This past offseason, Arsenal underwent a tremendous upheaval, saying goodbye to their iconic manager of 22 years when they parted ways with Arsene Wenger. Wenger’s name is almost synonymous with Arsenal, as the Frenchman built the club into a powerhouse of Europe and was the architect of The Invincibles, perhaps the greatest team to ever set foot on the pitch. Wenger had an eye for talent and knew how to cultivate it, plucking players like Thierry Henry away from unsuspecting teams and developing them into superstars. Wenger also oversaw the difficult transition to The Emirates and helped develop the club into one of the precious few that can both compete at the highest level while also remaining fiscally responsible.
When Wenger stepped down as manager, speculation was rampant as to which superstar manager the club would call on to replace the franchise icon. Nobody anticipated the hiring of Unai Emery, who despite some successful runs at smaller clubs had only lasted a single season at Paris St-Germain.
Emery is a fellow countryman of Wenger, but that is where the comparisons end. Wenger was long known (and often criticized) for what was deemed a laissez-faire approach to managing his team. In a sport where superstar players are overvalued and managers are sacked on an annual basis, it was one of the keys to Wenger’s longevity. Wenger never lost his team, but the team often lacked discipline on and off the pitch. Wenger’s reliance on individual talent and the free-flowing attacking style of his team were natural results of his management style. As a tactician, he also favored running a system that suited his players, regardless of what the other team might do. Wenger believed that by putting his players in their best possible position to succeed, his team would prevail more often in the dynamic world of professional soccer. This often led to criticism, as many fans and pundits felt the Frenchman never applied tactical maneuvering tailored to the opponent’s strengths and weaknesses.
Conversely, Emery is a detail-oriented taskmaster who values structure and discipline. On one hand, his approach has already eroded his relationship with some of the players on the team, but on the other hand, his methods are showing up in the team’s play, as the team has been markedly better in holding their shape and committing to their assignments. Emery has also been more willing to alter his preferred tactics to both offset an opponent’s strength and take advantage of their weaknesses.
However, the perceived difference in overall tactics between Wenger and Emery is largely overstated. Both of them have favored the 4-2-3-1 formation over the past couple of years, with fullbacks moving far forward in attack to stretch the opponent horizontally and vertically and offer more passing options in the buildup. Both of them have resorted to a three-man back line or a flat 4-4-2 at times. This is nothing neither new for Arsenal, nor for a number of other teams.
The tactical differences between the two are more subtle. Where Wenger gave his two defensive midfielders the opportunity to move forward to join the attack, Emery is much more conservative, forcing the center midfielders to stay back and form a wall in front of the center backs. Last year, Granit Xhaka often found himself on an island while his partner ventured up the field, leading to a number of costly fouls or disastrous defensive breakdowns that hurt the young player’s confidence. Additionally, the Arsenal center backs were often left defending far too much territory as opponents came rushing forward on the counter-attack. This season, Xhaka has had solid, reliable midfield partnerships with either Lucas Torreira or Matteo Guendouzi, offering safe passes and outlets for the forward players and aggressive, solid defense in front of the center backs. This positioning has helped the team’s attack as the defensive midfielders allow the team to quickly bypass the first line of opponent pressure while improving the team’s defense against the counterattack.
In concert with the positioning and discipline of the defensive midfielders, Emery has also moved the back line forward. Wenger often kept his center backs in a deep position to overcome their lack of pace, fearing that moving them forward would leave too much ground behind in which speedy forwards and wingers could expose Arsenal on the counter. Emery has largely ignored this, playing a high line and relying on the offside trap to keep opponents from moving forward too quickly. The result has been a more compact, structured defense that forces opponents to resort to long ball tactics to penetrate it. Emery has sought to offset the enormous amount of space between his center backs and goal, as well as the resulting opponent tactics, by integrating Bernd Leno in goal as a long-term replacement for Petr Cech. Cech is one of the greatest goalkeepers of all-time between the pipes but has never been great afield and at age 36 does not have the legs he once did. Leno is not the shot-stopper that Cech is, but Leno is a younger and more athletic sweeper keeper, capable of preventing goals by never allowing opponents to take a shot in the first place.
Using these small tactical changes in conjunction with a more disciplined and organized approach, Unai Emery has been successful in replacing a legend and allowing one of soccer’s greatest clubs to move forward without the endless travails that rival Manchester United has suffered since the retirement of Alex Ferguson. It remains to be seen if his approach to management can be successful over time, or how he will tactically respond to the inevitable adjustments that his opponents make, but Emery seems to have the team on the right track, and winning is contagious.