Thursday 20 June 2019

Emery won't compromise his high-press principles at City despite defensive crisis

Arsenal manager Unai Emery took charge at Arsenal last summer. Photo: PA
Arsenal manager Unai Emery took charge at Arsenal last summer. Photo: PA

Sam Dean

Unai Emery has proven himself to be a coach of many shapes and systems in his short time in England, but he is not yet chameleonic enough to consider parking the metaphorical bus at the Etihad this afternoon.

A blueprint of how to beat this season's Manchester City has been set by Crystal Palace, Leicester City and Newcastle United in recent weeks, yet Emery will do things his way as he looks to end Arsenal's terrible away form against the league's biggest sides.

The 'Emery Way' has not always been clear in the Spaniard's first season in the Premier League, when Arsenal have taken up more shapes than a Parisian mime artist.

There are central tenets to which he is steadfastly devoted, though - playing with intensity, pressing the opposition and, in his words, "imposing" their style on a match - and he will not compromise in the face of one the most formidable attacks in Europe.

Those all-action principles will underpin Arsenal's efforts against a City side that has been troubled recently by more passive, deep-lying defences. Newcastle beat City with only 24 per cent of the ball. Crystal Palace did it in December with only 22 per cent. Emery, however, knows the odds will be against his side if they tried something similar today, not least because Arsenal's strengths lie in sharp attacking play rather than their flimsy defending.

"We are going to try to not let them have possession easily, and also not let them have better positioning on the pitch," Emery said, vowing that Arsenal will press and harry City.

Perversely, this high-octane approach feels better suited to matches against the bigger sides, when Arsenal are more able to deploy their frantic pressing game. Emery said as much after their demolition of Chelsea last month, pointing out that they were allowed to squeeze because of Chelsea's short-passing style.

Against teams who play longer balls, such as Cardiff City and Huddersfield Town, Arsenal have appeared disjointed and a little unsure of themselves. It is surely no coincidence, after all, that three of their most complete performances this season have been against Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool at home.

The big "challenge", as Emery puts it, is to replicate this strategy, and this success, away from the Emirates. It is in these fixtures that Arsenal have struggled terribly in recent years, and Emery has so far been unable to reverse the trend against the top sides.

Their 5-1 drubbing at Anfield earlier this winter was the 20th away match against the so-called 'Big Six' that they had failed to win, and it has been more than four years since Arsenal left a top side's home patch with three points. In that time, 18 other clubs have won at least once on 'Big Six' turf.

Even more concerning, perhaps, is that Arsenal's away troubles also extend to matches against lesser opposition. In form reminiscent of the final months of Arsene Wenger's reign, Emery's side have failed to win any of their last five league games on the road. Looking further back, only Brighton, Huddersfield and Watford have lost more away matches since the start of last year.

"We started well away," said Emery. "But then the last matches were not good for us. It's our challenge to improve and to take the balance. When we play at home we are feeling good, we are feeling strong. The opposition, when they have chances they are not scoring. But when we play away, in those situations they can score. Each day we train and each match we play is a challenge to improve that."

The challenge will be made considerably harder for Arsenal by their defensive injuries. Hector Bellerin and Rob Holding are long-term absentees, central defender Sokratis is unavailable for a few more weeks and Ainsley Maitland-Niles, the first reserve to Bellerin at right back, is unlikely to be fit enough to start against City.

This leaves Emery with the prospect of fielding either Stephan Lichtsteiner (looking every one of his 35 years) or Carl Jenkinson (who has played only 30 minutes in the league all season) against the likes of Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane.

To his credit, Emery has largely resisted the temptation to blame the relentless injuries to his defenders for a record which shows that Arsenal have conceded more goals this season than teams like Leicester, Newcastle and Wolves. The circumstances cannot be ignored, though, and it is hard to see a makeshift back-line surviving a full 90 minutes against a City side that has been wounded by defeat in midweek.

Asked what needs to improve to solidify the defence, Emery said: "It's everything. We need to continue working and if we have everyone fit, without injures, then it will be better. But that is not an excuse. In the last two matches, for example, the team is getting better. It is these positive things that I want to follow."

The hope is found not by looking towards the defence but by turning the gaze towards the attack. In Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette, Arsenal boast a £100m strike force that is more than proving its worth this season.

Aubameyang has 18 goals to his name already, while Lacazette has provided creativity and dynamism alongside his 11 strikes. With new signing Denis Suarez, who spent two of his teenage years on City's books, potentially providing the ammunition, there is every reason to think that City can be unpicked.

Emery will need to be brave to start both Lacazette and Aubameyang. He did not do so against Liverpool in that 5-1 thrashing, although Arsenal have lost only once in the league when they have started together.

"I am very happy with them," said Emery. "They are scoring like we want." The question now is whether the forwards can compensate for the defenders on a day that could either shift Arsenal's mentality against the biggest teams or remind them how far they still need to go.


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