The collective Arsenal conscious is a complex beast with many layers. Few would doubt that. The seemingly infinite forms of social expression and the wide-ranging opinions that result are simply a byproduct of a new era.
It’s time to embrace Arsenal as such a multi-faceted subject instead of fixating on contrarian or polarizing viewpoints. Large sample sizes lead to diverse perspectives and trends which emerge. With this in mind, the Arsenal experience, mine anyways, becomes predictable. Essential issues quickly come to the forefront and appear on the majority (if not all) of the platforms, such as podcasts, websites, social media accounts, and TV shows. The same question gets answered by all sides like vultures picking at a carcass.
The purpose of this blog is to tackle a question that all of the above outlets already have. A question that I feel is being misaddressed:
What constitutes success in Unai Emery’s first season at Arsenal?
Simplified, the most common answer has been: A top 4 finish.
Being back in the Champions League would be massive. I don’t doubt that. Like the collective Arsenal conscious, the answer is far more nuanced and should be predicated on stylistic change and a shift in identity. Many hope Emery can establish a culture based on his two ‘P’s’ – Possession and Pressing. I feel that his end of the season report card and overall progress will be defined by 2 other ‘P’s’ – Progress and Purpose. Are we becoming a club that is progressively advancing while taking steps to establish a new identity?
The 4 areas below are what should constitute the “Emery First Season Report Card” at Arsenal Football club. High marks in these areas would constitute success.
1. Defensive Contingency Planning
We knew how teams would try to exploit us under Wenger the last decade: take advantage of space behind the fullbacks and overrun the midfield to hit us in transition. It was no secret, just ask Fat Sam. We have failed far too long in the defensive transition phase and this needs to improve.
A trademark of Guardiola’s teams and Jardmin’s Monaco, Emery too prepares his team for when they lose possession. In Cameron Campbell’s piece on coach-plus.com he explains it as follows: “When in possession a defensive triangle is created (2 center backs and defensive midfielder) which provides protection and stability to the team allowing the forward players to intensely press the ball upon a transition instead of having to automatically retreat the shape in fear of being exposed on the counter.”
The Passing Grade: Arsenal look increasing more comfortable and organized upon losing possession instead of like they are chasing shadows in retreat.
2. Press With a Purpose
We all know Emery believes in a pressing game, but his ability to cultivate one with a group that had not been drilled previously is an entirely different matter. There are few players in this squad that have been well versed internationally or at club level with this tactic.
It’s only my prediction, but based on articles read and his interviews, his pressing will emanate from player spacing and defined roles when we lose the ball (see point #1). This stands in contrast to teams like Liverpool and Leipzig which act on opponents’ pressing triggers and traditional high press/counter press tactics.
The Passing Grade: The majority of the fanbase deems our pressing game as coordinated and intent driven at season’s end.
3. Provision of True Width
We have been asking our fullbacks to do the job of 1 ½ players on the football pitch. Defend wide areas, cover large areas defensively when we lose the ball, help the team build play, and, most notably, provide all the width.
We saw Mkhitaryan constantly drift wide to provide creativity because of the lack of options vacating their central areas. The best teams provide devastation from wide areas through variety and, let’s hope, Emery can do the same.
The Passing Grade: Emery utilizes or cultivates natural wide men to provide a threat from outside–maybe a Lucas Perez, Reiss Nelson, or if we get real lucky, a Ousmane Dembele.
4. Defend Deep with Comfort
Credit should go to Wenger over the last few years, at least he tried to be more pragmatic in big games. He identified the need for defensive solidity, but our attacking ethos and steadfast belief in “jazz football” meant this tactic rarely paid off.
Big teams need to have the capacity to beat the best on the road and “off the ball” comfort goes a long way in achieving that.
The Passing Grade: Arsenal look noticeably comfortable defending as a unit and keeping a sustainable defensive shape for long periods.
5. Reunite the Fanbase
This one isn’t tactical or stylistically driven. Our fanbase needs something to unite and rally behind. We need to see clear progression and purposeful footballing intent moving forward. “Stagnation” has been commonplace for too long now and Emery working within our collective approach to the operation of Arsenal Football Club needs to represent meaningful change.
I’ll leave you with the Sevilla clincher to clinch a 3rd consecutive Europa Cup denying Liverpool joy.
The Passing Grade: The majority of Arsenal fans are optimistic at season’s end.
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