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Potential casualties of the top 4 battle

How and why did things get so difficult for Sarri and Emery?

The pressure at the top of the Premier League to achieve instant results and progress is at an all-time high; the price for failure to provide this has major financial implications which in turn affects what happens on the pitch. This is the reality of the top level; Money and Astute decision-making equals success. In England, Chelsea were the pioneers of this model; From the arrival of Roman Abramovich in 2003, Chelsea have won 15 trophies and gone through 12 different managers; they also employed and sacked Jose Mourinho twice. Chelsea are currently sitting 6th in the Premier League following a humiliating 6-0 defeat to Manchester City and the signs are looking ominous for current manager Maurizio Sarri.

The current crop of Chelsea players are notorious for downing tools for managers they no longer feel are up to the job. Recent reports have Zinedine Zidane as a front runner to replace Sarri; 2 seasons without Champions League is not acceptable at Stamford Bridge and on current form that is looking more and more likely to become a reality. Sarri’s refusal to make amendments to his shape to afford more help and support to his key cog Jorginho; in addition, the lack of rotation has seen Chelsea concede 10 goals in their last 2 away league games whilst scoring none. There are similar problems across London at the Emirates Stadium, where after an overhyped 22 match unbeaten run came to end; questions are starting to be asked about the job Unai Emery is doing there.

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After week 16 in the Premier League, both sides were 8 points ahead of current 4th placed side Manchester United. Unless you are Manchester City or Liverpool this season; You can expect to lose a few games here and there. In the period following Chelsea’s 2-1 victory at Brighton and Arsenal’s 1-0 victory against Huddersfield; the former dropped points against Leicester, Southampton, Arsenal, Bournemouth, and Manchester City; the latter, have dropped points to Southampton, Brighton, Liverpool, West Ham, and Manchester City. The manner of Arsenal’s loss to Liverpool; A 5-1 beating at Anfield after taking the lead and Chelsea’s 4 and 6 nil defeats to Bournemouth and Manchester City respectively have given voice to concerns about both managers.

Chelsea have no qualms of removing a manager who is not producing what they want and in the way that they want it; The FA Cup exit at home to Manchester United may have cemented Sarri’s fate. Arsenal, however, have had 2 managers during Roman’s tenure and would surely not entertain removing Emery after just 1 season if he fails to qualify for Champions League or there are very few signs of progress from the previous regime? Bruce Rioch was removed with no remorse after less than a season in charge; he started a spat with the club’s then star player, Ian Wright. Arsenal then went on to employ their most successful ever manager who changed the face of the club.

What do you think of Unai Emery’s first 8 months at Arsenal? Is he going to be the one that gets Arsenal back into the top 4 and eventually challenging for the big prizes?

With Sarri’s fate essentially sealed, we take a closer look at whether Emery is living up to what was expected of the Spaniard when given the reigns at the Emirates.

emery

When Unai Emery became Arsenal Head Coach a new sense hope was given to a tired Arsenal fanbase who were desperate for change. Emery came to town saying all the right things:


“In my career I am very demanding for all, demanding of the players also. My idea is to be a protagonist for all of the match. We play against teams with this personality, and I think the history here shows they love playing with possession of the ball. I like this, and when you don’t have possession of the ball I want a squad very, very intense in pressing. It’s two things that are very important for me. Being a protagonist, possession of the ball, and pressing.”


Chief Executive at the time Ivan Gazidas outlined the reasons that the committee of himself, Sven Mislantat and Raul Sanllehi had opted for Emery and what they expected of him:


“We had some clear criteria we were looking for, We wanted progressive, entertaining football, personality to fit Arsenal values and a reputation for developing players and also, through cultural demands, demanding more from them. His teams improve over time. We also felt for some time that he is a superb fit with the criteria I laid out. He came in extraordinarily well-prepared with detailed knowledge of Arsenal Football Club.”


How good was the presentation Emery gave to Gazidas, Mislantat & Sanllehi?

It takes time to put your stamp on a team and there were clear signs that at the start of Emery’s tenure that his ideas were starting to evolve within the team; 4231 was the formation and there was a clear memo to start playing out from the back and create 2v1 situations on the wings resulting in overlaps and cutbacks to late arriving midfielders.

Standout performances were not without their fault and little bits of luck but that is to be expected in the initial teething period. Early season form was based heavily on finishing games strongly due to higher fitness levels and outrunning opponents. (Most key players had a full preseason). Results have suffered since this advantage has leveled out and some players look jaded. Defensive frailties have been apparent at the start of the season and remained a constant throughout the season regardless of personnel and whilst the individual quality is a problem the defensive instruction from Emery also appears to be of issue.

Arsenal have tended to defend in a very narrow form and conceded the flanks whether that was in a back 4 or back 3; the left-hand side has been ruthlessly exposed by better teams with chief  LB/LWB Sead Kolasinac often seen walking back when possession has been turned over and the opposition are on the attack. While it is not Emery’s fault if he has told Kolasinac to track back after going forward and he refuses to so; it is his fault for continuously playing him in the team because he is arguably Arsenal’s most potent attacker and creative player which should not be the primary function of a left-back.

Kolasinac Emery
Sead Kolasinac has been a major attacking threat but also a defensive liability for Arsenal

Sead Kolasinac currently being Arsenal’s most creative player is a statement that you would expect to be met with derision but that is the current state of affairs when there is no place for in the starting 11 or even sometimes matchday squad, for Mesut Ozil or the departing Aaron Ramsey and when 3 defensive midfielders are regularly played; Huddersfield (Home), Brighton (Away), Chelsea (Home) and Cardiff (Home); those games saw Arsenal only drop points to Brighton but with the exception of the Chelsea victory Arsenal labored to victory in the other games failing to keep a clean sheet in any.

In the race for the top 4, goal difference could be a deciding factor and playing so negatively against opposition you are clearly better than is a concerning trait of Emery’s.  3 center-backs, 2 full-backs & 2 defensive midfielders have also been deployed regularly; most recently in the away Europa League defeat against BATE and Premier League defeat to West Ham. It is a long way from the 4231 deployed by Emery at the start of the season and a far cry from the criteria of progressive, attacking football that Emery was meant to represent. Emery is naturally a pragmatic manager and his Sevilla team are evidence of that; there was one match against Real Madrid were Emery played 8 defensive minded outfield players and still managed to come away losing the game 4-0.

After what is currently on course to be Arsenal’s season-high; the action-packed home victory against Tottenham – Emery has become more pragmatic in his approach, which is his default mode. This was called for by Arsenal fans for bigger games away from home but not against the teams in the bottom half of the league. A downturn in form and a dearth of creativity have coincided with Emery’s spat with Mesut Ozil and his tinkering with the team’s formation; the identity that was forming at the start of the season has become less clear.

Since the home game against Burnley, Emery has generally opted for 2 up front; Ozil didn’t have his best game but was still heavily involved in the game’s decisive moments. It was the first time playing that shape from the off, so some fluidity issues were to be expected. The next game was Brighton away and Ozil was: ”Hooked” at half time and has only started once in the subsequent 10 games. The forward line has since been starved of service, the team devoid of creativity from midfield; Huddersfield and Cardiff had more attempts on goal than Arsenal during their respective games.

Arsenal cannot afford to have a 3rd season without Champions League and they must use all the tools at their disposal to get there; Even if those tools are leaving (Ramsey) or being used to exercise personal demons (Ozil). The 442 diamond with Ozil in the 10 positions and Ramsey on the left of the diamond against lower opposition would surely bring the missing spark back to Arsenal midfield and provide Lacazette & Aubameyang the kind of service they dream of.


Read More | Young Lions – Emile Smith Rowe |


The change in formation has led to a lack of clarity regarding the long-term vision of the side. This could lead to problems in identifying the right transfer targets and what players to promote from within the academy. Regarding promoting from within and developing players. Unai Emery is arguably not doing as well as he could be; while the Europa league has seen Academy players being played (This is nothing different from what Wenger was doing in last year’s competition while managing to integrate Maitland Niles into the first team), none of these players have seen any significant game time in the Premier League despite an extensive injury list and the poor form of some established players; Lichtsteiner and Mustafi springing to mind.

Emery has asked for wide players to be signed without giving league time to say, Emile Rowe Smith, Bukayo Saka Or Eddie Nketiah. Injuries at center-back saw Granit Xhaka, Stephan Lichtsteiner, and an unfit Laurent Koscielny deployed there instead of giving minutes to Zach Medley, Julio Pleguezuelo or Daniel Ballard; Injuries to first teamers and young players deputising has seen young players at Arsenal establish themselves in the past, Ashley Cole, Hector Bellerin and Ainsley Maitland Niles are some players that spring immediately to mind.

Finding potential in house solution to an area that needs strengthening could free up funds to spent on a greater quality of player in another area; the ascension of Trent Alexander and Joe Gomez enabled Liverpool to spend big on Virgil Van Dijk instead of potentially having to split that money and buy 2 center-backs. The club will never know if these players are good enough unless they are given the chance to prove their worth and showcase their abilities; they could not do any worse than some of the displays produced by the seasoned pro Lichtsteiner.

Joe Willock has been in excellent form for Arsenal U23s this season

The standout performer for the under 23s this season has arguably been midfielder Joe Willock; his stats for the season so far: 12 goal contributions from 15 games including 3 goals in 3 games for the first team. Players thrive on confidence and Joe Willock is playing with tons of it this season. 20 minutes as a sub would surely do no one any harm; especially as Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Ozil are being phased out of the club.

Sven Mislantat’s departure from the club and the lack of replacement raises the questions over who is identifying transfer targets? Former Emery players are constantly being linked; Ever Banega rumours have been a regular column filler for the last 8 months. But are the club after more players in the latter stages of their career that will have no sell on value and will command big wages? If there is not much to be spent, could Emery justify spending half of the alleged 45 million budget on either Steven Nzonzi or Banega? Was this the reason Mislantat walked or was there more to it?

With Manchester United now in 4th ahead of both Chelsea and Arsenal having hired a manager perfectly in tune with the ideals of their club it could be argued that both Chelsea and Arsenal have strayed too far from their usual principles. Emery and Sarri have both struggled to impose their styles on clubs who typically have very different approaches; How both managers would have fared if they were employed by the other club? Arsenal have the personnel for Sarri-ball and the Chelsea have the players for Emery’s Pragmatic counter-attacking style. Both clubs are still in the hunt for the Top 4 but should one qualify would you be confident that the man in charge can consolidate their place in the top four and move forward?


This article was first published on The TaylorTakeover blog

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