Unai Emery’s football is too functional and one-dimensional, says Neil

From Neil Dorgan:

Hi Myles,

I hope you are keeping well!

I have recently begun making a conscious decision to ensure that I visit the ‘Arsenal News Review’ website again after a period of almost three years, where I was guilty of only intermittently checking in from time-to-time.

Prior to that, I read your column religiously every day for almost 10 years. I am not sure what initiated the unconscious decision not to check the ‘Arsenal News Review’ site daily but, on reflection, it was probably out of pure indignation to what felt like was the never-ending reign of Arsene Wenger.

However, I have really enjoyed reading some of your recent posts and reconnecting with your musings. Turn of phrases like ‘Jorgino is a metronome, not a playmaker’ make me remember how enjoyable I find your posts.

However, from what I can gather, you seem to be rather satisfied with Unai Emery’s early tenure as Arsenal manager, which led me to try and evaluate why I disagree.

You mentioned in a recent post that, having been to Chelsea’s recent home win against Brighton, you found Sarri’s style of football ‘solid but predictable’.

To be perfectly honest, my biggest criticism of Emery is that I find his side to be stale, functional, almost one dimensional and extremely predictable, with very little room for flair.

I have found myself longing for the penetrative, direct attacking football of the Arsene Wenger era of the early noughties, where players broke from through the middle with a joie de vivre that was exquisite to watch.

To add some context, I fell in love with Arsenal Team of 1997/1998. The end of season run, overtaking and beating a dominant Manchester United at Old Trafford, was a joy to behold.

However, the squad was too thin and Arsene spent almost three years re-building.

The 2001 – 2004 Arsenal vintage was stunningly phenomenal, culminating in the ‘Invincibles’ in 2004.

At the back-end of the 2001/2002 season, Arsenal won 13 games in a row from February and carried that irrepressible form into the start of the 2002/2003 season, where they blew the other teams apart for the first three months.

That was my Netherlands World Cup Team of 1974 equivalent, as close to football perfection that I had ever seen, and something that I perhaps am guilty of still chasing.

After the ‘Invincibles’, Arsene built a new team, with limited funds, that continued to play attractive football at least initially.

The 2007/2008 ‘Cesc Fabregas’ vintage were pretty on the eye but lacked leadership and a winning mentality. That side’s valiant effort eventually crumbled and Arsene was never able to address the failings becoming more stubborn as time went on. The last decade of Arsene’s teams became increasingly predictable and dull but I have not witnessed much of a change this year.

I was listening to the most recent Totally Football podcast and Raphael Honigstein was asked about the contrast between Borussia Dortmund this year under Lucian Favre as opposed to last.

Raphael made the point that Dortmund are often guilty of trying to beat their opponents into submission by almost continuing to play football until the other team tires out.

This style of football, Raphael made the point, means that Dortmund can often look one-dimensional and too one-paced, when they fail to penetrate the opposition and can be accused of not trying hard enough to win a game. I see lots of similarities in the description of Dortmund this season and Arsenal!

Emery’s attacking style has involved Arsenal becoming more dependent on trying to find an opening via exploiting a two-on-one situation out-wide with an overlap or man-overload.

From a purely aesthetic or ideological standpoint, I find this style of football quite predictable. However, I have to concede that this functional football has gotten results, especially at home, and a third place finish would be a very impressive start for Emery.

I think evidence of Emery’s functional style of play can be seen with his struggle to accommodate his most mercurial player, Mesut Ozil.

When Germany won the World Cup in 2014, Ozil was very much shunted out to left from the Quarter Final onwards to fit into the functional collective setup. Emery has mostly mirrored this tactic when playing Ozil this season.

Perhaps centre midfield reflects another example of Emery’s functional approach. Lucas Torreira’s early season form has stagnated somewhat since Christmas, as the team have grown ever more-functional. I am not a big fan of Granit Xhaka but have to admit that there seems to be very little difference as to who plays centre midfield in the past three months.

Xhaka is perfectly capable of spreading the ball right and left but these passes are rarely penetrative or between the lines, rather they spread play in a functional way that creates opportunities to overlap or create a 2-V-1 situation. Xhaka’s lack of speed, positional sense and defensive awareness make him vulnerability against better sides. Xhaka actually reminds me of an old Dortmund player, to keep up the theme, Michael Zorc – a physically strong player, with a decent foot but not nimble or dynamic enough to be a really top player!

I was, as were you, always critical of Wenger’s inability to read a game from the side-line and make tactical amendments mid-game.

Unai Emery seems to have the opposite issue, proving on several occasions a great ability to read the game and respond through tactical switches and substitutions.

However, Emery’s starting line-ups have left a lot to be desired. Arsenal’s best home performances this year have come without Iwobi in the team; Man United and Chelsea (he was taken off at h/t in the Spurs game, while Arsenal were 2-1 behind). Some fans around me at the Emirates comment that they find Iwobi ‘frustrating’. I find Iwobi much more than just ‘frustrating’. ‘Frustrating’, to me, would indicate that Iwobi is capable of producing but needs to refine his skills before things click.

Although not as bad as Eboue, I don’t think Iwobi is capable of improving further! He still dribbles with his head down, throwing unconvincing dummies, with the sole intention of an ‘old fashioned winger’ to reach the by-line and provide a low cross into the box. Iwobi is therefore, a very functional player who provides Emery with width but his defending is distinctly average and he gives the ball away far too much for someone who is not attempting the spectacular. The other attackers also find him difficult to play with as every step-over or adjustment of speed appears to be off-the-cuff and my perception is they struggle to read his movements.

There are positives. Lacazette is an absolute superstar, a player who could be accommodated in almost every club in Europe.

Lacazette’s first touch is incredible and his tenacity reminds me a little of Luis Suarez, albeit without the same competitive hunger. Guendouzi is another Rolls-Royce of a player who was plucked from the French second division.

If the much maligned Sven Mislintat identified Guendouzi and Torreira last summer, I am devastated by his departure.

Raphael Honigstein, in reference to rumours linking Arsene Wenger to Bayern Munich, mentioned that Arsene was very laissez-faire in terms of his coaching and relied predominantly on the player’s collective intuition to find a solution. Raphael mentioned that Bayern Munich are currently struggling with a similar coach, Niko Kovac, and the Bayern players are looking towards the coach for a more consolidated tactical team approach.

Maybe I need to admit that ‘functional’ leads to consistency and perhaps I need to become comfortable with Arsenal being pretty-good, rather than striving, like Arsene’s team’s in the noughties, for perfection.

Myles says:

Don’t feel guilty, Neil, about taking three gap years.

I can understand why you might feel that King Wenger  stopped you reading ANR.

Satisfied? I’m satisfied that Wenger was removed at last.

Functional football can flow beautifully when the team has Dalglish and Souness, when it has Cantona and Giggs.

Arsenal could only evolve from George Graham football when the team acquired Vieira, Bergkamp, Pires and Henry, who   took stylish power football to a level we will never see again.

Ashley Cole was the finest left back in the world and the only defender who could shut down Ronaldo.

Next season you will not miss the mercurial Mesut, as he will be playing for Fenerbahce.

This is Emery’s first season and the club has signed some very good footballers since he arrived. He needs better players and much more time.

At the moment, the teams he selects are those most likely to lift Arsenal into the top four and keep them there. That is his job but the competition makes it very challenging.

At Sevilla, Emery was not  equipped to outclass Barcelona and he can’t outclass Manchester City now.

PS. Did you have to mention Eboue?

Clueless Arsenal flop at Everton/ Watford’s Deulofeu destroys Wolves