In an exclusive interview with Sky Sports – conducted in Spanish ahead of Saturday’s crucial clash with Leicester – Unai Emery attempts to explain what he is trying to do with this Arsenal side and why, following conversations with the club’s hierarchy, he is relaxed about his future.
Just when it seemed Arsenal might claim a much-needed win – albeit not the most convincing one – their defence was breached and all the frustration of the last few months was ramped up again. Wednesday’s draw with Vitoria Guimaraes was the fourth consecutive game in which they have surrendered a lead. These are testing times for Unai Emery.
Arsenal are still on track for the Europa League knockout stages, but in the Premier League they are six points off the top four ahead of Saturday’s trip to the King Power Stadium, where they will face a buoyant Leicester side with Champions League aspirations of their own.
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It is a daunting prospect. Arsenal’s poor recent form has caused discontent among supporters. The Granit Xhaka episode added to the turbulence, with the captaincy passed on to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang instead, but it’s the man in the dugout who is now under the spotlight.
Much of the scrutiny has centred on what exactly Emery is trying to do with this team. He talked of “protagonism”, pressing and playing out from the back when he took over from Arsene Wenger, but right now Arsenal seem more comfortable playing on the counter-attack than dictating the play.
Has his vision for the side changed?
“We are still in construction, trying to be competitive,” Emery tells Sky Sports. “There have been games where the team has played very well from the point of view of building up the play, and there have been other games where we have performed very well in terms of pressing our opposition.
“I can give two clear examples from this season. In terms of build-up play, we can talk about the first half against Watford, which I think was the best first half of the season, when we went in at the break two goals up.
“Then, in terms of being organised to press and counter-attack, because of the circumstances and the team we are playing against, there was the game at Eintracht Frankfurt [a 3-0 win], which was a complete game. So those are two performances in which we have used the two ideas.”
Emery wants Arsenal to be capable of approaching games in different ways, in other words. But how does he respond to accusations that his side lacks a clear identity?
“We are working on that,” he says. “We are in that process. Last year was a season in which the team showed it was capable of using different systems and performing at a level which was mostly good. This year, we have had more problems because some new players are having to adapt and there have been some difficult circumstances.
“But we are working hard, first to find emotional stability, then to be a team that plays good football with the ball and is also capable of being aggressive in terms of the pressure we put on our opponents. That is still the idea that I want to give to this team.”
At the moment, however, Emery’s side are struggling to control games. They were outshot by Vitoria by 15 to seven on Wednesday and the statistics were similarly alarming against Wolves last weekend. Emery is rarely critical of his side’s performances in public – he tries to protect his players wherever possible – but the Wolves game in particular frustrated him.
“Against Wolves, the team did not play to the idea I had in my head,” he says. “The team was not capable of imposing itself on the game in order to win it. That’s another step for us to make, but the team did not give the answer that I wanted in that game.
“I think we have to be better at keeping the ball, better at controlling it. We did one thing very well against them, which was that we didn’t let them counter-attack against us and that was important because they are one of the best teams on the counter-attack, but when we had the ball, we weren’t able to create chances to win the game.”
It is no secret that a lack of creativity has been an issue for Arsenal this season – as well as giving up more shots to their opponents, the statistics show that they are attempting fewer themselves – and it is part of the reason why Mesut Ozil has returned to the side recently.
“We have different players to use in different games,” says Emery. “Mesut Ozil has characteristics that are very good for the team. When he is available, when he is consistent and positive in the day-to-day, he is an important player for our game, because we need a player like him.
“But we also have other players, like [Dani] Ceballos, who is in a process of adaptation, like Matteo [Guendouzi], who has improved a lot, like Lucas Torreira as well. Then we have experienced players like [Alexandre] Lacazette, like Auba, and players who have to grow like [Gabriel] Martinelli.
“I think right now we need to help all these players take another step forward and take confidence so that we are capable of winning games like the one against Wolves.”
Arsenal’s summer of transfer spending has raised expectations this season. But Emery is quick to point out that the side needs time to settle and he mentions other factors – the sudden departure of Laurent Koscielny, the attempted robbery of Ozil and Sead Kolasinac and the furore around Xhaka – which have also contributed to destabilising the squad.
“We are in a process and in any process, you have to have patience,” he says. “We have some players who need time to adapt and some things have happened which mean the team has not been stable, but I am convinced that we are going to improve and find ways to win, which is the most important thing, but while playing well as well.
Leicester vs Arsenal
November 9, 2019, 5:00pm
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“This year at Arsenal, we have made many changes – necessary changes – but we must have patience while we blend the squad together to get the results we want. We are playing a lot of games and each game gives us more information. I have to know how to use different players in different moments so that in the future they can help us – or not – depending on how they respond.”
Emery’s efforts to find a successful formula have prompted a succession of formation changes in recent weeks, including the return to a back three for the trip to Portugal on Wednesday. The chopping and changing can be challenging for the players, but Emery is confident in their ability to adapt and rejects the suggestion that there is a risk of confusion.
“These players have a high level of experience and they have demonstrated in the past that they can adapt to different positions,” he says. “Mesut Ozil, for example, is best playing inside, but when we have put him on the flank he has done well.
“We have Torreira, who is capable of playing a pressing game and playing in the build-up play, but who is also very good at arriving in the box as the second line of attack.
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“We have full-backs who have great attacking qualities, like [Hector] Bellerin, Ainsley [Maitland-Niles], Kolasinac and Kieran Tierney who, when we play with three centre-backs to cover us at the back, can go forward and give us a lot.
“When I change our system, it is always with our players in mind rather than the opposition’s. It’s about adapting our players to the idea I want, to use them in the best way we can and be better than the opponent.”
One player still working to produce his best form this season is club-record signing Nicolas Pepe. The winger, a £72m arrival from Lille, where he scored 23 goals in 41 games last season, has only scored three in 13 so far for Arsenal, but Emery and his coaching staff are working closely with him as he continues to adapt to his new surroundings.
“He just needs time, and to be demanding of himself,” says Emery. “We are with him, working individually with him and showing him videos of where he can improve. The intensity of the game and the opponents in England demands a lot of you. He has to adapt to that, and we have to help him so that he can keep taking steps forward.”
Some fans were puzzled that he did not feature in the draw with Wolves last weekend despite scoring twice in the home win over Vitoria, but Emery believes it’s important to manage his workload.
“His process of adapting to the team is positive, but a little slower than what we wanted. We have to be patient as well as demanding and what’s more, we have to ensure that he takes responsibility himself.
“He is not quite at the level yet to be able to play in every game. I believe, and I have always believed, that he needs to play in order to reach that level, but obviously there are also games when other players deserve to play. I use the players who I think are going to help us most in each moment.
“But we bought Pepe knowing that the first year would be difficult, that it would be a year of adaptation. We want that to happen as quickly as possible, but we are seeing that we have to have patience.”
As for his own future, Emery is not worried.
“When I speak to the club, they always transmit calm to me, which I try to transmit to the players and to the fans, knowing that we have an important objective this season,” he says.
“I have explained many times that I don’t feel pressure. Pressure is just what people talk about. I am demanding of myself and I feel responsible. I prepare for games with those things in mind. Whether we win or whether we lose, I prepare in the same way.
“People have opinions and that’s logical. We are privileged in our position at Arsenal that we have a lot of fans who support us and also methods of communication that put us in contact with them. When you win, they are happy and they applaud. When you lose, they protest. But this happens at all the teams I have been at.
“Last year we had a good season, reaching the final of the Europa League and getting to the final weeks of the season with a chance of finishing in the top four, which is the objective, to get into the Champions League. This year is another step. We are there in the Europa League, but in the Premier League we are a few points behind where we want to be.