Arsenal’s first eleven games of the season have resulted in nine wins and only two losses (against Man City and Chelsea). The Gunners have scored 29 times and conceded 13. A great start it would seem. Yet, the new Arsenal is far from perfect.
What have we learnt from Emery’s Arsenal so far? What are the positives and what are the negatives? Are they on the right track?
Positives: Emery is winning Arsenal games
Emery’s notorious pragmatism is tilting 50-50 games in Arsenal’s favour. A good example was against Qarabag, when, despite being 1-0 up, Emery changed Arsenal’s formation from a three-man defence to four at the back and introduced Torreira for Monreal to balance an overrun midfield, after a lengthy period of Qarabag dominance. The change effectively steadied Arsenal defensively, and resulted in a comfortable 3-0 win and the third clean sheet of the season.
Another sign of his pragmatism is how Arsenal start and finish games. Emery seems to prefer the team to start slow – boring even – with medium tempo on the ball and few risks at either half of the pitch. Second halves pick up and the Gunners start to attack with more pace, fluidity and creativity. 20 of Arsenal’s 29 goals so far have come in the second half. This tactic insures the team from poor starts or trailing before Emery can make sufficient tactical changes, while controlling the scoreboard.
Maybe the most obvious effect that the new structure has had on the players is psychological. The players seem happier, more enthusiastic and motivated – as many predicted would happen with a change at the club. I don’t think I’ve seen the Arsenal players smile and laugh more than now. This is of course amplified by new erupting personalities like Aubameyang and Guendouzi as well. But there seems to be a nice balance between fun and serious work ethics. Smiles on the outside but focused determination on the inside. A tradition Emery has extended from Wenger’s time: the Arsenal mantra, “Victory through harmony.” Although, Emery certainly has brought along his own, exceeding slogan: “Just focus on the winning part first.”
Several players seem to benefit from this environment, namely Iwobi, Holding, Welbeck, Guendouzi, Aubameyang and Lacazette. The last three having formed some kind of hilarious “Three Stooges”-bond. Arguably Arsenal’s worst performers last season, Cech, Bellerin, Mustafi, Iwobi and Xhaka, have all improved their performances as well.
Xhaka recently opened up about his experience under the new head coach.
“We needed some time to get to know the character and philosophy of the new manager. It is going well and I am improving,” he told the Daily Mail.
And, “On a tactical level, the manager has really helped me. But we can still improve.”
There’s a new boss in town, and the players have to impress to stay within consideration. But, as many players have commented, there’s more focus on tactics and game preparation than before. “Fail to prepare, prepare to fail” has become vital to the club’s mentality.
Granted, Arsenal haven’t met the toughest of opponents since the first two games. But nine wins in a row, against any opponent, is impressive on its own – especially in this transitional period – where there have been struggles as well.
Negatives: Always a struggle
Every single game is a struggle. Despite Arsenal winning seven games with a two-goal margin or more, few games has felt as comfortable as the score says. Arsenal struggled against Cardiff and Newcastle, who are both yet to win a game in the league, but won. Arsenal were overrun at times by Vorskla, Brentford and Qarabag, but won.
Because of Arsenal’s slow starts, the game is never “won” in the first half. The tactic controls the scoreboard but the opponent very much remains within reach of a positive result going into the second half.
Creating scoring chances is often an issue as well. The players are obviously not completely fluid to Emery’s tactics yet, and that wouldn’t be realistic either, but the stats are concerning:
According to Opta, Arsenal’s xG (Expected Goals) in the 2-0 win against Watford was only 1.44 while Watford had 2.05. Yet Arsenal won 2-0. This is a good example of what it feels like watching Arsenal so far: clear scoring chances are scarce, yet they are effective with the ones that materialise.
Arsenal were also the biggest over-achievers in the league concerning Expected Goals per 1st October, scoring 14 with an xG of a mere 9.5.
With players like Özil, Aubameyang and Lacazette, this shouldn’t be the case. But here lay another issue that needs sorting: Emery hasn’t effectively facilitated Arsenal’s arguably three best players, Özil, Aubameyang and Ramsey.
Arsenal’s playmaking seems to stem further down the pitch, from Xhaka and Guendouzi, leaving Özil somewhat redundant further up the pitch. Once the ball reaches his area, the attack tends to speed up, giving Özil less time on the ball.
Aubameyang has been playing much of this season out on the left wing, somewhat due to Lacazette’s surge in form recently. This is problematic because in many ways playing Iwobi, Ramsey or Mkhitaryan in that position would be more effective. Aubameyang often has to play with his back to the goal and involve himself in the build-up play, the opposite of where you want him.
Ramsey seems to have to pay the ultimate price for his misfit to Emery’s system, as his contract offer was recently withdrawn by the club. This is evidence that there are problems facilitating key players but that they are being solved as well, even if it’s a difficult decision to make.
Emery found a solution to the Aubameyang conundrum against Fulham: playing two strikers in a variation of the 4-4-2 formation, in perhaps the most impressive performance so far this season winning 5-1. Lack of scoring chances was never an issue, as Aubameyang scored twice and assisted one and Lacazette netted twice as well.
This set-up was an example of Emery’s tactical flexibility and the players’ trust in Emery, as he continues to implement tactical changes rather frequently. However, I doubt the 4-4-2 will be Arsenal’s new go-to formation from now. It got the best out of the Arsenal players in attack and the midfield against Fulham but the Cottagers were poor in attack, where Arsenal’s biggest weakness still lay. It will sure work on certain opponents, though, and it keeps Arsenal unpredictable for the first time in a very long time.
Conclusion: Better than expected, but still stumbling around in the dark
After eleven games what is most outstanding is that this is very much a slow process of great change. But the players seem willing – enthusiastic even – about giving this project a real go. Emery’s pragmatism and focus on winning over anything else, a contrast to Wenger’s preference of playing style over anything else, is resulting in wins.
But it seems Emery is stumbling around in the dark somewhat, still looking for tactical answers as to how to steady the defence, how to consistently create more scoring chances and how to facilitate Özil and Aubameyang. The answers, and what Emery and his staff do with them, will determine if this project finds the light switch eventually.
It feels Arsenal are very reactionary at the moment, treating every opponent (even the weakest ones) individually, without much regard of forming its own identity. Considering Emery’s history, vision of winning over style and his pragmatism, it’s doubtful this will change any time soon. Is it sustainable? It will sure put a lot of pressure on Emery to hatch out game-winning tactics twice a week, and the players to keep up.
Arsenal are on the right track, though. Things are improving every two weeks it seems, and that has to continue throughout the season. A top four placement this season is still in doubt, but if Spurs experience the same dive as Man United are at the moment… Maybe! This year will be the season in which Emery looks for all the answers (and hopefully finds them). Next season, however, there will be no excuses.