The outcome of the Europa League final will define Unai Emery’s first year at Arsenal, but how do we assess the season so far? Nick Wright weighs up the progress, the problems and the importance of what comes next.
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One of the biggest positives of Emery’s first year in charge has been Arsenal’s improvement in the big games. In total, they have accrued 12 points from 10 Premier League meetings with their top-six rivals, giving them a superior record to Chelsea, Manchester United or Tottenham.
It is twice as many points as they managed in Arsene Wenger’s final season and more, too, than in any of the three campaigns before that. Their old problems resurfaced in the 5-1 thrashing by Liverpool at Anfield in December, but that defeat stands out as an anomaly rather than the norm.
The victories at home to Tottenham, Chelsea and Manchester United were hugely encouraging, and Emery’s men were unfortunate not to add Liverpool to that list, drawing 1-1 at the Emirates Stadium in November. Arsenal gained more points from home games against the top six than in any of their previous 10 seasons.
There could easily have been victories away from home, too. Arsenal were unfortunate not to beat Spurs at Wembley in March, with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s late missed penalty proving costly, and they will also reflect on the 2-2 draw with United in December as two points dropped.
Emery has instilled belief in his players where it was previously lacking. But it has not happened by magic. It comes from a level of tactical preparation that Arsenal lacked under Wenger. Instead of playing into the hands of their top-six opponents, Arsenal are now set up to exploit their weaknesses and the players clearly buy into it.
The new-found belief was most apparent at home to Spurs, when they roared back from 2-1 down to claim an electrifying 4-2 win. Emery was rewarded for his boldness that day, his half-time changes paying off emphatically, and it was also a demonstration of the aggressive, high-pressing tactics which have become a feature of Arsenal’s best performances.
Emery has shown a willingness to deviate away from the attacking philosophy that typified the Wenger years. In the 2-0 victory win over Chelsea in January, Arsenal were deserving winners despite ceding 65 per cent of the possession to the visitors. They did not dominate the ball but still controlled the game, keeping their shape and defending robustly.
Those performances, coupled with their big home wins in the Europa League, have also been notable for the improved atmosphere inside the Emirates Stadium. “There has been that debate with Arsenal over the last few months about whether or not Emery is taking this club forwards,” said Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville after the 2-0 win over United in March.
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“Every time they have a bad result or something doesn’t go their way, people will say that this isn’t any different. But it is different. The atmosphere is different.”
Emery’s vision causes debate
While many of Arsenal’s most memorable big-game performances this season have featured an emphasis on pressing tactics and playing out from the back, Emery’s overarching vision for Arsenal still seems muddled to many fans. In an age of philosophies and identities, what exactly is the Emery way? What is his preferred style of play?
The truth is that there is no straight-forward answer to those questions. Arsenal’s increased fitness and intensity levels have been impressive under Emery – no side covered more ground than them in the Premier League – but the tactics, system and formation have varied from game-to-game.
It is how the former Sevilla, Valencia and PSG boss has always operated.
Emery spoke about making Arsenal “protagonists” after his appointment last summer, but in reality he is a reactive coach who places tactical flexibility at the heart of his work. Whether it is Manchester City or Huddersfield, Emery’s aim is always to nullify his opponent’s strengths and target their vulnerabilities.
It is a significant departure from Wenger’s way of working. The Frenchman’s commitment to playing attacking, possession-based football was more-or-less unwavering. It became a bone of contention among supporters, who craved a more pragmatic approach against top opposition, but it was at least an easily identifiable style.
Emery’s flexibility has made Arsenal more tactically sophisticated, helping them in the big games, but it means their identity is less clear, and the focus on the opposition has also led to some overly conservative tactics against lesser opponents. Was it really necessary, for example, to field three centre-backs and two holding midfielders in games against Huddersfield and Crystal Palace?
Fans will hope to see Arsenal impose themselves more in those games next season, but it would be foolish to expect any dramatic changes from Emery. This is just how he works. He will need to find a solution to Arsenal’s inconsistency next season, but another winning gameplan against Chelsea on Wednesday would be a fitting vindication of his approach.
Defensive issues and trouble on the road
Arsenal finished the Premier League season with seven more points than last year, knowing Europa League success in Baku will secure not just a trophy but also a return to the Champions League. But there has been no such improvement in the goals against column. Arsenal conceded 51 in the Premier League; the same exact total as last year.
A deeper look at the statistics is even more damning.
This season, Arsenal dropped from sixth to 15th among Premier League clubs for fewest shots on target faced. Only Huddersfield, West Ham, Burnley, Cardiff and Fulham allowed their opponents to hit the target more often. Opta’s expected goals model suggests that, based on the quality of the chances conceded, Arsenal should in fact have conceded 54 goals.
In other words, it could easily have been even worse. Emery spoke about the need to find “defensive consistency” when he sat down with Sky Sports in January, and while a run of six clean sheets from seven games between March and April hinted at progress, it was all undone by the costly run of defeats to Crystal Palace, Wolves and Leicester which followed.
Drastic improvement is required. Arsenal have systemic problems in defence and they are plagued by individual mistakes, too. According to Opta, they rank top both for errors leading to shots (28) and errors leading to goals (12) this season – joint with relegated Fulham in both departments.
The issues were most pronounced in away games. Amazingly, Arsenal were the last Premier League team to keep a clean sheet away from home this season. That narrow 1-0 win over Watford at Vicarage Road in April proved to be their only shut-out on the road all season.
The numbers reflect poorly on Emery. Ultimately, it is his responsibility to improve Arsenal’s defensive record. But it is also true that he has not been helped by the circumstances. He had to cope without Laurent Koscielny in the first half of the campaign and there were also season-ending injuries to Rob Holding and Hector Bellerin.
Both players have been sorely missed. Holding was impressing before being ruled out in December – in fact, Arsenal had not lost any of the 15 games he had started – and his absence also forced Emery to lean more heavily on the much-maligned Shkodran Mustafi, whose error-strewn performances undermined Arsenal repeatedly.
Bellerin was a key figure before his injury, too. The Spaniard was improving defensively under Emery and had also become a key part of Arsenal’s attack, providing five assists in 19 Premier League appearances. His absence exposed another area of the squad lacking in depth.
It is a question of organisation as well as personnel, of course, but with the right defensive reinforcements this summer, and with a little less misfortune in terms of injuries, Emery will be confident of improving the situation next season. He cannot afford not to.
The next steps
All eyes are on the Europa League for now, but regardless of the outcome in Baku, Arsenal must prepare for a busy summer in the transfer window. The club recruited smartly last year, with Lucas Torreira, Bernd Leno, Matteo Guendouzi and Sokratis Papastathopoulos all faring well, but more additions are required.
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Head of football Raul Sanllehi says the club have a “very good plan” in place to strengthen key positions, with defence the most obvious area in need of improvement. Sky Sports News have confirmed that Arsenal are looking to sign a left-back and a left-footed centre-back this summer. Getafe’s Djene Dakonam is said to be near the top of their list.
But the strengthening must extend to the other end of the pitch, too. Together, Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang form one of the deadliest strike partnerships in world football, but Arsenal have lacked goals from other sources this season and there have been problems with creativity, too.
Those issues could become more pronounced after Aaron Ramsey’s departure to Juventus, particularly when there are still questions over Mesut Ozil’s place in Emery’s plans. The German has not started regularly this season and his creative output has dipped, too. In 24 Premier League appearances, there were only two assists.
Arsenal dropped from fifth to seventh in terms of chances created by Premier League teams in the last two seasons, their total of 446 in 2017/18 falling to 363 this season, and a closer look at the numbers hammers the points home even more strongly. Arsenal are not moving the ball into the final third anything like as frequently as in previous years.
Arsenal clearly lack pace and penetration in wide areas, which explains their pursuit of Ivan Perisic and Yannick Carrasco in January, but more creativity from midfield should be at the top of the agenda, too. Arsenal’s focus is on Baku now, but after a season of positives of negatives, what happens in the months after that will be just as important to their progress under Emery.