How bad were Arsenal and are we better now?
At the time of writing, on this day last year, we were well beaten 2-0 by Leicester City and were in the middle of a winless run which would see Head Coach, Unai Emery, sacked. Fast forward to now and we have just been played off the park and humiliated by Aston Villa in our own back yard. Mikel Arteta has received plaudits during his tenure so far, largely for leading us to FA Cup glory, but the gaffer claimed full responsibility for the abysmal display against Villa. With some fans questioning team selections and performances, I take a look at if we are in fact in a better place now then we were before Arteta’s arrival.
First of all, do we have a stronger squad? Popular goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez left for Aston Villa, to many fans’ dismay, in a bid to raise funds. Emi was too good to be sat on the bench and after rejecting a new contract to seek first-team football elsewhere, the board had to cash in. Bernd Leno has had an indifferent start to the season, however, his man of the match performance at Anfield in the Carabao Cup, showed a reminder that for the most part, we are in safe hands. Henrikh Mkhitaryan left on a free whilst Konstantinos Mavropanos, Lucas Torreira, Dejan Iliev, and outcast Matteo Guendouzi all left the club on loan.
With the wages saved and money made allowed for some incomings, the first was Willian on a free transfer. One good performance against a weak Fulham side has done little to prove that giving the 32-year-old a three-year deal was a smart choice. Rúnar Alex Rúnarsson was a budget replacement for Martinez whilst Cedric Soares’ and Pablo Mari’s loan deals were made permanent. The signings of Cedric and Mari have been uninspiring with the latter having been injured for a large majority of his stay. The jury is still out on Mari however the decision to give Cedric a 4-year deal when Southampton were happy to let his contract expire is a puzzling one.
Overall, we do have a better team and that is due to the signings of Gabriel Magalhaes and Thomas Partey. Gabriel, who is still only 22, has been head and shoulders our best defender this season and his performances earned him a thoroughly deserved player of the month award. Thomas Partey on the other hand looks to be a midfield general that we have been missing for years. Two Man of the match displays in his four appearances so far, including a dazzling display in our 1-0 win at Old Trafford, has had even Roy Keane comparing him to his arch-nemesis Patrick Vieira. Whilst I’d err on the side of caution when comparing to him to one of the all-time greats, the early signs are promising. Gabriel and Partey have injected a significant improvement to the spine of our team and despite our lack of goals, the new boys have excelled in their short spells.
Most football fans have a very fickle memory and very firm recency bias. After the United victory, everyone was optimistic after we ended our 5-year winless run away at a big six side. One week later and it is all doom and gloom with comparisons to Unai Emery being drawn, so with that in mind, it’s worth taking a look at just how bad were things before Arteta? Emery’s first season went quite well for the most part, that is until our embarrassing collapse at the end of the season, as well as a 5-1 defeat at Anfield earlier in the season. Upon our next visit to Anfield, Unai Emery stated that ‘we never want to play Liverpool’ which goes a long way in summarising the mentality at the club under the Spaniard.
Back to the humiliating collapse, however, Arsenal finished just a point off of the top four and just two behind Chelsea in third, meaning that had we beat Brighton, Crystal Palace, Wolves, or Leicester in what was four of our last five games of the season, we would have secured a long-awaited return to Champions League football. We secured one point over the course of these games and shipped three goals in each of three embarrassing defeats. Not to worry though, if we were to win the Europa League final against London rivals Chelsea, that would earn us qualification. They beat us 4-1 in what was our biggest game of the past decade and qualification had slipped through our hands.
Arsenal fans were hoping to abolish the memories of the season prior however they were unaware they were about to embark on their worst season in 25 years. Warning signs were there when Burnley came to the Emirates and had 18 shots on our goal. A defeat to Liverpool and a draw with Tottenham followed before a trip to eventually relegated Watford, in which we blew a two-goal lead and conceded 31 shots. Despite not losing, it was a truly shambolic display. A month later we were beaten by newly promoted Sheffield United and then we required two late free-kicks to see off Vitoria SC at the Emirates, who once again out-shot us.
A winless run which would see Emery lose his job started by us once again blowing a two-goal lead, this time against Crystal Palace followed by us blowing leads against Liverpool, Wolves, and Vitoria. We did not even have a lead to blow against Leicester who played us off the park at the King Power, registering 19 shots. Next up it was Southampton’s turn to pepper the Emirates goal frame registering 22 shots in a 2-2 draw, with Arsenal requiring a 96th minute equaliser to scrape a point. A defeat at home to Frankfurt in the Europa League was the final straw and Emery was gone, much to the relief of fans at the time.
In Freddie Ljungberg’s short tenure as caretaker manager we drew at newly promoted Norwich and were beaten 2-1 at home by Brighton, conceding 35 shots over the two games. He would oversee just one win in his six games as boss, a 3-1 win at West Ham, ending a 9-game winless run – our worst run of form since 1977.
Now after triggering everyone’s PTSD, have we improved with Mikel Arteta at the helm? There are two ways to spin this so I will give you both sides to help you make an informed decision. The worrying and slightly scary perspective is that Unai Emery had a better record at this point in his reign than Mikel Arteta does. With 28 league games played each, Emery boasts 17 wins (60.7%) compared to Arteta’s 13 (46.4%). Emery only lost six times in this period compared to Arteta’s nine defeats so far whilst massively outscoring his Spanish counterpart as we bagged 60 goals under Emery and a lowly 41 under Arteta.
In fact, Arsenal haven’t scored a Premier League goal from open play for six hours and 26 minutes, they currently sit 13th in the league for goals scored and 16th for expected goals (XG). Seems pretty conclusive evidence but there is much more than meets the eye.
First of all, it is worth bearing in mind that Arteta’s record includes when he first took over when as previously mentioned, we were in our worst run of form since 1977. A rookie manager walking into that mess was never going to shoot us straight to the top of the league, so here’s what he did do. He fixed a defence full of defenders which well-respected pundit and ex-player, Gary Neville, labelled as ‘uncoachable’. We went into the weekend just gone with the best defensive record in the league having kept a clean sheet at Old Trafford in our previous run out. The same game saw us record our first league win away at Manchester United in 14 years and ended a 29-game winless run away at the Premier League’s traditional ‘big six’ sides, a run stretching back five years. In fact, we have been consistently more competitive against the top six since Arteta’s appointment. Under Emery we recorded just three wins in 17 games against them, whilst conceding an abysmal 39 goals in the meantime. Arteta, however, has overseen six wins, including our two penalty shootout victories over Liverpool, in 13 games, whilst conceding only 16 goals.
Arteta also lead us to a record-breaking 14th FA cup victory in his inaugural season in management whilst also playing a key role in persuading FA Cup hero Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to sign a new long-term deal. He’s also helped tie our most promising youngsters, Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli down to new long-term deals. It seems Arteta has the players full support and was instrumental in persuading them to take pay cuts due to the financial implications of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Arsenal’s recent attacking form is a worry but there is reason to be hopeful. There has only been one summer window since his appointment and in this window, our two marquee signings look to be a success. With a few more windows, hopefully Arteta will be able to bring in more players of the quality of Gabriel and Partey and in time will find the balance between attack and defence. It took Liverpool three and a half years to complete a process similar to what Arteta is aiming to do at Arsenal: it will not be easy, it will take time and it will take patience, but there is reason to be optimistic that we will get there eventually.