It seems like every defeat these days ushers in the latest round of crises at three of the four clubs that have dominated the Premier League era. Manchester City have been relatively new entrants to the party, but having won only two league titles in their history until 2011, they have added four more in quite a hurry and do not look like stopping anytime soon.
Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal however are at differing stages of upheaval and with City and Liverpool establishing themselves as the two best teams in the country by quite some distance, tough questions are being asked with unerring regularity. Uncertainty pervades the air at Tottenham Hotspur too, the side who complete the so-called top six. It seems to be borne out, however, by the sad realisation that an amazing cycle is coming to an end. Upheaval is on the cards, yes, but it is still one season away.
It is early days yet at the clubs under the scanner with Unai Emery of Arsenal having spent the most time at the wheel; sixteen months into a three-year contract. He is also the most experienced of the three managers, having had spells at Valencia, Sevilla and Paris Saint-Germain amongst others. It may not appear to be the case if one were to ask a lot of the supporters, but Arsenal have progressed nicely during his tenure.
Emery’s first year culminated in a Europa League final appearance and it was only a sequence of results which saw them pick up four points in the last five games of the league season that denied them a place in this year’s Champions League. Despite this hiccup, only two clubs have picked up more points this calendar year and those sides are operating on a different plane at the moment.
Another gauge of progress is if the semblance of an identity comes into view and Emery’s tactics suggest that they play to a work-in-progress template. The same cannot be said about the other two clubs, where the inexperience of the managers at elite-level football shows. The inconsistency in results is natural at this stage of Arsenal’s development, partly because the manager still does not have the personnel he needs in all areas of the pitch.
There is a clamour for Lucas Torreira to play instead of Granit Xhaka as the holding midfielder. However, in the 4-2-3-1 that Arsenal mostly employ, Xhaka acts as a better link between the defence and attack. It was no surprise when it was disclosed recently that Emery wanted Steven N’Zonzi instead of Torreira last year. He could have been an upgrade on Xhaka but there is no doubt that Emery prefers a passing metronome in the deepest lying midfield position.
Xhaka has a mistake in him, especially while tackling, but in a lot of cases, he is isolated in the middle of the park when a counter-attack is on. Matteo Guendouzi will mature into a good player in time and his energetic performances have won Arsenal fans’ hearts but he is not the most tactically aware player at the moment. The finger could be pointed at Emery for supposed naïveté but as is usually the case with continental managers in the Premier League, he is only sticking to his principles of play.
This is why he will continue to encourage his centre-backs to play out from the back despite the occasional mistake. Rob Holding’s return from injury is welcome news and he could help stabilise that area of the pitch. Kieran Tierney and especially, Hector Bellerin, have been missed at the full-back positions and Arsenal will improve once they are integrated into the starting eleven.
In time, Emery may switch to a 4-3-3 which provides more solidity. He does not have the personnel at the moment to do that. The Motta-Veratti-Rabiot triumvirate worked very well for him at PSG and if he can add players of that stature over the next few windows, Arsenal could really develop into a strong squad. With the attacking riches already at their disposal, they will take some beating.
Emery’s contract contains a break clause that can be triggered at the end of this season, enabling the club to sack him a year early. Yes, football is a results business, but Arsenal would be crazy to get rid of the man with the plan. If Edu and Raul Sanllehi back their man in the transfer market, he will deliver success.