Unai Emery has been praised for his ability to prepare tactically for the opposition, for adapting in games to poor performances and for being flexible in the way his Arsenal side have played. However, constant change isn’t what Emery will be striving for, and there’s a reason for his relentless switch-up of formations in games.
Emery started the season at home to Manchester City with his side playing a back four (4-2-3-1 formation) and insisted in that game that his side play out from the back with goal-kicks.
In this game, his first ever in the Premier League, he immediately forced his philosophy on the players, and what’s telling is that he adopted the back four in doing so. In his first ‘big test’ since August, against Liverpool, he once again lined up with a back four.
The use of the three-at-the-back system didn’t actually become an option till the end of November, but now fans and pundits will do well to remember a time when Arsenal didn’t line up with some sort of variation of a 3-4-3 or 3-5-2 formation.
Arsenal reverted back to a 4-2-3-1 formation for the midweek game against Wolves, but found themselves battered by half-time. So the question is, what is Emery’s preferred formation and what’s he trying to achieve?
The only consistency in Emery’s approach to games is in his desire to attack the flanks, whoever he faces. He’s often deployed the likes of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Henrick Mkhitaryan and Alex Iwobi out on the wing in an attempt to make the pitch as big as possible and have his most dangerous players in acres of space when attacking.
This was even more evident by the advanced positions players like Hector Bellerin and Sead Kolasinac would find themselves in to provide the overlapping option. Full-backs being used in this way isn’t particularly innovative, but the Arsenal right and left-backs were getting into very dangerous positions on a far more regular basis than we’d become used to seeing.
Emery’s clearly proving he wants to focus his football down the right and left, but what’s more telling than just his choices of formation and system is his desperate desire to sign a winger in the summer and winter transfer window. In January, Arsenal reportedly missed out on signing several wingers, and Emery continued with 3-4-3.
This formation along with 3-5-2 has allowed Emery to get the best out of his biggest threats from wide areas, surprisingly Sead Kolasinac and Ainsley Maitland-Niles. Hector Bellerin was also brilliant before his injury.
The issue for Emery is that the wide options he’s inherited at the club simply aren’t good enough to have the desired effect, and so he’s adapting by fielding an extra centre-back and allowing the far more dangerous wing-backs to get further forward. Alex Iwobi and Henrikh Mhkitaryan’s lack of end product from these areas are forcing Emery into changes to his system he doesn’t feel comfortable making.
Long-term, fans should be confident that Emery will take a more consistent approach, though that won’t come until he’s found out which players he can and can’t trust. His persistence with Iwobi suggests he is desperately trying to find a player of real quality within him, but it simply isn’t coming as the Nigerian’s form continues to be patchy and uninspiring.
Emery is having to sacrifice some of his own principles just to get the wing-backs higher up the pitch and without leaving his defence exposed. Whilst the formation is challenged by many fans, the three-at-the-back system he deploys will one day be looked back on as a teething problem that Arsenal had to come through under the Spaniard before he found the players he needed to embrace the use of traditional wingers once again.