Analysing Unai Emery's Arsenal tenure and what the future holds for the Gunners
When Unai Emery was appointed at the helm of Arsenal 18 months ago, it signalled the end of an era. The Arsene Wenger regime was over and fans looked forward to a change after 22 long years, the latter part of which was filled with toxicity and a glaring divide among the fans.
As Emery arrived with a fairly impressive CV and a haul of Europa League trophies, the supporters at the Emirates were filled with a sense of anticipation and eagerness to witness the tactical and pragmatic approach of the newly appointed coach.
Fast forward to November 2019, the club seems to be in a bigger mess than the one Wenger left them in. So what led to this remarkable disarray that has led to Arsenal's worst start to a league season since 1982-83 and has essentially made the fans more alienated from the club than ever before.
It all goes back to April of this year when the club was in peak position to make it to the top 4 and almost guaranteed a place in the semi-final of the Europa League but then things didn't go according to plan. The Gunners managed to win just 1 out of the last 7 PL games, missing out on a Champions League spot and were convincingly thrashed by Chelsea in the final of the Europa League.
Despite this terrible run of form towards the end of the season, fans were still willing to give the manager and the board more time to consolidate the squad and mount a stronger challenge in the upcoming season.
The summer transfer window was very crucial for the club as the squad needed visible strengthening in a few positions. There were changes at board level with former Arsenal invincible Edu appointed as the Technical Director of the club and fans were expecting some new signings before their American pre-season tour.
The board, however, was very slow to react and there was activity was limited despite numerous floating rumours. Eventually, the club made some decent signings as Dani Ceballos arrived from Real Madrid on a loan deal, the unproven but talented Gabriel Martinelli was snapped up for a meagre, Kieran Tierney joined on deadline day from Celtic and Nicolas Pepe become the club-record signing, as he arrived from Lille for a whopping £72 million.
David Luiz also sealed a controversial switch from Chelsea in the dying moments of the transfer period and these signings suddenly lifted the mood at the Emirates and brought a much-needed sense of optimism and confidence amongst the fan base.
Despite wins in the first two of games in the season, there were clear indications that something was not right on the field. Large duration of games were tedious and monotonous. The Gunners lacked creativity in midfield and almost entirely depended on Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang for the narrow scrappy wins in the first few weeks of the season. In fact, the Gabonese forward has scored 50% of the goals for the club this season.
The subsequent freezing out of their creator in chief, Mesut Ozil, who can be one of the best playmakers in world football on his day, raised many eyebrows and didn't do Emery any favours. Their problems were further compounded by the dreadful defensive displays, often conceding goals due to silly individual errors and this is highlighted by the Gunners' negative goal difference this season.
The simmering frustration among the fans was gradually finding its voice despite the Gunners being positioned in a respectable third position before the October international break. There were clear signs that the play needed to improve. There was no cohesion in defence, no link between midfield and attack and essentially no protection for the back four.
The team has had very few shots on goal, in fact, fewer than their opponents in 11 of their 18 matches this season. The passing was often very predictable and it became painfully apparent that this form of play was not sustainable and would soon be found out by clinical attacking teams.
Things have gone from bad to worse post the international break with away defeats to Sheffield United and Leicester City and home draws to Crystal Palace and Wolverhampton Wanderers. The results have been humiliating and humbling. Despite having last years Golden boot winner in Aubameyang and club's most expensive signing Pepe in the squad, Arsenal look spineless in attack.
Emery’s team have had fewer shots than their opponents in most of their games this season which is an embarrassment to Wenger's legacy, under whom the team was able to at least show some attacking dynamism. Ozil's absence has further compounded the issue. Barring individual brilliance, there is little to be hopeful from the attack despite having a bunch of talented attackers in the team.
The team has been creating lesser big chances per game than last season. With only 16 goals scored in the League, the team is significantly behind its top 4 rivals. The attacking form on the road has been similarly abysmal with the team from North London managing only 5 goals in their 6 away games. Also, the expected goals for (xG) is significantly lower, despite having one of the most expensively assembled forward lines and the likes of Brighton and Crystal Palace are performing much better than the Gunners in this aspect.
The midfield balance has also been woeful and Emery has to take the blame for this as the average possession is down from 58% last season to 54% this season. Lucas Torreira has been made to play as an attacking midfielder despite being a defensive midfielder and young Guendouzi has been overplayed at times. Furthermore, the Granit Xhaka booing incident which led to him being stripped of the captaincy reflects poorly on everyone. There has been enough clamour already and this episode has done nothing but invite more criticism.
The Arsenal defence is a circus of its own. With 17 goals already conceded, the defence has been appalling. Teams such as Wolves, Bournemouth and even newly promoted Sheffield United have a better defensive structure than the north London club. Bernd Leno has made the most saves in the league this season which only showcases Arsenal's defensive vulnerabilities and the fact that the team has made fewer interceptions this season than any other team in the top flight is a startling example of their defensive frailties.
The favoured defensive partnership of Luiz and Sokratis has been consistently miserable, often making crucial individual errors which have cost them valuable points. Long term injuries to Hector Bellerin, Tierney and Rob Holding didn't help matters. While Chambers has been a positive light among the calamitous defence, there is nothing else to be proud of.
The defence has been leaking shots and is suspect every time an opposition player runs with the ball. There are lesser tackles with not a single Arsenal man featuring among the top 20 tacklers in the league. The team has also failed to hold their leads on numerous occasions, which brings into question the mentality of the players as well.
And lastly, the coach has a major role to play in all of this chaotic running of the team. His tactics have often figured out by opposition managers and there seems to be a lack of style and identity in the way the Gunners play. The attacking intent is curbed with defensive pragmatism which itself is filled with loopholes.
Lesser chances are being created with his repetitive one-dimensional style of play. Many a time, his team selections and substitutions have also been called into question. Emery's visible lack of fluency in English is another issue which has led to miscommunication among various young players and the captaincy issue too has also brought unnecessary negative limelight to the club.
Currently, Emery's win percentage at Arsenal is worse than Andre Villas-Boas' at Tottenham Hotspur and that of Louis Van Gaal at Manchester United. Results have been visibly poor and with clubs like Leicester and Chelsea finding impressive wins by bringing an exciting brand of style with newer managers, Arsenal's current situation is pitiful, to say the least.
Sitting fifth in the table and already 8 points behind fourth-placed Manchester City, its going to take an extremely arduous effort to make it to the Champions League spots. 2 wins in the last 10 games and only 6 wins from the last 19 Premier League games is relegation form, to say the least and the board has a major decision to take in the upcoming months.
So far, the club have not made an official address to the fans despite the public outcry and variou s outlets reporting different rumours. With results and performances becoming painstakingly average, it will be interesting to see how the board reacts to the situation.
The more time they take on deciding Emery's future, slimmer the chances of Arsenal getting into top 4. If the board keeps backing Emery, there won't be much hope left among the supporters. Raul Sanllehi and co. need to react soon with absolute ruthlessness or else it won't be long before the Gunners slowly decline towards a mid-table position.