LONDON — Shkodran Mustafi has put Arsenal’s improved defensive performances this season down to the more detailed instructions each player is getting from coach Unai Emery.
Arsenal have looked more solid and less vulnerable to counter-attacks during their 14-game unbeaten run compared to the last few years under Arsene Wenger, who was often criticised for not putting enough emphasis on defensive tactics.
But Mustafi credited Emery’s attention to detail and precise instructions in helping the defenders feel more comfortable on the pitch.
“For me personally, the biggest thing [compared to last season] was that he’s someone who really knows what he wants from each player. He tells you exactly what he wants you to do,” Mustafi told a news conference ahead of Thursday’s Europa League game against Sporting Lisbon.
“But then at the same time he gives you the freedom to expose your talent. For example, when we don’t have the ball, he tells you exactly where to stand and how to get the ball from the opponent.
“And when we have the ball, he gives you the options that you can use but still you can decide which option you’re going to choose. So for me it’s a good mix between freedom and still very disciplined, and having the same plan in the whole team.”
Emery has tried to keep Wenger’s attack-minded style of football but has implemented major changes when it comes to the team’s tactics: playing the ball out from the back more, and using a high press to win the ball back when out of possession.
Mustafi said those two components also helps the whole team work as one unit defensively.
“I think that we are very good attacking, and that makes the defensive work as well a bit easier,” he said. “Because even when we lose the ball we are always pressing straight away and trying to win the ball back higher up the pitch.
“So that makes it for us easier to defend because you don’t always have to go 60, 70 yards back to win the ball back in your own box. When we have the ball we are all offensive players and when we lose the ball we are all defensive players.”
Emery has kept Wenger’s assistant Steve Bould as part of his coaching staff, and Mustafi said the former centre-back’s role has not changed much under Emery as he still focuses mainly on the defensive details.
“Steve is someone who is always there and always giving us a hand. And with his experience, obviously when he tells you something that he sees in training, you’re listening very carefully,” Mustafi said. “Because with his experience you have to listen to him. But I don’t feel that he’s now trying to create something new.
“He’s very careful in looking at what we’re doing, especially when we’re doing things wrong. Because when things are going well it’s very easy not to look at the small mistakes. But he still looks at everything and when he sees something where we can improve, he’s always there to try and give us a hand.”
Arsenal could qualify for the round of 32 as group winners with two games to spare if they beat Sporting at the Emirates and maintain their perfect record in Europa League play. However, they will once again be without left-back Nacho Monreal, who has yet to recover from a hamstring problem.
But Emery said captain Laurent Koscielny is inching ever closer to a full return from a torn Achilles’ tendon.
“He’s nearer, closer to being with us in the competitive games,” Emery said. “He is feeling well and after [some] months without every training with the team, I think the most important thing is he is every day with us and getting better every day.
“We are going to think after the international break how we can continue working and how he can start playing games.”