Ahead of Arsenal’s opening match of the Premier League season, there were many question marks over Unai Emery. What can he bring to the Emirates? What is he like? How Wenger-ish or un-Wenger-ish is he? How will his team play? Pep Guardiola, though, knew exactly what to expect. “Unai? No, Unai is not going to play that way [a deep 5-4-1],” he said in a pre-season interview with Sky Sports. “Unai is going to play 4-2-3-1.”
The Catalan coach was confident… and he was right. When Guardiola took his Manchester City side to London to take on the Gunners on Sunday, he came up against a 4-2-3-1 and his English champions were able to overcome Arsenal to take the three points and to keep his record against Emery to seven wins, four draws and zero losses.
Of course, Emery should not be judged on how his team performs against the super-humans of Manchester City. No coach should be. But it’s telling that Guardiola was so justifiably convinced of how Emery was going to set his team up.
This has been a common theme of the Basque coach’s managerial career. At Sevilla, he almost religiously played a 4-2-3-1, while at Paris Saint-Germain the default formation became more of a 4-3-3, as he had to squeeze so much attacking talent into the front line. Arsenal fans can expect Emery to pick a formation and to largely stick to it this season, however, it’s important to note that he isn’t quite as stubborn as some other coaches. While Emery will keep the shape the same most weeks, he is willing to change it for exceptional circumstances.
Furthermore, there are always nuances to his starting XIs. They may repeatedly line up in the same formation, but the individual instructions given to each player will change each week. He is a meticulous coach who studies the opposition in detail and who approaches each match knowing exactly what to expect, what the other team’s strengths and weaknesses are.
Famously, he is obsessed with video analysis and with sending his players away from the training ground with homework to do. For some players, this is too much and Neymar was reportedly unhappy with the long hours of video sessions at PSG last year, while Joaquin – who played under the coach at Valencia – could only take so much. “I worked with him for three years,” he later said. “But I wouldn’t have been able to handle a fourth.”
At Arsenal, Emery might be able to get away with this. This is a squad that is aware change was needed, so the players should embrace the new way of working that Emery implements. They have 10 players in their current squad aged 25 or under, many of whom are starters, so Arsenal has the benefit of having players at the age where such instruction and schooling can be embraced.
There are few major egos in the Arsenal squad and this is important too, as Emery’s major problem at PSG was his inability to manage the dressing room. As talkative and energetic as he is, he is not an authoritative figure and this partly explains why his biggest successes have come at clubs without superstars. He started his coaching career at Lorca, the same club he retired as a player with, at the age of 32 and immediately led them to a first-ever promotion to the second tier, before similarly leading Almeria to they’re first ever trip to LaLiga just a couple of years later. It was at that point that he was given the Valencia job and he was largely able to get these players on his side too, finishing sixth, third, third and third in his four seasons there, which now looks even more impressive considering they’ve never been back in the top three since his departure in 2012.
A failed stint at Spartak Moscow followed, with Emery has said he partly blames on the language barrier, before he returned to LaLiga and to Sevilla, where he famously led them to three successive Europa League titles. The PSG adventure then came. The PSG adventure quickly went.
Now at another club which is, for the time being at least, aspiring to simply be in the Champions League rather than to win it, Emery seems to have landed in a good spot. He’ll be able to own this Arsenal dressing room, he’ll be able to get the players on board with his tactical tutoring and he’ll be able to set this squad up in a system which the players will quickly become familiar with while making slight adjustments with respect to the opponents. The Emery formula is a simple one. But it might just be what Arsenal need right now.
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