— Shotta (UniteForVar.com) (@shotta_gooner) May 24, 2019
Seems to me, unlike the recent past, most Arsenal fans are reluctant to express an opinion on the performance this past EPL season of their manager, Unai Emery. Given that he is new and considering a large swathe of the fanbase convinced themselves, mostly influenced by mainstream and social media, that Wenger’s time was up, it is understandable they are emotionally invested in the changes that have taken place. Hence they are reluctant to take a critical view after only a year of work.
As most of my readers and followers are aware I am under no such restraints. Based on the data, I argued that Wenger should have been allowed to serve out the rest of his contract as he had consistently performed coaching miracles during his 22-year tenure despite the relative inferior financial resources at his disposal compared to City, Chelsea and United. The data indicated the club was going through a cyclical downturn after 20 years in the top-4 and Wenger needed to complete the team rebuild he had started if the club was to regain success. Obviously Kroenke and the board felt otherwise, apparently unable to resist the wave of negativity from without and within, and decided to bin the great man.
Predictably, no matter the strength of emotions whether individual or collective, reality, i.e. the unbiased data, triumphs in the long run. The stubborn, unassailable fact is that by the end of the 18-19 season the key football metrics, such as GF, GA and of course GD, barely moved the needle. That there was a 7-point improvement and a one-place gain in league position, from 6th to 5th, does not change the underlying facts.
Change in strategy
Strategy is defined “a plan of action or policy designed to achieve a major or overall aim”. The overall aim of every manager is to win games and individually they have a strategy to achieve that goal.
When Emery came on board Stan Kroenke promised:
“He shares our vision to move forward, to build on the platform created by Arsène Wenger and help this club enjoy greater success.”
It is well known that Wenger’s strategy, ever since he came to Arsenal, was attack-minded and evolved over the years into a fluid, organic possession based football requiring technically proficient footballers. It was a strategy not without its critics especially those who remain fans of the rigid defensive systems of George Graham or that of Jose Mourinho.
Based on the publicly available data it seems Emery is changing the strategy. This is quite clear from the three charts presented below.
The graph of Arsenal’s “Direction of Attacks” over the past ten years indicates the following:
- Nine years of Wenger a fairly even distribution of attacking direction.
- Wenger tended to be slightly more right-sided initially but in the latter years became more left-handed (Monreal/Kolasinac?).
- Wenger’s teams attacked down the middle consistently.
In contrast to Wenger, Emery in his first year has set up the team to be more lopsided in attack:
- 42% of attacks came down the left, over ten years, the highest ever proportion from any side of the pitch.
- The previous highest under Wenger was 37% in 15/16 season.
The observation that most of Arsenals attacking threat is from Kolasinanc and Iwobi dribbling-combining down the left and hurling in crosses or making cutbacks is not a figment of the imagination but is confirmed by verifiable facts.
Even more concerning is Emery’s Arsenal reluctance to attack down the center.
- Attacks down the middle dropped last year, to there their lowest ever in ten years, 24%.
- Wenger’s Arsenal, in the prior nine years, never fell below 28% and roughly averaged 30%.
- Now it begins to make sense why Emery earlier in the season was reluctant to play Ozil and Ramsey even when they were available.
What is troubling thing about the attacking strategy of Emery, as revealed by the graphs, is it does not bode well for the immediate future. With the departure of Ramsey to Juventus and the absence of a talented box-to-box midfielder who can attack down the middle and score goals Arsenal is even more prone to going down the flanks. This will make them even easier to defend against by opposing clubs who have professional data analysts informing their managers of Arsenal’s tendencies in even more detail compared to the rudimentary analysis of this part-time blogger. In fact, based on the data above, it will be interesting to see how Chelsea defends against the Gunners in the upcoming Europa league final now that they have nearly two weeks to prepare. With no Ramsey and Mikhitaryan available, every man and his dog will be expecting Mesut Ozil to carry the burden of the attacks down the middle but clearly that is not how Emery sets up the team.
Meanwhile the management team of Raul and Vinai in their highly touted May 22nd “Exclusive In-Depth Interview” at Arsenal.Com promise they have everything all worked out:
“What I can tell you is that we have identified very clearly and unanimously with our head coach and technical people, we know what we want to prioritise and we’re very clear on what our priorities are. We’re already in the market and we’re already talking with the people that can help us to cover those positions and I feel quite strong.”
One can only hope that they, unlike most fans, have taken a critical objective look at the first year of Unai Emery and drawn the right conclusions.