Unai Emery’s Arsenal still searching for its soul amid the tinkering | Nick Ames

Unai Emery’s touchline exhortations can make an exhausting watch and the person behind Arsenal’s “bench cam” for their opening match at Newcastle certainly got through an honest day’s work. The viral clip that resulted, of Emery punching his fists in the air when the young midfielder Joe Willock sprinted back to recover possession, was viewed almost three million times on Instagram and the club plan a similar montage of the manager’s touchline activity after Sunday’s north London derby.

There is no denying the appeal: if everything goes to plan then supporters can spend their Mondays savouring the extent to which Emery, just like them, kicked every ball from the side, living and breathing a victory that would stretch the early-season advantage over Tottenham to five points.

Visible displays of emotion are a winner at times such as this and it does no harm for Arsenal’s support to feel closer to the man in charge. The jury remains out on Emery but such moments are relatable and identifiable in the meantime. Emery’s English is improving rapidly but he still has nowhere near the range of expression held by his predecessor, Arsène Wenger, and one suspects he does not have quite the same appetite for engagement in any case. It can be hard to grasp exactly what he is thinking but certain actions are unambiguous.

Perhaps a vibrant showing on Sunday will make it easier to decode what is happening on the pitch, too. The phrase “statement victory” has become a common one when Arsenal defeat a fellow top-six side and it applied last December when a searing second-half performance brought a 4-2 win in this fixture and, subsequently, copious analysis of how everything was falling into place. Arsenal had gone 19 games unbeaten at that point and the chant, by the end of a fevered match in which Spurs were blown away, was “we’ve got our Arsenal back”.

Yet things did not work out quite as simply as that and the question of identity still nags away. Emery changed his side’s system 17 times in the 24 Premier League starting lineups after that derby win, most dramatically oscillating between back threes and fours; in fact, he tweaked it during the match with Spurs, too, a switch to 4-4-2 eventually making the difference.

Dani Ceballos and Nicolas Pépé during Arsenal’s latest nightmare visit to Anfield last Saturday.

Dani Ceballos and Nicolas Pépé during Arsenal’s latest nightmare visit to Anfield last Saturday. Photograph: Robbie Jay Barratt – AMA/Getty Images

Tactical flexibility is nothing to denigrate and it is something in which Emery sets great stock. “We are more rich tactically with different formations and tactics, and can change in each match and each moment in the 90 minutes,” he said on Thursday. That is exactly what successful sides do. But there comes a point when a coach can be charged with over-elaboration or, an even greater sticking point in clubs with big ambitions, over-sensitivity to what threats the opposition pose.

In Wenger’s later years, it was commonly held that Arsenal spent insufficient time preparing for specific opponents, holding misplaced trust that their football could dig them out of most holes. At Anfield last Saturday the suggestion was that Emery went too far the other way, keeping his midfield narrow and deep to limit Liverpool’s success in central areas. Arsenal continued to play from the back, as Emery preaches – occasionally to near-catastrophic effect, as shown by the widely circulated example of Dani Ceballos’s pass across his own penalty area to Sadio Mané – but it was hardly a selection designed to seize the initiative and the result was a mishmash that never quite looked effective despite some bright moments.

“I am not the protagonist,” Emery said, playing down that televised focus on the agonies he goes through on the side. “I can feel, I can be as I am with my personality, my character. But the really important people are the players. The responsibility [is] to help them, to support them, to give them the best solution tactically and individually to help. But they are the protagonists.”

A literal interpretation of that word will be expected on Sunday and, realistically, beyond. Arsenal have a chance to go for the throats of Tottenham and their rivals’ uneasy start to the season has not escaped Emery’s notice. Whereas before last Saturday’s game he was at pains to stress that Liverpool had the advantage of time in their development, this time he would not engage with the same idea when it was put to him that Spurs are several years ahead in their cycle under Mauricio Pochettino. “It’s a different match and I think for the two teams the challenge is different” was the truism he came up with; the onus is on Arsenal to be proactive and, in doing so, perhaps set a mould that can carry them through the season.

It could mean Emery returns Alexandre Lacazette to his starting lineup. The clamour had been for Lacazette to join Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Nicolas Pépé in forming a potent front three at Liverpool; Emery explained the French striker had been struggling with an ankle problem but it is unlikely he would have started the game in any case. He has been at pains to point out that his frontline have not all been match-fit at once so far this season; the assertive nature of his summer signings means he deserves the benefit of any doubt but, when his forwards are ready, his handling of them will go a long way towards answering suspicions that his inclinations lean towards the conservative.

“I want to enjoy each moment,” Emery said. “To test ourselves in each match, against each team. [I enjoy] the difficulty when we have to respond, for example on Sunday, to last week. I really, really enjoy that.” That enjoyment will be shared all over social media if Arsenal emerge on top. But the feeling will remain mutual for longer if, at last, Emery can suggest he has struck on an approach that works for the long haul.


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