Arsenal: Can Unai Emery finally establish an identity?

COMMERCE CITY, CO - JULY 15: Arsenal manager Unai Emery waves to fans at Dick's Sporting Goods Park on July 15, 2019 in Commerce City, Colorado. (Photo by Timothy Nwachukwu/Getty Images)
COMMERCE CITY, CO - JULY 15: Arsenal manager Unai Emery waves to fans at Dick's Sporting Goods Park on July 15, 2019 in Commerce City, Colorado. (Photo by Timothy Nwachukwu/Getty Images) /

One of Unai Emery’s biggest issues since his appointment as Arsenal’s manager has been the lack of identity in which Arsenal play.

Since his appointment at the beginning of last season, Unai Emery has done well to keep Arsenal relevant during their rebuilding process and was a point away from putting Arsenal back in the Champions League in his first season at the helm. However, a common complaint amongst Arsenal fans during his tenure is that he has yet to establish a true identity for Arsenal, preventing the players from becoming comfortable and confident in their positions.

In just four games this season alone, Emery has fielded three different formations shuffling around the midfield and attacking players. The first two matches against Newcastle and Burnley saw Arsenal play a 4-2-3-1 formation before switching to a more defensive 4-3-1-2 formation at Anfield. Most recently, with the integration of Nicolas Pepe into the starting lineup, Arsenal utilized a 4-3-3 formation at home against Spurs, and it’s a version of this formation that we should get used to seeing more frequently moving forward.

While the formation has constantly changed to accommodate different players coming in and out of the squad, one thing has been consistent, the use of a back four in defense. While a few players have swapped in, the overall shape of the defense has remained consistent. David Luiz has come in to replace Chambers, who started at Newcastle to begin the season, while Sead Kolasinac came in to replace the now Real Sociedad player Nacho Monreal.

With defensive reinforcements finally back in first team training, the defense should continue to set up with a back four, which should hopefully spark more consistency throughout the squad. The additions of Rob Holding, Hector Bellerin and Kieran Tierney will allow Arsenal to have a more dynamic defense and should set the tone for the rest of the season. The cup matches against Frankfurt and Nottingham Forrest will provide great opportunities for these defenders to regain physical shape and transition back into first team football for Arsenal.

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But with the recent injury news about Alexandre Lacazette, which will see him miss the entire month of September and possibly some matches in October, it will be interesting to see how Emery approaches the lineup. Arsenal have three Premier League matches in September; including away matches to Watford and Manchester United and a home match to Aston Villa, as well as an away Europa trip to Frankfurt and a home Carabao Cup match against Nottingham Forrest.

While not the easiest of months for Arsenal, they should be able to come away with positive results from each match and should use these matches as a way to allow the players to settle in to a set formation they can expect to use for the majority of their remaining season. With Pepe now expected to continue to start, we should see Emery continue to try to use the attacking three we saw before the international break, even with Lafayette missing out.

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Aubameyang will slot back into the central striker role, with Pepe on his right hand side cutting in to his preferred left foot. Mkhitaryan recently departed for Roma at the end of the transfer window, allowing one of the younger players in the first team to slot in to the space available on the left-wing and prove they deserve to fight for a starting place. And with Reiss Nelson and Gabriel Martinelli ready to fill in for Lacazette, Emery should feel very comfortable playing and rotating the youngsters in as needed to keep the preferred formation of an attacking top three.

With defensive and attacking shape relatively set moving forward, the big question still remains about Arsenal’s midfield three. Unai Emery has six starting-caliber midfielders to fit into three remaining positions. Against the Spurs, Emery finally unleashed the three-headed dragon of Aubameyang, Lacazette and Pepe that fans had been dying to see, but when paired with three defense-minded midfielders, the three-headed dragon had little effect with no one to feed them the ball.

If Arsenal are to continue to use three attackers, they will need to slot someone into the midfield that can feed the ball through and support the attacking players. With Lucas Torreira, Matteo Guendouzi and Granit Xhaka all feeling more comfortable in a deeper-lying midfield position, fielding all three together leaves Arsenal lacking a creative option to connect with the attack. While all three can pick out a pass and carry the ball forward, their preference to sit in front of the defence is an issue for Emery. If Emery decides to continue with this formation, one of either Joe Willock, Dani Ceballos or Mesut Ozil will need to come in to the Gunner’s midfield in order to move the ball forward from the back and connect with the dangerous attacking players.

If Emery would prefer to keep Nelson and Martinelli on the bench in order to have fresh options up top available to bring in later in the match, he could revert back to two attackers, using Aubameyang and Pepe side by side while sliding one of the attack-minded midfielders into the 10 role behind them. However, as we saw against Liverpool, this leaves Arsenal very exposed in the wide positions forcing the central-defensive midfielders into uncomfortable positions defending the wings.

Emery would be smart to use this month as an opportunity to implement a consistent formation and begin to establish an identity and way of playing at Arsenal. Even with players dealing with injury, there is enough depth and talent for Emery to continue to utilize the 4-3-3 formation. But in order to be successful in using this formation, the midfield is key. If Emery can figure out how best to utilize his midfield players, Arsenal have the chance to exceed many people’s expectations this season.

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If Arsenal can establish an identity and allow the players to become comfortable in their positions at the start of this season, they can become a force to recon with moving forward. With a fully fit squad, healthy rotation and a few reinforcements in the next couple transfer windows, Arsenal has the ability to begin to push their way back into the conversation of the Premier League’s elite teams. This next month will go a long way to establishing rhythm for Arsenal and setting them up for a solid push this season.