Wednesday 18 September 2019

'Emery-ball' facing its biggest test as Reds loom

High stakes: Unai Emery seems to be preoccupied above all with striving for the right attacking formula. Photo: Action Images via Reuters
High stakes: Unai Emery seems to be preoccupied above all with striving for the right attacking formula. Photo: Action Images via Reuters

Jonathan Liew

There was a touching reunion in the tunnel at the Amex Stadium after Wednesday night's game. The Arsenal team bus was fully loaded and ready to go, but their coach was still deep in conversation with an old friend.

At this time of year, when you're many miles from home, there's a particular and special comfort to be found in a familiar face, and with the game over and the spoils of battle shared, Unai Emery was sharing a few precious moments with Bruno Saltor, the teak-tough Brighton right-back who he knew from his time at Almeria and Valencia.

It's more than a decade since they first met, but Bruno tells a story about Emery from those days that still says a good deal about him as a coach.

It was December 2007, and Almeria - in their first season back in La Liga - were playing at Real Betis. Alvaro Negredo had put Almeria into an early lead, but then in the space of a few first-half minutes, disaster struck.

First their centre-half was sent off for a second yellow. Then their goalkeeper David Cobeno also saw red for a professional foul. With more than an hour to go, little Almeria were down to nine men.

They were a plucky little team back then, Almeria, with a number of players - Negredo, Bruno, Felipe Melo, Diego Alves - who, like their manager, would go on to bigger and better things.

Bernd Leno saves the ball on the goal line in front of Glenn Murray on what proved to be an afternoon of frustration for Arsenal. Photo: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images
Bernd Leno saves the ball on the goal line in front of Glenn Murray on what proved to be an afternoon of frustration for Arsenal. Photo: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

Emery was just 36, a dynamic young buck with an equally young squad and a reputation for daring, attacking football. And so it proved here, as nine-man Almeria responded to the predictable Betis onslaught by - but, of course - bringing on two strikers.

According to Bruno, the plan was to recapture control of the game by holding on to the ball. And spoiler alert, it didn't work: Betis ran away 3-1 winners.

But 11 years on, that decision still resonates because of the way it encapsulated Emery's fearlessness, verging on brazenness.

"What struck me especially was how brave he was," Bruno recalled in the Brighton match programme.

"He would take risks. The players loved his approach, and the fans did too."

Halfway into his first season at Arsenal, the fundamentals of 'Emery-ball' have remained largely unchanged: domination through possession, aggressive pressing lines to squeeze the opposition into their own half of the pitch, and an emphasis on quick attacking combinations, all enforced by industrial-sized quantities of shouting.

From his training sessions to his tactical tweaks to his press conferences, Emery seems to be preoccupied above all with striving for the right attacking formula.

Given the unbalanced squad he inherited from Arsene Wenger, it's probably the best use of his time right now. A tally of 41 goals - more than two a game, and just two shy of league leaders Liverpool - suggests he is certainly doing something right.

It is at the other end of the pitch where Emery's penchant for risk-taking and individual expression still encounters the odd setback.

The 1-1 draw at Brighton was another example of how Arsenal are still getting picked off far too easily at the back.

Brighton's equalising goal resulted from a simple long ball, poorly judged by Stephan Lichtsteiner, and for all Arsenal's attacking flourish this season, it remains alarming how one or two simple passes are often enough to undo them.

Southampton discovered that before Christmas, as did Tottenham in the League Cup, and most worryingly of all Liverpool - the Premier League's most dangerous direct attacking side, are up next.

Dominance

Arsenal could quite easily have lost this game. Brighton's 12 shots helped them to register their highest expected goals since September. It should also be a point of concern for Arsenal fans that despite their dominance of possession, they didn't make a single tackle until the 71st minute.

And more generally there remains an unsettled, half-baked feel to this Arsenal defence, a product partly of the multiple injuries that have rocked it, but also of the frequent tactical makeovers that force them to re-adapt just as they are threatening to settle.

There was a moment early in the second half when Laurent Koscielny, still feeling his way back into the side after a long injury lay-off, was forced into a hurried clearance, and gestured angrily at his left-back Sead Kolasinac for his lack of support.

Sixty yards away, marooned out on the left touchline, Kolasinac sheepishly responded that he was simply standing where Emery wanted him: high, almost as high as the two strikers, in anticipation of the quick break.

A single snapshot, perhaps, but one that seemed to epitomise an Arsenal team all at various stages of cohesion and understanding, still adjusting to the varied and shifting demands of playing in an Emery defence.

Read interviews with Emery and watch some of his old teams playing, and you realise that his approach to the back line is very much a secondary concern: not an afterthought exactly, but when you play with 65pc possession, you're clearly not expecting your defenders to do a lot of defending.

But among Arsenal's next six Premier League games: a trip to Manchester City, a resurgent West Ham, Chelsea at home, and first up a visit to Anfield on Saturday, where Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane and Xherdan Shaqiri lie in wait.

Riddled with injuries, beset by uncertainty and without an away clean sheet against a top-half side in 15 months, you get the feeling Arsenal's makeshift defence is about to get tested to destruction. (© Independent News Service)

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