Are Unai Emery's Arsenal really improving?
- We examine Arsenal's persistent defensive problems, and whether recruitment policy is responsible for these issues.
Arsenal currently sit third in the Premier League, just one point behind Manchester City having played eight games, but does this league position indicate progress for Unai Emery's side?
Whilst it is still early in the season, watching any of Arsenal's recent league games, or a brief look at the stats certainly suggests otherwise. Despite maintaining an impressive goal scoring record, mostly due to the clinical finishing of striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, conceding goals remains a fundamental issue for Arsenal with an average of 1.38 goals conceded per match.
The summer signing of centre back David Luiz from Chelsea for a modest £8 million fee has appeared to be ineffectual so far, and the absence of fullbacks Hector Bellerin and Kieran Tierney has exacerbated pre-existing defensive issues for Arsenal.
Problems at the back for Emery are highlighted by statistics of shots faced, with an average of 17 per game in the league, a figure up there with teams threatened with relegation. The 2-2 draw with Watford saw a record 31 shots taken at the Arsenal goal, in a game in which a point away from home turned out to be a good result for the Gunners. It is perhaps then a surprise when considering these statistics, that Arsenal have not conceded even more goals this season so far.
This would likely be the case if not for the often spectacular saves from goalkeeper Bernd Leno, who has single-handedly kept Arsenal in games at times already this season. Even when Arsenal do manage a clean sheet such as against Bournemouth in their 1-0 home victory this weekend, they look vulnerable, and the clean sheet can be considered more a product of wasted chances from the opposition as opposed to a resolute defensive display.
Arsenal often appear to lack organisation and any real leadership at the back, traits associated with previous great players from the club's past.
Lack of transfer funds is no longer a viable excuse for Emery. Arsenal spent big in the summer window, investing a club record £72 million in attacker Nicolas Pepe alone. Question marks arise however, over why these funds were directed towards another forward when Arsenal's attack was not an issue in the previous season.
This is particularly true when considering that Arsenal currently have an array of young attacking talent that have already featured this season, including Joe Willock, Reiss Nelson and Gabriel Martinelli (bought for just £6 million).
Whilst money was invested in defence, bringing in Tierney, Luiz and William Saliba (who was subsequently loaned to Saint-Etienne for the season), perhaps spending big on a finished product, a world-class defender, may have had the greater instant impact needed to ensure Arsenal champions league football this season. Such an approach did wonders for Liverpool when considering their position before the acquisition of Virgil van Dijk.
Arsenal's league position makes more sense when analysing the current form of fellow Premier League top-six rivals Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur, who appear to be nearing crisis point, resulting in 12th and ninth positions in the league respectively. Chelsea too struggled early on, but now appear to be back on the right track under manager Frank Lampard.
Even despite being completely out of form, Arsenal failed to defeat Tottenham and United, having to come back from 2-0 down against Spurs at home. A worry for Emery's side is that with the fall of these rivals, new top four competitors are rising, such as Brendan Rogers' Leicester City side, who have been excellent in the league so far and could challenge Arsenal this season.
Emery's team selections have also been questioned, particularly with his choice in the United game to play the more defensive-minded midfield trio of Granit Xhaka, Matteo Guendouzi and Lucas Torreira.
A more adventurous midfield could have won the game against a badly struggling United team, with attacking midfielders Mesut Ozil and Dani Ceballos omitted from the starting 11. Speculation has arisen as to the deteriorating relationship between Ozil and his manager, as the player is increasingly left out of matches that would appear to benefit from his creativity.
Certainly, Emery still has a lot of work to do at Arsenal, and perhaps they can show real improvement as the season progresses. To achieve this, their record against the traditional 'top six' clubs, in particular, must improve, having not won a game away against these teams since 2015.
Defensive issues must be resolved, either on the training ground by Emery or by further investment in January, as missing out on Champions League football for another season may start to prove to be severely damaging to future recruitment at the club.Published 08 Oct 2019, 16:16 IST