Tony Pulis’ West Brom is an instructive case study. In the calendar year 2015, West Brom kept the most clean sheets in the Premier League with 17. Would anyone seriously argue they had the best collection of defenders? Were clubs bashing down the door to sign Craig Dawson and Gareth McAuley? Of course not. Fine defenders that they were, West Brom’s defensive record was the result of the protection Pulis offered his centre-halves. Tall full-backs who stay in their slot, two or even three strong holding midfielders and a deep and narrow defensive line designed to minimise space in behind and encourage crosses that were duly gobbled up. Sam Allardyce and Sean Dyche have employed similar methods.
They deserve full respect, but is not really possible or practical to transplant this approach into a ‘Big Six’ club, where upwards of 80 points is the aim rather than than 40. Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid are the counter-example, but might be the exception that proves the rule.
That is not an aesthetic or moralistic statement about ‘playing the right way’, but the reality of the job at hand. Opponents sit back and taking the initiative in games is not a high-minded ideal but essential. Defenders must cope in isolation and difficult situations, whether passing out from the back and creating angles to receive the ball, or pushing up the pitch leaving lots of grass behind them. One sometimes used to hear that ‘anyone could play at centre-back for Barcelona’, a truly fatuous and asinine observation.
To return to Arsenal and Emery, Gary Neville articulated this problem on Monday Night Football in August, two days after Arsenal’s 3-2 defeat at Stamford Bridge. Arsenal’s high line was caught out that day, but Neville was sympathetic saying:
I saw Sam Allardyce’s comments last week on the radio after the first game where he talked about ‘you can’t do this, you can’t do this!’
Unai Emery’s not trying to get eight points from five games to avoid relegation. He’s trying to build a side to win a title. He’s trying to build a team with a style to win a title, not lump it long and get in behind it.
Emery has grappled with this conundrum all season in his search for ‘balance’ – one of his favourite English words – and it is why there are no easy solutions with current personnel.