting line-up on Sunday, it looked slightly more Europa League than Premier League with the likes of Leno, Holding, Iwobi, Mkhitaryan, and Welbeck playing, while Lacazette and Torreira also had to wait their turn to get starts earlier in the season. But because of the clever rotation from the manager, all of the players looked ready for action because of involvement in the other competitions, and the blurring of the lines between the tournaments.

Last season, understandably so, there was a distinct difference between the Europa League/Carabao Cup team and the Premier League team, especially in the first half of the season. This also contributed to significant chunks of that Europa League team leaving the club in January. But this season Unai Emery has involved much more of the first team squad in those games. Even if a number of changes have been made to the starting line-ups, a strong bench has always been picked. I wasn’t aware that Mesut Ozil knew what the Europa League group stages were but he’s come off the bench in the first two games.

There’s a positive vibe around the club at the moment and a lot of that comes from players not seeing it as a negative to be involved in the Europa League and Carabao Cup. Albeit partly because of injury situations, the starting XI at Fulham was proof that good performances off the bench and in other games open the door for Premier League starts. Each game is being treated as an important one, and that’s been really important for Emery as he tries to make his mark at Arsenal.

This winning run has given Unai Emery a lot of breathing space for the rest of the season as while I think the fanbase would have been patient to give Emery a chance to bed in, a string of poor results would have been unnecessary pressure on him. Fortunately, nothing like that has happened. The reality is that the top four is still the target, but the early season form has given the fans belief that the new man in charge is able to churn out results, and has given the players belief in the new ideas he’s trying to implement because they are giving immediate results on the pitch, whatever formation is used.

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