We at Corner Kick have made a lot out of the concept of tactical unity – that is, the idea that a team with a defined tactical identity will, over time, outperform its counterparts. I would stipulate that one of the reasons teams like Manchester City are able to be so successful is that their tiki-taka style of play is so deeply ingrained in their players that they are afforded the luxury of individual flexibility – think converting central midfielders like Oleksandr Zinchenko and Fabian Delph into left-backs, or wingers like Riyad Mahrez into central midfielders. Despite opposition teams knowing what to expect tactically from City (although I know many a Fantasy Premier League manager who would remind me never to bank on any particular player making his way into a starting XI), the club identity, combined with the individual skill of Guardiola’s men, makes the Citizens virtually unstoppable. For teams like Manchester City, the system is arguably more important than the individual components of any given XI. City can afford to lose their best player for three months and plug the gap with a significantly worse talent, and still coast to victory. Arsenal’s Invincibles side of 2003-2004 was emblematic of that as well, with their full-strength lineup of Lehmann, Lauren, Cole, Campbell, Toure, Gilberto, Vieira, Ljungberg, Pires, Bergkamp and Henry starting just 2 games together.
However, this season Arsenal’s performances have made me wonder if there is an equally viable counterpoint to that initial argument. For the past two decades, Arsenal played Wengerball – a possession oriented tactic that slows down the play, looking to patiently poke holes in opposition defenses. Arsenal almost always lined up in a 4-2-3-1 under Wenger (although he briefly experimented playing a back three, resulting in great success), and this style of play produced some absolutely stunning goals: Jack Wilshere’s goal vs Norwich, Tomas Rosicky’s goal vs Sunderland, and Patrick Viera’s goal against Liverpool. This style of “pass-and-move,” though, became so rote that Arsenal’s team play began to stagnate. Petr Cech remarked that under Wenger, “[playing] the Arsenal way was more important than getting the points sometimes,” suggesting that the legendary Frenchman’s coaching was perhaps over-reliant on style rather than being adaptable to in-game situations.
With Unai Emery in charge, however, Arsenal have lacked all of that tactical identity that I certainly clamored for. While Arsenal have still often played in a 4-2-3-1, Arsenal have started games in 5 different formations so far this season. Emery has also proved to be willing to make changes at halftime and into the second half. In the North London derby, Emery brought on Aaron Ramsey and Alexandre Lacazette during the interval, capitalizing on Spurs’ thin midfield by dropping attack-minded Mkhitaryan for a box-to-box presence in Ramsey. Wenger was much-maligned by supporters, including myself, for failing to adapt mid-game. Emery, to this point, has not made a single tactical misstep this season. Arsenal are 19 games undefeated, with the most recent victory being called “one of the best games…in years,” and there is little cause for complaint amongst Arsenal supporters.
Outside of this most recent game, though, Arsenal have looked much more resilient than in recent years. Emery has brought his own style of play, which still focuses on possession but is also significantly more direct than the style of Wenger. This has led to similarly beautiful goals: Aubemayang’s goal vs Leicester and Ramsey’s backheel flick against Fulham (which included another backheel flick from Hector Bellerín in the buildup) chief amongst them. While Arsenal have struggled mightily to score in the opening half of games (and subsequently are still yet to enter the second half with a lead – Arsenal would be 18th in the Premier League if games ended at halftime), it is perhaps a testament to Emery’s tactical acuity and flexibility that the Gunners are in fourth place in the league despite these maladies. 67% of the goals Arsenal have conceded have been in the first half, far and away the highest proportion of any top-flight team. The addition of terrier-like Lucas Torreira has added some steel to the midfield and shielded Granit Xhaka’s defensive weaknesses, enabling the Swiss’ passing range to show while providing defensive cover. With Torreira’s goal against Spurs, his cult hero status amongst Arsenal fans is sure to grow.
Emery is clearly a great motivator as well, as Arsenal have scored 9 goals in the first 15 minutes of the second half so far, while conceding a league-low 0. While Arsenal’s first-half woes are certainly concerning, they are lessened by the squads’ proclivity to score early and often in the second half. Arsenal have covered more ground as a team than any other side to date this year, and this effort must also create fatigue in the opposition, perhaps another explanation for Arsenal’s second-half goals.
As Lacazette himself said after the demolition of Spurs, “we can see on the bench his [Emery’s] enthusiasm, it pushes us. The decisions that he made today were very good. We could say that this is his victory.” Emery himself admitted that “we needed something different” after a first half that saw Arsenal concede two dubious goals – one likely offside, one off a blatant dive from Heung-Min Son – but goals that were with the run of play, as Spurs had impressed in the latter stages of the first half. Emery admits his mistakes but also makes amends.
Despite Arsenal’s lack of tactical consistency, they have shown drastic improvements this season, as they gradually shrug off the remnants of Wengerball. Arsenal haven’t lost since September, and now the Gunners can claim London is red after absolutely eviscerating Spurs (with a chance to do it again in the League Cup in two weeks). As Emery has more and more time to instill his own ethics and tactics to this squad as well as to sign players whom he deems necessary, perhaps Arsenal will evolve to the same level of fluidity of Manchester City. Emery’s strength lies in his adaptability both on and off the pitch: his willingness to change formation mid-match is equalled by his drive to conduct all interviews and training sessions in English, despite barely speaking the language earlier in the year. Emery is here to stay, and Arsenal should keep striving for adaptability along with consistency in their ongoing campaign.