Formations the Foundations for Unai Emery’s Arsenal

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.


Arsenal Foundation – A Reminder of How Football Can Be Used for Good

By Sam Limbert

Maybe it was because of watching so much international football during the summer with the World Cup, but during the first international break of this season, I haven’t watched any of it. This is one of the most likeable England regimes for many a year but I still couldn’t be bothered to watch either the Nations League or friendly matches.

The first international break of the season always feels like a particularly long one. There’s lots of excitement and anticipation for the new season, then there’s suddenly a week off after three or four games. It makes it difficult to get some momentum into the season, and from the point of view of going to home matches, with away games either side of the internationals, the lull can be an annoying one.

While I think it’s a good thing that there weren’t many Arsenal players involved in the international matches during the last week, that also killed any interest I might have had. It has however given Unai Emery the chance to work with most of his defenders and goalkeepers, along with the likes of Mesut Ozil and Alexandre Lacazette, with those players then getting a rest with a weekend off.

This time around, two things have kept me going during the international break. One was the final cricket test match between England and India, and as much as I’d like to write some gushing praise for Alastair Cook, you probably haven’t come to this blog to read about cricket! The other thing that kept me going during the international break was football related as I went to the Arsenal vs Real Madrid Legends match at the Emirates Stadium.

Debates can be had about if some members of the two squads could be classified as ‘legends’, and I’m sure more tickets would have been sold had the likes of Dennis Bergkamp, Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira been able to play, but it shouldn’t detract from what was a fun occasion and one that raised money for fantastic causes and initiatives that the Arsenal Foundation supports.

How the club or players that take part and freely give up their own time can be criticised for putting on a charity match like this is beyond me. The work that Arsenal does in the local community in Islington and in larger projects overseas is

Former Arsenal Players Tomas Rosicky & Jens Lehman
Rosicky & Lehman share a laugh after the Arsenal legends v. Madrid legends match on September 8, 2018.

something that makes me proud to support the club. Per Mertesacker recently visited one of these projects in Jordan with the Arsenal Foundation and Save the Children helping traumatised child refugees with their physical and mental health through football pitches and projects. Such a situation seems a long way from the life of a lot of Arsenal supporters as it is easy to get caught up in some of the most trivial things in football.

It makes charity occasions like the Legends match more important and worth supporting because a club the size of Arsenal’s can make a huge difference in the people’s lives in more ways than just winning football matches. The message from the game against Real Madrid should be the incredible positive effect Arsenal and football is having on vulnerable children through giving them opportunities in life, and how the Legends match helps this work to continue, not about whether certain players were legendary enough to be playing.

Of course, once on the pitch, former players don’t lose some of the competitive edge, and while the money raised was the most important part of the day, it was always going to be topped off if Arsenal could win. In those circumstances, having someone like Jens Lehmann in your team always helps. He is a goalkeeper who doesn’t really understand the concept of a friendly. He is a goalkeeper who saved a penalty from Tomas Rosicky in the Czech’s own testimonial match before it was retaken. He is a goalkeeper who’d not let the mascots score when they were shooting at him before a match.

The Arsenal Legends had to defend for much of the game on Saturday and were reliant on Lehmann to make some very good saves to keep the score at 0-0, although honourable mentions must go to Jeremie Aliadiere for playing at right-back, Nigel Winterburn for still being in great shape to play 90 minutes and Gilberto, whose reading of the game and positioning was still exemplary.

In the eventual shoot-out, Robert Pires, Gilles Grimandi, Matthew Upson and Aliadiere took good penalties, while it was clear that Lehmann was enjoying the chance to be the hero having played the full 90 minutes as David Seaman’s calf went in the warm-up. It wasn’t really a surprise that having saved one of the penalties, Jens stepped up and slammed in the winning spot-kick. Charity game or not, Jens gonna Jens.

Seeing the likes of Pires and Rosicky in red and white again, along with Lehmann’s heroics, made for a very fun afternoon. While the international break has been long, it was great to get a reminder of the good that Arsenal and football can do for people’s lives.

For more information on the Arsenal Foundation, visit

Arsenal Need Ozil as Much as Ozil Needs Arsenal

Arsenal FC and Their Mesut Ozil Problem

By Sam Limbert

After picking up the first win of the season against West Ham on Saturday, one of the main points of discussion has been about one man who wasn’t on the pitch against the Hammers, rather than those who secured Unai Emery’s first victory as head coach.

Ever since his move from Real Madrid, Mesut Ozil has been analysed differently to other players. His price tag and reputation meant that, somewhat understandably, more was expected of him compared to others in the team. The German has never been the sort of player that was going to take the ball on the half way line, dribble past a whole team and score 30 goals in a season, but the way he has been criticised by some, it still wouldn’t be enough even if he did that.

His game has always been about being an enabler. The rest of the team around him usually all look like better players when Ozil he plays well, but equally those around him need to be on it for Ozil to look his best.Mesut Ozil and Unai Emery

He didn’t have a good game at Chelsea, so while Unai Emery is still tinkering with his team and trying out different combinations in his starting line-ups, Ozil being on the bench against West Ham wouldn’t have been unreasonable. Stories emerged in the lead-up to the game about a training ground dispute between Ozil and the head coach, before he then missed the game through an illness. Unai Emery said after the game that Ozil had a cold and there was nothing more to it.

Training ground bust-ups make for great newspaper headlines, but at this stage we have to take Unai Emery’s word for it that this was nothing more than Ozil feeling under the weather. It’s not the first time his immune system has let him down before a game if that is the case. There were pictures on Wednesday this week of Ozil back in training, so I would expect him to be involved in the squad again on Sunday against Cardiff.

While we don’t know if anything untoward did happen in training last week, it’s important to consider the summer that Mesut Ozil had as context to discussions about the German. Whether he earns £300,000 a week or not, Mesut Ozil is human and mentally what he has been through with Germany both on and off the pitch will have been immensely draining and upsetting.

On the pitch in the World Cup, he was playing in a failing team. It wasn’t his fault that Germany’s defence went AWOL against Mexico and that others then missed chances he created against South Korea. Off the pitch, there were clearly issues behind the scenes and Ozil courageously took the decision to step away from international football. In doing so, he highlighted important issues relating to migrants and racism as to why he felt unwelcome by some when playing for Germany.

The lack of support Ozil has received from other players in the national team, and most recently from Joachim Low, has been extremely disappointing and misses the point as to why Ozil stepped away. The claims of racism were directed at the German football federation rather than the team specifically itself. To have players and the coach come out and deny something that wasn’t levelled at them in the first place, seems like an attempt to sweep this under the carpet without actually investigating the allegations made by Ozil. Given how much Ozil has done for the German national team, the comments aren’t going to encourage him to reverse his decision any time soon.

To have this going on will have made it difficult for Ozil to start the season with a clear head. I just hope that Arsenal can support him properly after a difficult summer. As much as Arsenal need Ozil, Ozil arguably also needs Arsenal right now. Footballistically, Unai Emery and Ozil himself then have to work out the way to get the best from him on the pitch as when he’s playing well, he will undoubtedly help Arsenal win games and he makes football a joy to watch.

While Aaron Ramsey had a positive game in the number 10 position against West Ham, there were numerous moments in the match where I felt like the Gunners missed Ozil’s guile on the ball. Had Ozil been playing on Saturday, I think Arsenal would have controlled the game better as the German is usually excellent at making himself available to receive the ball from the central midfielders. That would then have potentially brought Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang into the game a bit more.

Unfortunately, because of being the highest paid player, I can’t see the added scrutiny on Mesut Ozil becoming any less intense. But I want to see him back in the team because if Arsenal are going to make it back into the top four this season, they’ve got a much better chance of doing it with a firing Mesut Ozil.