How Unai Emery has turned Arsenal into the proverbial cold, rainy night at Stoke

During his tenure as Arsenal manager, Arsene Wenger was criticized for many things: an unwillingness to spend big transfer fees, complete tactical rigidity, a lack of ambition to finish above fourth place. Even the manner in which the Frenchman struggled to zip up his own coat seemed to add to the perennial frustration of Arsenal fans, who saw so much unfulfilled potential at their club.

But one thing Wenger could not be criticized for was an attractive playing style. Slick passing movement, patient possession and goals that resembled works of art were hallmarks of Le Professeur’s dynasty.

Peak Wenger may have arrived in October 2013, when Jack Wilshere finished off an incredible passing goal against Norwich. Such was its unreal perfection that it became known colloquially as “The Playstation Goal.” The sublime effort ranks at No.1 in Arsenal’s impressive Top 5 team goals list.

Right now, The Playstation Goal must feel like it happened in a different lifetime for Arsenal fans.

Unai Emery has definitely moved away from Wenger’s style — and not for the better.

“Since Emery arrived I don’t get pleasure from watching Arsenal anymore,” says Emmanuel Petit, who sat at the base of the midfield in Wenger’s title-winning team of the late nineties. “There’s no fluid passing, no movements, no one or two touch, I don’t see that style at all. It’s like they killed the heritage of Arsenal when Wenger left.”

Unai Emery has turned Arsenal into a bruising, unimaginative outfit. Which is not what fans are used to after over two decades of Arsene Wenger. (Getty)
Unai Emery has turned Arsenal into a bruising, unimaginative outfit. Which is not what fans are used to after over two decades of Arsene Wenger. (Getty)

It is true that The Gunners have lost their entertaining and expansive style. Under Wenger, attacking movements would frequently go through the middle of the park, with creative midfielders helping to transition the ball into the attacking third with one-touch, elegant movements.

Under Emery, attacks seem to flow almost exclusively through the flanks, with an endless stream of hopeful crosses peppered into the box. Like many of the less expansive top-flight sides, Arsenal appear to look at their most threatening in set piece situations.

Slick passing into the box has been replaced by aerial balls to the big man. Opposition players are now stopped by violent rugby tackles. Arsenal, it seems, are slowly evolving into Stoke City. And that comparison might actually do some disservice to the Potters and Tony Pulis’ highly effective blueprint, which has achieved cult status among Premier League fans.

With previous employers, Emery forged a reputation for aggressive, attractive and attacking soccer, coupled with defensive solidity. His sides typically have shunned Tiki-Taka possession-based soccer for rapid breaks on the counter.

While some of these tenets are on display in North London, his system and use of personnel are problematic.

Given the absence of Hector Bellerin and Rob Holding in defense, Emery may earn a pass for his failure to tighten up the backline this season.

But it is fair to criticize Emery for an apparent reticence to take advantage of Arsenal’s midfield creativity. Granit Xhaka typically stewards the midfield over Lucas Torreira, even though the latter would be much better suited to transition the ball forward for attacking opportunities.

The fact that Xhaka has been given an elevated role — namely, the poisoned chalice of the Arsenal captaincy—feeds into the narrative of the club’s “Stoke-ification.” In fact, the combative Swiss star nearly joined the Potters instead of Arsenal.

Xhaka’s controversial exit from Sunday’s 2-2 draw with Crystal Palace might be an indictment of his shortcomings as a player, but it says more about Emery and his insistence on putting him in the team in the first place.

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The most puzzling aspect of Emery’s Arsenal, however, might be the general absence of a central playmaker, even though the club have one of the best in the world in Mesut Ozil.

Previously, Emery’s teams have relied heavily upon central support for the attack: Ivan Rakitic, Juan Mata and David Silva are just a few of the prominent stars who have thrived in the No. 10 role of an Emery side. The Spaniard was expected to allow Ozil to flourish in his preferred 4-2-3-1 formation, but that has not come to pass.

To his credit, Emery has shown tactical flexibility to meet the varying challenges of the opposition (he played 4-4-2 against Crystal Palace, for example) but his systems have generally not played to the strengths of his best players. Previous record signing Ozil is not starting and current record signing Nicolas Pepe looks ineffective.

After 10 matches played, Arsenal are fifth in the Premier League. This may seem like a reasonable league placement for the club at this point. After all, Emery is a Europa League specialist.

But a fanbase who have been fed filet mignon for two decades are now being served greasy fast food burgers.

The Gunners faithful will look with envy across London to Chelsea, where Frank Lampard is bringing excitement and entertainment back to Stamford Bridge, with relatively limited resources and comparatively greater defensive issues.

The same fans may also turn green when looking at the competent and thrilling soccer being played by Brendan Rodgers at Leicester. On another timeline, the Ulsterman succeeded Wenger instead of Emery.

Liverpool and Manchester City may have earmarked the top two spots in the league, but there are two remaining Champions League qualification spots that are essentially up for grabs this season. Emery’s choice to embrace Stoke-esque physical directness over his club’s trademark beautiful expansive play means they are squandering their opportunity to reclaim their seat at Europe’s top table.

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