Unai Emery facing mounting problems at Arsenal following stormy Crystal Palace draw

Unai Emery promised pressing and "protaganism" when he arrived at Arsenal but the style looks muddled and the plan is unclear

Granit Xhaka gestures to referee Martin Atkinson during Arsenal's 2-2 draw at home to Crystal Palace

Tensions boiled over during Arsenal's 2-2 draw with Crystal Palace on Sunday, with fans directing their anger at Granit Xhaka when he was substituted and calling for the return of the out-of-favour Mesut Ozil. The problems are mounting for Unai Emery...

A muddled playing style

In August of last year, a few days before taking charge of his first game as Arsenal head coach against Pep Guardiola's Manchester City at the Emirates Stadium, Unai Emery outlined his vision for the team and explained how he intended to change their approach in the season ahead.

"Our style with the ball is to be protagonists," he told Sky Sports, "to do things with combinations, to control the match with the positioning of the ball and then, when we have the space, to be aggressive going forward. Defensively, the first thing is to be organised and recover the ball quickly."

Arsenal v Palace 2:59
FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Arsenal's draw with Crystal Palace

Emery lost that first game. He lost the next one too. But Arsenal's increased intensity and commitment to playing out from the back did at least provide evidence of the ideas he intended to implement. In the 3-2 loss to Chelsea, there was even a goal from an 18-pass move which started at the feet of Petr Cech and ended with Alex Iwobi firing home.

Arsenal emerged from those first two games with no points, but after years of drift under Arsene Wenger, it finally felt like they had a plan, the beginnings of a modernised approach which might eventually realign them with the elite. Fast forward to now, however, and it is more difficult than ever to decipher what Emery actually wants from this team.

Arsenal 2-2 Crystal Palace - Report and highlights

The draw with Crystal Palace typified the issues. Arsenal started strongly, scoring twice in the space of two minutes and pressing Palace high up the pitch, but a game which should have become routine soon descended into chaos. Arsenal lost their composure; their thinking became confused and they surrendered a two-goal lead for the second time this season.

Also See:

Arsenal do not rank highly among Premier League teams in terms of pressing this season
Image: Arsenal do not rank highly among Premier League sides in terms of pressing

Emery's initial plans to overhaul Arsenal's identity now seem to have been ripped up.

His Arsenal side are just as likely to drop deep as they are to press their opponents - Opta's advanced metrics show middling numbers in all of the key pressing metrics - and their inability to control games can be seen not just in their declining numbers for possession but also in the quantity - and quality - of shots they are conceding.

Arsenal still play out from the back, but they do not do it consistently and they do not do it particularly well either. Emery's team lost possession in their defensive third 13 times during their 3-1 loss to Liverpool in August. It remains the most by any Premier League side in any game all season. It happened a further 12 times in the 2-2 draw with Watford last month.

Pragmatism causing confusion

Emery now preaches pragmatism instead of protagonism, his desire for Arsenal to impose themselves on games replaced by talk of tailoring their approach week by week. "We try to adapt to the demands of our opponents," he told Sky Sports in April, "to find the best way to approach each game with regards to our players, our system and our idea."

Arsenal vs Palace

Emery's intention is to outsmart Arsenal's opponents, to negate their strengths and simultaneously exploit their weaknesses, but instead it appears to have confused his own players, the chopping and changing coming at a cost of cohesion.

Emery's side have shown counter-attacking threat against their top-six rivals - most notably in last season's meetings with Chelsea, Manchester United and Tottenham - but the suspicion remains that when the circumstances demand something different - as they did against Palace on Sunday - they tend to come up short.

Live Carabao Cup

They are not helped by Emery's inherent conservatism. He spoke about transmitting "energy, passion and the determination to win" in April, about "making the fans proud" and creating "hope and excitement" inside the Emirates, but there has been precious little evidence of that lately.

In fact, it often feels as though his priority is not to win, but to avoid defeat. He would rather defend a lead than build on it. It's why Arsenal so often lose impetus after going in front and it's also why, since Emery's appointment, and despite the attacking riches at his disposal, they have only won three Premier League games by a margin of more than two goals.

The divisive Xhaka and Ozil situations

Emery's approach to personnel seems just as muddled and is best summed up by the situations of Granit Xhaka, who reacted furiously when he was booed off against Crystal Palace, and the out-of-favour Mesut Ozil, who watched their latest slip-up from the stands having been left out again.

Xhaka reacts to jeers from the Arsenal supporters as he leaves the field 0:50
Arsenal captain Granit Xhaka reacted angrily after being booed off

Xhaka, already a deeply divisive figure among Arsenal supporters, faces an even tougher task to win them over following Sunday's show of petulance, when he walked off the pitch slowly, cupping his ear to the crowd and pulling off his shirt before storming down the tunnel. But there is no escaping that the situation has been poorly managed.

Emery could have taken Xhaka out of the firing line by removing him from his starting line-up. He could have handed the captaincy to someone else. Or, at the very least, he could have avoided the needless delay in confirming the decision, a delay which turned the whole thing into a major story and added to the general sense of uncertainty surrounding the side.

What he does with Xhaka now is anyone's guess and the same can be said of Ozil. Fans were singing his name as Arsenal chased a winner on Sunday, but it is now six consecutive games that he has been omitted from the matchday squad. He has only made two appearances all season.

Unai Emery subs off Mesut Ozil in Arsenal's draw at Watford
Image: Mesut Ozil has been a peripheral figure this season

Emery insists his stance towards Ozil is backed by the Arsenal hierarchy, the implication being that the head coach is not the only one who wants him out of the club, but Ozil has said he has no intention of leaving before the end of his lucrative contract and the unease is beginning to fester.

Emery feels Ozil does not pull his weight in training, that others deserve to play ahead of him. While he may well be right, the glaring lack of creativity in his team makes it even tougher for fans to understand. Arsenal have scored fewer open-play goals than Norwich and Burnley this season. Yet the most obvious solution to the problem is not even deemed an option.

Problems with project youth

One positive of Emery's reign has been his willingness to turn to young players. Matteo Guendouzi has become a guaranteed starter following his arrival from Lorient in the summer of last year, while this season Joe Willock, Bukayo Saka, Gabriel Martinelli and Reiss Nelson have all had opportunities.

Chris Basham of Sheffield United battles for possession with Bukayo Saka of Arsenal
Image: Bukayo Saka ended up playing in midfield against Sheffield United

Again, though, there are question marks over how Emery is using them.

He has made five half-time substitutions this season and each time it has been an academy graduate who has made way. What will it have done for the confidence and development of Willock to have been hooked in consecutive games against Sheffield United and Vitoria Guimaraes, then left out of the squad altogether against Palace?

At other times, Emery has thrown on young players just when Arsenal needed some steel. At Watford last month, his side were still 2-1 up when he chose to introduce Willock and Nelson in the space of 10 second-half minutes. Their youthful inexperience was obvious as Arsenal's slender lead was wiped out and two points were dropped.

Saka has produced some eye-catching performances since then, impressing on the left-hand side of Arsenal's attack against Manchester United at Old Trafford last month, but the decision to move him into a central midfield role for the closing stages of the 1-0 loss to Sheffield United was a bizarre sight which invited further scrutiny.

Where is Torreira?

Emery's use of Lucas Torreira has raised more questions.

The Uruguay international arrived at Arsenal last year having become one of the most highly-rated holding midfielders in Italy with Sampdoria, ranking among the top-10 Serie A players for tackles, interceptions and passes in his final season there. One former coach described him as "tactically the strongest midfielder in Europe" after Sergio Busquets.

A string of eye-catching displays at the World Cup in Russia raised his profile further, and his early performances for Arsenal suggested he would go on to play a key role in Emery's side. Finally, it seemed they had found a player capable of filling a problem position, his terrier-like presence in front of the defence giving Arsenal something they previously lacked.

Lucas Torreira before the Premier League match between Sheffield United and Arsenal at Bramall Lane on October 21, 2019
Image: Lucas Torreira has only started twice in the Premier League this season

Now, however, Torreira appears to have fallen out of favour with Emery. He has only started two Premier League games out of 10 this season - the last of which ended with his 55th-minute withdrawal against Manchester United at Old Trafford - and he did not even make it off the bench against Sheffield United or Crystal Palace.

For all his pedigree and potential in the position, it seems Emery no longer views Torreira as a deep-lying midfielder at all. On the rare occasions that he has played this season, the 23-year-old has generally operated further forwards. "He is very intelligent about getting space around the box and taking chances," explained Emery last week.

It seems Emery has spotted something different in Torreira. But fans are entitled to wonder why, more than a year after joining Arsenal, a player who has only scored three goals in his last 72 appearances for club and country is suddenly being categorised as a goal threat.

If Xhaka is to lose his place in the team - and it is difficult to see a way back for him right now - then perhaps a path will open for Torreira to return to his natural position. With Emery, though, it is rarely easy to predict his next move. The only certainty is that he needs to find solutions to Arsenal's mounting problems sooner rather than later.

Follow the Carabao Cup across Sky Sports

Watch Soccer Special from 7.30pm on Sky Sports News and Sky Sports Main Event on Tuesday. There will also be live blog coverage on Sky Sports' digital platforms from 6.30pm with free highlights of each game available after full-time.

On Wednesday, there will be two Carabao Cup games live on Sky Sports. Liverpool host Arsenal - live on Sky Sports Football from 7pm; Kick-off 7.30pm - while Man Utd visit Chelsea - live on Sky Sports Main Event, also from 7pm; Kick-off 8.05pm.

Soccer Special will also be live from 7.30pm on Sky Sports News and Sky Sports Premier League, with live blog coverage across Sky Sports' digital platforms from 6.30pm. There will also be free highlights of each game available after full-time.

Soccer Saturday Super 6

Soccer Saturday Super 6

FREE TO PLAY: Do not miss your chance to land the £250,000 jackpot for the fifth time this year!

Around Sky