Unai Emery vs. Arséne Wenger through the eyes of the team selection conundrum

Arsene and Emery

With the Europa League and the Carabao Cup already started we had the privilege to see a glimpse of almost the entire senior squad, and even some academy players in training (apart from Macey and Mavropanos, but if you follow the Academy, they also have played in a few U23 games and a Leasing.com Trophy match).

So, the good news is that we have a great squad, where “back-up players” are more than capable to play football on a high quality. But there is bad news as well: as yet the first team keeps struggling in the Premiere League.

While I have no doubt that it would be way unfair to disregard the major difference between playing against a PL opponent and challenges against Nottingham Forest or Vitoria Guimaraes, I cannot ignore the (seemingly) lack of concept in terms of starting line-up and main tactics or style of play. But before we submerge in criticizing Emery, let’s take a look at the aspects of team selection.

Especially since in and under TotalArsenal’s previous post on squad preference we had almost as many opinions and recommendations as answers. In agreement with most comments – especially with PE and TA – I think there are at least 5 factors in play when Unai Emery (and practically every other manager) determines the starting line-up for the next game:

1) Who are the best players available?

It might not be clear for Emery, or he simply knows better than us. Or even has insider information on the players’ form, fitness and mental state – which he is absolutely supposed to have. And there could be power plays amongdt players, coach, club and agent that could either influence the concentration of the player, or perhaps the coach wants to control the situation with his team selection decision…

2) What strategy would be best suited for our players?

Many coaches have their preferred style of play, but good managers decide the strategy based on the strengths of the squad and might even tailor it to individual players. The other option is – if the club’s executives perfectly know the team’s strength – signing a coach that might not have a broad strategy portfolio but has a signature style and experience appropriate to the squad. (This argument itself disqualifies Mourinho from taking over Arsenal, even if I’m starting to like the guy for the first time.)


3) What are the best tactics against the opposition?

Unless you are Barcelona, the manager must adapt more to the circumstances than expect the circumstances to adapt to him. Factors such as the stadium, weather, referee, the other team’s form and core tactics can – and maybe should – be taken into consideration. I wish I knew what famous unforeseeable results were just pure luck, or the effect of an inferior team using superior strategy.

4) How to rotate the squad optimally?

Rotation serves mainly 2 purposes: to let key players take a well-deserved rest (preventing fatigue or injury), and to allow fringe/youth players to gain valuable first team experience. Some teams have deep traditions in squad rotation, others prefer to field their star players 50+ games every season. And if a team doesn’t send a starlet out on loan then they need more than just training with the team: a few hundreds of minutes could significantly accelerate their development. And on the other hand, lack of minutes hinder the player’s and even the team morale, so contrary to popular misbeliefs (as long as most players are fit) a small squad is way better than a large one.

5) How to be unpredictable? How to exploit the surprise element?

If the opponent’s formation, line-up and tactics are anticipated, there is a good chance to prepare to neutralize or counter it. Therefore, a modern manager should be both far-seer and mysterious – as long as you are not Barcelona or Liverpool whose tactics are near impossible to neutralize. A surprise change is usually about coming up with an unexpected formation, but could also have tactic elements like long balls vs. short passes, man marking vs. zone defence, high crosses vs. dribbling inside the box from the flanks, etc.

+1) How to make changes in the game?

Sometimes you eat the bear, and sometimes the bear eats you. Even the best managers are outsmarted from time to time (especially if you are a mediocre coach managing a great team like Valverde), and if the initial strategy doesn’t work out, the coach should hack the game by changing the formation and/or the tactics. Sometimes replacing a tired or underperforming player could turn the tide, but an adept manager must be a lot more creative than simply that – without risking the engine to buck.

I like Emery. I am positive that he is largely responsible for the improvement of the squad – both signing exciting new players and getting rid of (some of) the deadwood – and he had many good moments last season, including but not limited to beating Spurs, Chelsea and Man United, drawing with Liverpool at home, reaching the EL final after back-to-back wins against Napoli and Valencia, playing beautiful against Leicester City and Fulham, scoring some wonderful team goals, etc. There were some lows as well, but (almost) every team has them. Hence, I believe we should be more patient with him and give him more time to find his equilibrium.

However, I still really want to criticize him, but preferably without being biased. 😊 Therefore, I want to do it based on the team selection principles above, even attempting to bring Papa Arséne into the comparison:

Wenger was great in 1) and 2). He knew his players in and out, improved them to serve their role in the squad, and developed his signature possession-based Wengerball with pleasing fluidity in attack, smart passes and total team football. Yet he was not a great tactician (3), and he probably thought that trying to be unpredictable (5) was beneath him. He drove his team into battle with their heads high looking for a straight and fair fight, and as long as Arsenal was the better team, he emerged victorious.

But as the Russian and Gulf billions changed the game, he often had to play against equal or superior teams, and the reluctance to customize the tactics as well as his inability to change the game from the inside – sorry to say that, but as far as +1) is concerned Arséne was a Championship level coach – inevitably let to his downfall. But for his contribution to English football, for the invention of Wengerball, for the undefeated 49 games, and his uncompromised youth development (4) his status of club legend is perfectly justified. And he was a genuine gentleman, a type that is almost extinct from modern football.


On the other hand, Emery doesn’t seem to be at the top of his 1) game, which is really a shame, because this is the only aspect Arsenal supporters really know and genuinely care about. He is not preoccupied with 2) either, but obviously because he is so much the undisputed friggin master of 3), that he probably subsumes reinventing the club DNA to customizing the tactics to the opponent.

I expect development in this department, because when Pepe, Auba and Laca get fully accustomed to each other, plus our best midfield gets tested and proven, we will have a potent team again, to which the opponents should be pressured to adapt if they know what’s good for them. 😊

So far I am really satisfied with his rotation and youth development (4) as well (I think the inclusion of Guendouzi, Nelson, Willock, Saka, Martinelli, Smith-Rowe and Mavropanos – as well as loaning Saliba and Nketiah – are more than enough for this season; I honestly don’t need Burton, Olayinka, Medley or Coyle further thrown in the mix… maybe John-Jules.)

Regarding Unai’s obsession to be unpredictable makes me tear my hair out (which is already in serious shortage), because even he manages to outsmart every Arsenal blogger, correspondent and supposedly all opponents as well, it doesn’t seem to bear fruit, and rather confuses the team. It seems that he is so good at 5) that is already counter-productive. But I have to give him that when it comes to change the game (+1) – often because he messed up the starting line-up in the first place – Emery is the real deal. He doesn’t mind experiencing, changing tactics midgame, admitting mistakes and making up for them.

All in all, Unai and Arséne have vastly different management styles and personalities, but were/are both capable of coaching the team properly. Both have strengths and weaknesses, but as Emery is a lot younger, I hope he can improve on his shortcomings without compromising his obvious talent and advantages.

By Pbarany

16 thoughts on “Unai Emery vs. Arséne Wenger through the eyes of the team selection conundrum

  • A tour de force of a post, Pb, and I love it! 🙂

    Bloggers like JGC aka Le Prof, Admir, PE, Gooneris and many others, including me, will like the analytical approach to this comparison of recent Arsenal managers. It is a good breakdown of elements and yet you also look at impact of external developments, such as the influx of oil money, etc. The risk of using the scalpel too much, though, is that something of the big picture could get lost in the process.

    Key for me is cultural fit: Wenger’s real legacy is that he turned a 1-0 to the Arsenal style of play into a modern, all-attacking style of play loved all over the world. Gazidis did not pick a manager who could build further on this and improve on it, but a guy who would bring his own football philosophy and ways of working. I had high hopes for Emery and was glad he got the job and not the inexperienced and unproven Arteta. But Emery is a totally different kind of manager compared to Arsene, as per your analysis.

    Pool chose Klopp as follow up of the now Leicester manager and it was an improvement but not a change of culture/style of play. Klopp built on what Rodgers had established (which was already a very good team and style of football). City did the same with Guardiola succeeding Pelligrini, even though the Spaniard did change quite a bit when he took over.

    I want a manager who has a clear vision of how he wants to play football, one that fits with what Wenger built up for us over the years and yet makes us stronger; one who gets the best out of the players and makes the TEAM stronger than the sum of its players; one who develops a system of football that is hard to beat – both in defence and attack – and builds confidence in the squad, with only an occasional need for tactical adjustments; one who understands how big this club is and can be, given the size of its stadium and fanbase and financial power.

    I especially hoped to get a manager who gets the balance right in midfield and with that in the hole team, as Arsene just wasn’t doing this anymore.

    Don’t believe that is Unai Emery in almost every aspect but, as per your post, there are some managerial strengths and he has got a great squad now, so maybe it will all still come good. A win at Old Toilet would of course be very, very welcome and it could kick-start our eventual way towards the top… 🙂

  • Very interesting perspective Pb! Thanks and great job👍😀. With the different elements you have mentioned, do you think that the combination of skills that emery brings is better suited for a cup run (Europa our FA) or winning the league? My initial thought is that having a style of play is critical for a league winner and its absence would make it rather difficult to dream of winning the league, But that this is less critical for a cup run. If you agree with this notion, Could Emery be using this approach because he sees winning a cup is the low hanging fruit upon which to slowly build a squad with an identity?

  • Wow! The whole package pb. 👍

    I keep peering into the thick fog but still unable to see Emery clearly. One thing definitely am not keen on is the hours on video analysis. I’d prefer our team to get onto the field minimum 85% themselves and a maximum of 15% of adjustment to the opponent. A righthander must face a southpaw boxer as a righthander. If he adjusts to the extent of a southpaw stance he’d be messed up. We are a big team relative to most teams so the onus should be on the smaller teams to adjust to us. In terms of philosophy am more of a Wengerian. Truth is, am not yet certain what is Emerian.

  • Thanks TS for the creative chessboard illustration, and everyone for the warm feedback.

    For the sake of argument let’s assume that the club values shown on TransferMarkt reflect the fair worth of the players. (They are surprisingly accurate to be honest, but tend to favor high profile (high value) purchases, and slightly biased towards Tottenham.)

    I believe that the clubs above £750M are beyond our reach. We would have little to none chance against clubs like Real Madrid, Man City, PSG, Bayern, Juventus, Barselona & a few more, independent of our head coach being Emery, Wenger, Zidane or Klopp. They usually play at the level of our top game, so in order to beat them we would need to play both games on our highest quality, and also require them to play worse than average.
    While it is a bit simplifying, the next 15 teams (of market value between 350M and 700M) are more or less at the same level, and most of the value-differences are related to squad size and age. The super-ability of Emery is that he can come up with back to back plays that seems as they had no chance at all. Like we played against Napoli and Valencia as if we were playing against Watford or Aston Villa (… sorry, wrong metaphor). So independent from the league or players, when Arsenal will reach the elimination stage of EL, I will have no worries playing against major clubs falling from CL like Inter, Leverkusen, Benfica, Ajax, Leipzig or Lyon.

    So yes, I think cup runs suit him better. I am quite alright with him in terms of doing the spectacular. What I start to miss after a 1.2 seasons is winning those simple games that Liverpool and Man City handle with a 4:0. I miss the 22-games unbeaten run from last season, which I contribute mostly to the Xhaka-Torreira partnership (and benching Guendouzi).

  • Pbarany, that was a very detailed analysis and frankly, a contemporary topic, given the state of things and the sense of entitlement Arsenal fans appear to have these days.

    For me, give me Arsene every time, over Emery. How many times have we attempted to second guess emery’s Line up and fail? That’s not ideal, even if some unpredictability helps because it suggests the manager has no idea what his best 11 is and Wenger had that one smack down. While that may be because he didn’t have too much to choose from, it made for a stable team that knew what was expected of it, always.

    Agreed that during his last two seasons, the relationship with the fans didn’t help matters or we would be doing a bit better. If we are to be honest, the Wenger years, post-Emirates stadium, was hardly blessed with the top quality players Emery has under him today, with budding talents coming in from the academy; I can’t help but feel that Wenger will have this team playing like contenders and we would probably have been in the top 4 last season, easily, targeting top 2 this season. It is about player management and psyche and Emery just doesn’t seem to know much about “treating a player like a beautiful woman” (apologies, Arsene Wenger). I am not advocating a return for Wenger, at this time and it isn’t that I don’t respect the choice of Emery as Wenger’s replacement, but since we are on the subject, I’ve got to say we had a number of better choices.

    As it stands, we have Unai Emery and have to support him in the hope that eventually, he will mould the side into what he desires and what will bring the trophies back. I also agree with the theory of how he seems more up for the cup games and has his team structured to respond to cup tie modes. In one thread, I did suggest he appeared to be making substitutions in a league game, with the Europa league encounter vs Frankfurt in mind. That was most unusual. I’d rather have the Arsenal side that will dominate the games we should and only adapt to teams that are, clearly, better than us. Not the other way around. After Wenger’s exit, the least I expected from Emery (video nut/tactical genius and all) was to ensure visible improvements in our defending. Alas! The stats suggest not much changed. If anything, we appear a bit worse off.

  • Wrote that in a rush as I want to watch the Everton – City game. Any typos regretted. 😋

  • Thank you for your well thought out post PB.

    The obvious concern about Emery is that in his 15+ years in management with 7 clubs he has only won 1 league title – his record is shown below 6 cups and only the 1 league title. To me this shows a weakness in getting consistency from his teams over a long period of time. Cup wins are a lot easier and are also subject to a lot of good fortune,and against fewer teams.

    As a manager
    UEFA Europa League: 2013–14, 2014–15, 2015–16

    Paris Saint-Germain
    Ligue 1: 2017–18
    Coupe de France: 2016–17, 2017–18
    Coupe de la Ligue: 2016–17, 2017–18
    Trophée des Champions: 2016, 2017

    Miguel Muñoz Trophy (Segunda División): 2005–06, 2006–07
    La Liga Manager of the Month: March 2014, January 2015
    European Coach of the Season: 2013–14
    UNFP Manager of the Year: 2017–18

    I’m not anti Emery but I’m very skeptical about his ability to be successful in the very competitive EPL.

  • Superb post Pbarany. As TA says a “tour de force”.

    There is little chance UE will win the PL whilst at AFC but what he can do is oversee the transition after the AW years. There are difficulties but I feel/hope that we have the squad to improve and become the team UE is aiming at.

    Yes, he makes mistakes – who doesn’t? Unfortunately his happen to be in front of millions

  • I agree that Emery has a different kind of reputation than the “top football coaches”, especially when it comes to league titles.
    However I would be reluctant to draw the comparison between him and Guardiola, Zidane, Mourinho or Ancelotti. They have been appointed as managers of the undisputed best/wealthiest teams of their league, and given a huge budget to further boost their already superior teams. They are “stay on the top” coaches. Which might be hard to become, but probably not so hard to maintain. (As a matter of fact Zidane and Pep started coaching Real Madrid and Barcelona respectively, so they didn’t have to earn their reputation the hard way, while Ancelotti seems more efficient in spending big money at Napoli than closing the gap on Juventus.)

    What we are looking for are “challenger” type coaches. Who took over the “underdog” team, and managed to won the title nevertheless. Such managers are Klopp (for 2 Bundesliga titles with Dortmund, not silverware for him yet in the PL, but winning the CL is darn impressive), Simeone (’14 title with Atletico, plus numerous cup wins and close CL attempts) and Jardim (titles with Monaco and Olympiacos, close attempt with Sporting). And not many more – besides Arsene Wenger in the early XXI. century. Reinventing the club/team and overtaking the traditional title holder is not an easy task – I don’t think Brendan Rodgers or Eddie Howe would succeed – as there are no established best practices.
    I was delighted when Emery was appointed, as his meticulous approach could be a path to glory (of which I getting less and less convinced), but I would gladly give a chance to Arteta’s combination of intelligence, creativity and youthful enthusiasm. However I wouldn’t be satisfied if Mourinho, Tuchel or Allegri would follow Emery. They would be very expensive, would insist on breaking the bank in every transfer window, and their style wouldn’t fit Arsenal – in my opinion – either.

  • Emery – Why Xhaka has been named club captain

    Unai Emery has hailed Granit Xhaka’s leadership qualities after confirming the midfielder as our new club captain.

    The Switzerland international has taken the armband six times already this season, and will be supported by Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Hector Bellerin, Alexandre Lacazette, and Mesut Ozil as fellow members of the leadership group.

    So why does Emery feel that Xhaka is the best man for the job?

    “First, he is mature and he has experience and we are all living all the time under pressure, under criticism as coaches, as players, as a club,” our head coach said. “The most important thing is to stand up in each moment, go ahead and [for him] to show his quality, with his behaviour, with his commitment and in the dressing room the players voted for him as the first.

    “After, I spoke with him and we want to change that opinion outside because that respect that he has inside the dressing room is very, very important. And also keep moving ahead, playing, improving, and with behaviour, and his commitment. Each match for him, for me, for everybody, is a very good opportunity to show our capacity.

    “I trust and believe in him and he is a good man, a good professional and a good player. Sometimes he has made a mistake, yes, but the most important thing is to analyse, to learn and to correct that in the future.

    “His challenge, and our challenge, is to change that opinion and above all, show personality and improve in each match and give us his help every time. The first match is on Monday at Manchester United.”

    Copyright 2019 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to http://www.arsenal.com as the source.

  • Pb, good thought out post with analysis aplenty.

    As much as we need a continuation of Wenger’s vision and tactics, you rightly mentioned that Emery sort of messed up everything. Why do we not stick with Mikel Arteta as our new manager before bringing in Emery? Arteta can bring a mix of Total Football with his Gunners and Citeh tactical and positioning ideas and bring more confidence to the team.

    Ok. Like you Pb, i do not exactly hate Emery. He has his ideas that are more suited for lower teams, but not top champions league teams. That was why i mentioned in my earlier comments that his midfield is broken. His tactics and lack of emphasis on midfield is what broke the team.

  • Who is Emery?
    1). He wants to play out of the pack for the purposes of keeping possession and sucking the opposition out of their defensive shape. Therefore it is both a defensive as well as an offensive tactic. Because of this tactic that entails a lot of possession in his own half (the stats bear this out) he favors central players who are long passers (Xhaka) and who are line braking passers (Guendz). So his ideas here are dominated by offensive thinking. Maybe my thinking is a bit of the old school but it seems to me that there is not enough defensive thinking here. At the same time it is recognizable that Pep’s defensive work is almost entirely based on excellent possession play.

    2). Emery prefers attacking from the flanks using his full backs for creating width. On this account he prefers his middle attacking players to possess more of industry than creativity and that’s why he isn’t getting along with Ozil. Am beginning to wonder if Ceballos fits his bill. I think Willock and Torreira are beginning to turn out his preference there.

    Clearly from above Emery has a clear idea of what he wants. With the return/availability of Holding (passing out from the back), Bellerin and Tierney for providing width, for the first time he has his team with him, it could be said. That is why imo we should put our judgement on him on hold till about Xmas time. Meantime we should give him all our support.

  • The word “stubborn” was used by so many against Wenger. I never bought into it. When somebody holds his or her views others holding firm to their contrary views quickly label one stubborn. They don’t recognize that they are indecently exposing their own stubbornness or intolerance.

    A coach is hired based on his/her philosophy. This implies that the coach has a point of view, has clarity, does not get blown about by the wind. That word stubborn is beggining to be used by some against Emery. If Emery is not “stubborn” then he is not worth his salt. He should be given his space. If he fails he is sacked but not until then.

    Don’t get me wrong. He is yet to convince me. Am just saying with the the summer signings and the injured players coming back he needs a longer rope.

  • Well PE you get only away with being stubborn if you are a Genius with results, or ability to convince decision-makers that you are on to something. 😀

    New Post New Post 🙂

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