Analyzing how Unai Emery has improved Arsenal
At this point of the season, after 30 Premier League games played, Arsenal are 12 points better off than they were last season at the same juncture. Unai Emery’s first season in charge has been full of positives. Points are the foremost indicator of improvement but Arsenal have improved a great deal in other aspects as well. A week ago, Arsenal were in danger of having their entire season fall apart but wins against Manchester United and an overturned deficit against Rennes mean that the Gunners are on course for both the Europa League quarter-finals as well as finishing in the top four. Here’s a look at the areas where the Gunners have significantly progressed under the Spaniard.
Approach to big games
Perhaps the biggest criticism directed towards Arsene Wenger in his final years at the helm was his inability to beat the big sides, especially away from home. This season, Arsenal have not won away from home against the fellow top six sides but the home record is quite impressive. Wins against Chelsea, Manchester United and Tottenham and a credible draw against Liverpool mean that Arsenal have taken 10 points from a possible 15 against the big sides at home as compared to a measly five last season.
Under Wenger, Arsenal were set up with a great deal of freedom to express themselves against the other big sides, a strategy that meant the Gunners were easy to pick apart on the counter and lacked any sort of defensive shape or rigidity to grind out wins. Emery’s approach is far more pragmatic and revolves around the game-plan of the opposition and exploiting their weaknesses. However, this does not compromise on the obvious talent and flair that exists in the side. Against Manchester United when Arsenal won 2-0, the Gunners experienced 46 per cent of the possession but still ran out comfortable winners.
It was a similar scenario against Chelsea when Arsenal had just 35 per cent of the possession but comfortably took three points against their rivals. When the side is set up to nullify the opposition, it means that luxury players are often sacrificed for harder-working ones. Mesut Ozil has frequently found himself on the bench in favour of the engine that is Aaron Ramsey. Emery isn’t concerned by the reputation of a player but rather what he brings to the side in terms of concentration and stamina, especially relevant in big games.
When Emery’s appointment was announced, there was a great deal of excitement as to what the analysis-obsessed Spaniard and his backroom staff could do to improve the performances of players like Rob Holding, Hector Bellerin, Granit Xhaka and Alex Iwobi who had stagnated over the past few years. The optimism was well-placed as there has been a marked improvement in the form and capabilities of a number of players.
Rob Holding has enjoyed a new lease of life under Emery with the English youngster becoming a mainstay in the side until his unfortunate knee injury. Holding was delivering solid performances every game in the heart of the defence, exhibiting great pace, positioning and tackling abilities to provide Arsenal with a strong foundation to build upon. Bellerin’s development has been eye-catching and it really is a shame that the Spaniard was ruled out for the season after an ACL tear in January. Bellerin looked hungrier than ever this season, showing the form that helped him break into the team as one of the most exciting defensive prospects in world football at the time.
His defensive and spatial awareness has ameliorated, making him less susceptible to be caught out of position. However, this hasn’t affected his attacking output as indicated by his five assists in the league prior to his injury. Arsenal really do look a far better side with him taking up the spot at right-back. Alex Iwobi is another who has improved to a great extent. The Nigerian looks physically stronger and fitter, making more significant contributions over 90 minutes than he did the last few seasons. He has surpassed his goals plus assists tally from last season and while there is still room for improvement, is a far more authoritative player.
Ainsley Maitland-Niles has played in a variety of positions but has emerged as a reliable option at right-back in Bellerin’s absence as well as on the right-wing. Emile Smith-Rowe is yet another Hale End graduate who has been afforded opportunities in the side, especially in the Europa League. The English youngster scored his first Arsenal goal in the Europa League. Overall, it is obvious that Emery demands a lot from his side and isn’t afraid to drop players if they don’t show a conscious effort.
As mentioned above, Emery does favour an opposition-based setup rather than giving his side absolute freedom. This has certainly paid dividends in terms of how Arsenal balance defence and attack in games. Arsenal have a poor defensive record this season but importantly, many of the goals Arsenal have conceded, have arisen from individual errors rather than a lack of defensive cohesion as a whole. Emery undoubtedly needs to fix up the defence if Arsenal are to compete for the Champions League spots and build a title challenge in the near future. However, the Spaniard cannot be blamed for the lack of quality some of his personnel have shown this season.
One area of defensive improvement is the lack of goals conceded from corners and set-pieces on a whole. We’ve seen partnerships blossom all over the pitch as well. The Xhaka-Torreira double pivot has been excellent allowing both players to excel at what they are good at, Aubameyang and Lacazette have a great understanding both on and off the pitch and in the wide areas, the wingers Mkhitaryan and Iwobi have developed a near-telepathic cohesion with their respective full-backs.
The pragmatism shown in every game by the side is a change from the usual gung-ho approach but is far more realistic. Admittedly, the football hasn’t been the prettiest throughout the season and Arsenal have seemed very unidimensional at times but Emery, overall, can be said to have done a great job grinding out results with an unbalanced squad, numerous injuries and a lack of financial backing. It would be far more apt to judge him towards the end of the next season rather than jump the gun should we fail to achieve our goals this year.