Unai Emery: First impressions of the Head Coach

Yes, I know what your thinking. How can I possibly make any kind of judgment on Unai Emery when the season isn’t even 2 months old. Indeed, by the time I have written this there is a good possibility that we may have even lost a couple of games, and the way we have been playing I wouldn’t be shocked. But having attended a few games of Unai’s Arsenal (It still feels weird to see a team managed by anyone other than Uncle Weng) there are certain things I am beginning to notice, which at least show that things are slowly but surely changing for the better.

Less possession

Under Wenger, Arsenal were renowned for being a team that liked to dominate possession. Very few teams could match them in this respect. Even during the trophyless years, this could produce scintillating football that many coined ‘wengerball’. And when this worked it was spectacular. Just take a look at the famous Jack Wilshere goal against Norwich, this was football at its most aesthetically pleasing – a football purists dream.

But from 2016 ‘wengerball’ became slow and turgid. Arsenal would still have much of the ball, but the passing was ponderous and often without any real purpose. Under Emery we have are seeing opposing teams have more possession against us then I can ever recall under Wenger. At home, Watford had nearly 40% of overall possession. Back in Wenger’s day, this figure would have probably been about 10% lower.

Yet, despite this concession of the ball we are now scoring…

Quick consecutive goals

This Arsenal side produces moments where they turn on the style and then shut the game down. Against Newcastle, we scored two goals very close together at the start of the second half. The same thing happened against Everton and Watford – albeit much later on. Will this be a common theme of the Unai Emery era? Who knows. But this doesn’t feel coincidental. It does feel like the manager is telling the team to go for it during a period where the opponents are likely to tire. Did this happen under Arsene? In 22 years I am sure it did, but in the latter years, concentration levels were not maintained in these types of games, resulting in many dropped points from winning positions.

Emery does not seem to have this type of laissez-faire approach which is also noticeable in how he is with his …

Touchline behavior

For me, this has been a really refreshing change. To see the manager/head coach be active in his technical area gesticulating to his players shows someone who is trying to influence proceedings all the time. Rather than being reactive, he is immersing himself in every minutia of the match. The players should be clear on what’s expected of them, but what this does demonstrate is in game management. If something is going not quite to plan, or an instruction isn’t being carried out, Emery will try and change things.

To be honest, after watching Wenger sit perched on his bench (often struggling with a zip) it’s great to see someone getting visibly engaged. This has transmitted not just to the players but to supporters as well. His marching up and down the touchline is something new and fans have really taken to this approach. Long may it continue.

Lack of attacking cohesion

When you have top class attacking talent like Aubameyang, Lacazette and Ozil goals will come, whoever is managing or coaching the side. However, it’s impossible to escape the fact that from an attacking standpoint there have been some issues. Shoehorning both the main forwards into the same team has resulted in Aubameyang playing as a right-winger. And while he has been scoring from this position, he doesn’t look anywhere near as comfortable as he does in the centre, which is currently being occupied by the excellent and hard working Lacazette. Our lack of genuine width has resulted in Ozil playing on the flanks too. And whilst he can do a job here, he is so much better playing in his favored number 10 role – where he has the freedom to create chances for his teammates. Currently, the central attacking berth is being occupied by Aaron Ramsey. But with contract talks halting, his ten year Arsenal career will soon be at an end, when his contract expires next summer. This could mean a chance for …

A revived Iwobi

One of the rare product’s of the academy, Alex Iwobi, received particular vitriol in the latter days of Wenger’s tenure. After an initial bright start, his form nosedived spectacularly over the past year. During the final months of last season, Iwobi’s contributions were minimal, and many fans would have been more than happy to see the back off him in the post-Wenger era. Emery has clearly seen enough potential to think Iwobi is worth persisting with and the early signs are very good. Iwobi scored the equaliser against Chelsea and had has looked excellent in the Europa league (Yes I know not the best caliber of opposition). His recent cameo against Watford showed plenty of promise and he caused their watertight defence all sorts of problems. This may just be a glimpse, and Iwobi may well just fade into obscurity, but it does at least show that Emery is willing to work with some of the lesser names in the squad to try and hone their talent. This is something we seldom saw from Wenger in his last few years. If anything many of his players saw their form rapidly decline.

Substitutions … at different times

Something that particularly got on my grill about the previous manager was his propensity to make substitutions on the 70th minute – regardless of the score or opposition. It was as if he knew what he was going to do this, regardless of how the game would go. It didn’t matter if we were winning 3-0 or losing 3-0 the changes would happen on minute 70. With Unai at the helm, we have seen substitutions at different times of the game !! We even saw some at halftime – and not because anyone got injured. Of course, for most football clubs this is perfectly normal. Most teams don’t have legacy managers – and after 22 years you begin to notice really notice these irritating habits much more. So to have a coach who makes changes as the game evolves shows a level of flexibility that has been absent for some time.

But one thing remains the same:

Suspect defending

This is probably more to do with the personnel than the coaching, but Arsenal are all over the place defensively. It’s amazing to think that Mustafi is still an Arsenal player, his form has been truly wretched for some time and he makes the job of his centre back partner that much harder. Sokratis has looked pretty decent, but it is clear he is not a player who is the caliber of say a Van Dijk or Vertonghen. I believe this is an area that will need massive investment over the next year or so. You can do all the coaching you want, but if the personnel are not good enough to execute your demands it’s going to be difficult to not give away plenty of chances. Rob Holding is showing glimpses of his huge potential again and would be a far better partner for Sokratis than the hapless Mustafi.

He is a coach first

The all-powerful Wenger was so much more than a coach. He was the face of Arsenal football club for so long, and his press conferences would often digress into wider issues such as racism, finance, and politics. And whilst this clearly demonstrated that he is a hugely intelligent and erudite man, it came at the expense of talking about what really mattered to fans – the coaching and tactics. Contrast this with Emery. Literally, the only subject he speaks about is how he sets up the team and he is more than willing to explain why he makes certain decisions. I suspect that part of his remit as Head Coach (rather than the manager) is to ensure that his press conferences don’t deviate into the wider macro issues, something the Wenger would regularly do


Leave a Comment