Roughly a year ago, we were all hit with the news that Arsène Wenger would be departing his role as manager of Arsenal Football Club when the season came to a close. The Frenchman has spent 22 years at the helm and was the face associated with the club we love, right across the globe. His side were sitting in 6th place, with a Europa League semi-final against Atlético Madrid on the horizon. The divide amongst Arsenal fans regarding management had reached an all time high, and many believed that a change was necessary. Whilst we all appreciated just how much Arsène had done for the club, people had different ways of expressing their discontent. Despite playing very well in the first leg, we fell short against Atleti and finished the season in sixth place domestically, with a 7-point gap between ourselves and 5th places Chelsea. Understandably, there were numerous names thrown around regarding the head coach position. Juventus’ Massimiliano Allegri and ex-Arsenal Captain Mikel Arteta we’re heavily linked, but the job was eventually awarded to Spaniard Unai Emery, after interviews with various contenders. So, as his first season is almost at a close, how has Unai Emery done so far?
My Initial Expectations.
I am writing this article after our 3-2 defeat at home to Crystal Palace, so there is still roughly a month’s worth of games to be played. Obviously, a lot will be determined between now and May 12th, but I can only judge up until this moment in time. We currently sit in 5th place, with a game at hand on fourth placed Chelsea. If I’m being completely honest, at the beginning of the season I wasn’t expecting too much. With a change of manager for the first time in over 20 years, a limited budget and a squad lacking confidence, it was important to be rational regarding the work that Unai could carry out. What I was hoping for was for Emery to obtain a thorough understanding of the squad; it’s strengths, it’s weaknesses, etc. and to secure Champions League football for the 2019/20 season - either through winning this season’s Europa League or finishing inside the top four. Following this, we could continue our rebuild and start competing at a high level from the Spaniard’s second season.
To put it mildly, Emery has hugely exceeded by expectations thus far. With just four games remaining in our domestic campaign we have a good chance of finishing inside the qualification places for next season’s Champions League. Unfortunately, three of those four games are away from home, where we have struggled, but it’s in our own hands, which is a huge upgrade from this time last year. The biggest obstacle that stands in our way is ourselves. We seem to have a mental block regarding away games - particularly in the league - since 2018 began. This is undeniably a huge issue which needs addressing, but we seem to have taken a huge step in that regard last week. Firstly, on Monday night we came out victorious at Vicarage Road vs an in-form Watford side, keeping our first Premier League away clean sheet of the season in the process. Albeit, the hosts were down to ten men following the early dismissal of their captain, Troy Deeney, but I feel like we’d have dropped points in the same circumstances in seasons gone by. Also, it’s a positive when you consider that we were far from our best, yet we still returned home with all three points. A good side win games when they play well, a great side win games when they don’t. Our form on the road is concerning, but I trust Unai to fix it over time. Unfortunately, we faced a major setback on Sunday as we lost 3-2 at home to Crystal Palace. In a sense, we’re lucky that Manchester United and Chelsea failed to capitalize and dropped points, but this needs to act as a wake up call. We can’t take any games for granted, regardless of the opposition/venue. On a whole, we currently sit on 66 points, with 12 left to play for. Last season, we ended the campaign with just 63. Obviously, last year represented the worst finish in our recent history, so it shouldn’t be used as the benchmark. However, two season ago, our points total at this stage was also 63, as it was three seasons ago too. If we have a strong end to the season, we can finish on a maximum of 78 points, a feat which we haven’t achieved since the 2013/14 season. Obviously, we need to take it game by game, but we should be looking to win each of our remaining fixtures.
Individual Performance & Recruitment.
In terms of one-to-one work, Emery has also impressed. Numerous players seem to be reborn this season and many of his recruits have had a positive impact. Of the squad that he inherited, Héctor Bellerín, Granit Xhaka & Rob Holding seem to have found another gear in their locker, and their performances have noticeably improved. They are by no means perfect, and there is still a lot of work to be done, but there are certainly positive signs. In terms of signings, Lucas Torreira has stolen the headlines. He was exceptional until Christmas, before dipping slightly because of the busy festive schedule compared to the break that he was accustomed to in Italy, but he’s reminded us of just how good he can be in recent weeks. At just 23 years of age, he will only improve in the future and looks like a bargain for the £26.4m transfer fee that we paid to Sampdoria. Bernd Leno has also impressed since arriving in London. He had to wait for his chance, but he is improving every single week. He has arguably been our standout performer since the turn of the year, and was a contender for man of the match vs Tottenham, Manchester United and Watford. He’s capable with his feet, well liked off the field and a top shot-stopper. In an area where we’ve suffered in the past, he seems to be a reliable individual between the sticks. Similarly to Lucas, at just 27 I believe that his best years lie ahead of him. The signing of Sokratis Papastathopoulos raised a few eyebrows back in July. It was thought that his best years were behind him and that he’d struggle to keep up with the pace of the English game. Just nine months have passed since, yet he’s in contention for our player of the season award. He’s a key figure in terms of leadership and has added the steel in defense that we’ve been missing in the past. Mattéo Guendouzi has perhaps been the most surprising of the signings. His form has dipped in recent weeks but he’s still very young. Not many 19-year old’s can hold their own at The Etihad, Stamford Bridge, etc. He’s a huge prospect and looks like one to watch. It’s important that we stick with him at this time. Almost all young players face a similar period, as seen with Aaron Ramsey. He needs us now more than ever. Let’s stay behind him so he can develop into the player that we all know he can be. Even in the case of signings not working out, Lichtsteiner and Suárez have added some much-needed competition and have forced Bellerín/Maitland-Niles and Mkhitaryan/Ramsey to up their games in order to get minutes in the first XI. Unai has played a key role in easing new signings into the squad and has helped to build up a great atmosphere off the field amongst the dressing room.
In Europe, we’ve also impressed - apart from the away legs vs BATE Borisov and Stade Rennais. Despite those games, we’ve kept nine clean sheets in twelve games and fins ourselves in the semi-final. We managed to integrate numerous youth products into our XI during the group stage, with Emile Smith Rowe and Joe Willock catching the eye. Napoli were the competition favourites in the eyes of many, yet we eliminated them with relative ease. Valencia CF, our semi-final opponents, have lost just one of their last twenty-two games in all competitions, so they’ll be a tough test. Nonetheless, hopefully Unai can finish the season by winning the competition for the fourth time of his career in Baku.
Overall, I think it’s been a very encouraging first season for the Spaniard. We still have a lot to play for, and areas that need addressing, but one thing is for certain: I can’t wait to see what the future holds under his guidance.