Five ways Arsenal can line up under Unai Emery

With Emery set to name his first competitive Arsenal XI next week, we take a look at five different ways he could set up this season.



REUTERS/Edgar Su

For Arsenal fans the appointment of a new manager provides a variety of excitements. One of the foremost ones being, what formation and lineup will the new manager prefer? 

The reality of Arsene Wenger’s long reign was that people were well aware of his managerial behaviour. Even throughout the many ups and downs of his tenure, you tended to know what XIs and formations he would pick – though he did shock the fan-base and move to a back three towards the end of 2016/17. 

On the other hand, Emery has never fielded an XI in a competitive game for Arsenal, nor has he ever been able to pick a lineup from a fully available squad. From that sense, anything is possible. 

That said, pre-season has already shown us hints of what Emery could be planning, and his managerial history has given us an indication of which systems and formations he favours. Here are five lineups that Emery could theoretically go with, along with a verdict on the strengths, weaknesses and possibility of each one being used.

Personnel assumptions

For the purposes of each lineup, certain assumptions have been made about which players Emery will pick. For example, it’s assumed Bernd Leno will be the goalkeeper, Sokratis Papastathopoulos and Shkodran Mustafi will be the first choice centre backs in a back four, and Hector Bellerin and Nacho Monreal will be the first choice fullbacks.

The different lineups are mostly a way of theorising the different systems Emery could use, rather than an attempt at guessing any surprising starters. As a result, most of the aforementioned names are taken as starting for a given, unless explicitly stated.

  1. 1 Compact 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1

    Given Arsenal's defensive shortcomings and abysmal away form - both of which led to damning statistics, such as their 11th-best away record in the Premier League and worst-ever defensive record of 51 goals conceded - it's no surprise to the Gunners focus their recruitment on defensive positions.

    Lucas Torreira, for example, is a clear upgrade on any current Arsenal midfielder on the defensive side of the ball. The Uruguayan will most likely come into the side as a starter, but there are a few ways Arsenal could deploy him.

    Torreira-Xhaka

    One such way would be for him to come in alongside the previous partnership of Aaron Ramsey and Granit Xhaka. This would undoubtably help make Arsenal more compact, as Torreira and Xhaka are both midfielders who like to sit deep rather than go forward. 

    The two could feasibly form a useful partnership as well. Torreira is mobile and an accomplished ball winner, but he doesn’t have a particularly dynamic passing range.

    Xhaka is the opposite. His passing range next to the legs and defensive prowess the Uruguayan will bring could form a solid pairing. In this scenario Ramsey could either play alongside the two in a 4-3-3 - with licence to go forward - or as a genuine number 10.

    Fitting in Ramsey

    Were the latter to be the case, then he’d offer a different type of number 10 to Mesut Ozil, someone who doesn’t have the same creative prowess, but who is capable of both providing goal threat on the attacking end, and bringing defensive intensity off the ball.

    Similar to how Oscar was deployed in Mourinho’s second tenure at Chelsea, or, perhaps more relevantly, how Ivan Rakitic was used by Emery when he was at Sevilla.

    The cons

    The downside of this setup would be whether it could get the best out of Ozil. While he’s comfortable operating in wide areas, it limits him to be focused on one side, as opposed to having the freedom of the pitch that he’d ideally be given in central areas.

    While Ozil received criticism towards the end of last season, he’s still one of Arsenal’s best players, if not the best, and is Arsenal’s highest earner by a significant margin.

    Getting the most out of him has to be a priority, therefore, and any lineup which might not do that has a black mark against it.

    Of course, even when deployed on the right, he’ll be given some freedom to drift in and move to the other channel occasionally, and the presence of Hector Bellerin at right back means Arsenal will always have someone offering width and an outlet on the right flank.

    What does history suggest?

    Given what we know about Emery from his time at Sevilla and PSG, this looks like the system he’s most likely to use to start the season. At Sevilla he favoured a 4-2-3-1, but found at PSG that the players preferred a 4-3-3. 

    Throughout pre-season so far, Emery has shown he can be flexible between the two. Something in between, like in the lineup graphic, could be what he opts for. 

  2. 2 Attacking 4-2-3-1

    One alternative to playing Ozil on the right is to play him as the 10 in a 4-2-3-1, with Mkhitaryan on the right. This creates a well balanced front four, with a full range of attacking profiles.

    The problem is essentially that the three midfielders in the previous lineup are reduced to two, so one has to miss out.

    As mentioned when discussing the previous lineup, a Torreira-Xhaka pivot is probably the most balanced, but if Arsenal want to keep Aaron Ramsey, he’ll need to be starting almost every week.

    It seems likely that a system with both Ramsey and Ozil in the middle will be gone along with Wenger, but it’s still feasible if Emery wants to get all his best attacking players on the pitch.

    Torreira’s defensive ability could allow it to flourish without the same defensive problems it experienced when Xhaka was the holding midfielder. But given Arsenal’s defensive woes of the last two seasons, it would be a surprise were Emery to opt for such an open system to begin his tenure. 

  3. 3 Atletico Madrid style 4-4-2

    Something of a wild card option. The 4-4-2 has rarely been seen at Arsenal since the 2009/10 season, though the typical 4-2-3-1 Wenger rolled out wasn’t too dissimilar.

    Like in the first lineup, Xhaka and Torreira would be charged with holding their positions in midfield and doing the passing and defensive work. The two wide midfielders, Ozil and Ramsey (or Mkhitaryan), would play more like wide 10s than wingers, and would have lots of freedom to move inside.

    Because the two wide players don’t offer many winger qualities, the two strikers would have to run the channels to stretch the opposition. Lacazette can also show for the ball, while Aubameyang tries to run in behind.

    With Ozil on the left rather than a wide forward, it may be worth bringing Kolasinac in as a more attacking LB.

    While Ramsey and Ozil aren’t the best defensively when it comes to tracking back, they can be capable pressers. For the system to work, it would have to rely on pressing as a unit - something Emery stressed as a key part of his philosophy in his first press conference at the club - and might have to be less possession dominant than a typical Arsenal system.

    Still, Arsenal fans may enjoy the system which would feel like something of a throwback to the late 90s and early 2000s era at Arsenal.

  4. 4 Three at the back

    Emery hasn’t shown a propensity for using three at the back formations in his managerial career, but Arsenal’s use of it in 2017 and the make up of the current squad opens it up as a possibility.

    The back five could work in a similar manner to the 3-4-2-1 Wenger used, with Monreal the left-sided centre back occasionally venturing forward to support the midfield.

    With Alexis Sanchez leaving and Aubameyang replacing him, however, a 3-5-2 shape makes more sense for the midfield and attack. Torreira can operate as the holding midfielder, allowing Ozil and Ramsey free roles in the midfield where their excellent movement could hurt teams in between the lines.

    For Lacazette and Aubameyang, their roles would be similar to the 4-4-2, with a need to drift wide in the channels to stretch the opposition, but with Ozil and Ramsey starting from central roles, there’s probably less emphasis on them to help in build up.

    Like the 4-4-2, a three at the back formation is a wild card. But given Arsenal’s lack of genuine wingers, and the number of good attackers they have who like to play in central areas, it’s a dark horse system for the current Arsenal squad. Alas, it seems unlikely we’ll be seeing it much next season. 

  5. 5 Ramsey on the right

    While the first two lineups were either flawed because of Ozil being out wide, or flawed because using him centrally left the team too open, this system could have the best of both worlds.

    Ozil gets a free number 10 role, but Arsenal still find room for three proper central midfielders. This setup will feel familiar to people who remember Arsenal’s structure for most of 2015. Faced with the question of how to get Santi Cazorla, Ramsey and Ozil all in the side together, Wenger opted for Ramsey on the right of a 4-2-3-1.

    From the right Ramsey looked to support the midfield while also making his trademark runs into the box. While he didn’t receive many personal accolades for his performances, the team enjoyed reasonable success in the calendar year.

    It could also draw parallels to France’s setup at this summer’s World Cup, where the front three were the striker, right winger and a second striker in Antoine Griezmann, rather than the left-sided player Blaise Matuidi, who was much more a part of the midfield.

    Aubameyang is one of the world’s best centre forwards and is diminished if he plays from the wing, so Arsenal would arguably be better off using him as the main centre forward.

    This gives Ozil and Aubameyang, Arsenal’s two standout players, their best roles. Lacazette and Mkhitaryan can fight for the attacking role on the left, tasked with helping Aubameyang with the goal scoring burden, and Ozil with creative responsibilities.

    The biggest problem that could arise from this setup is the fact Ramsey doesn’t like playing from the right. It became a big sticking point in 2015, and Wenger rarely used him out wide from 2016 onwards.

    Given he still hasn’t signed a new contract, Arsenal will not want to do anything that makes him unhappy, which makes a central role feel more probable.

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The 3-5-2 could be the optimal way to use the Arsenal squad, given their lack of wingers and abundance of central attacking players. But given Emery has such little track record playing a back three, it doesn’t seem like a genuine possibility.

It feels like the system with Ramsey on the right could be ideal. It’s a formation Emery enjoys deploying, and Arsenal’s most important players are in their best roles. But it feels like more of a pipe dream at the moment than a reality, and at the very least Arsenal would likely have to wait until Ramsey’s future is secured before they could use it.

Given Emery’s work with Sevilla and PSG, and what we’ve seen in pre-season so far, a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 with Ramsey in the middle and Ozil on the right seems the most likely lineup for Arsenal’s new season.

READ: Is there space for both Aubameyang and Lacazette?

What happens with Aubameyang and Lacazette is less clear. Emery has shown that when the two play together, he’s preferred Lacazette in the middle and Aubameyang wide. But he may feel that Aubameyang is Arsenal’s best centre forward, which could open the door for Mkhitaryan to get the left wing spot.

Arsenal have many options for the attacking positions, and it may take a while for us to see just which way Emery will end up deploying them. 

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  1. POLL: Which system should Emery use?

    1. Compact 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1
    2. Attacking 4-2-3-1
    3. Ramsey on the right
    4. Atletico Madrid style 4-4-2
    5. Three at the back
    421 votes
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