Taking the baton from Arsene Wenger at the Emirates was never going to be an easy task for Unai Emery. Despite the furore surrounding Wenger’s final 18 months in charge of the Gunners, he remains a club legend. However, Emery, an unassuming man from Spain’s Basque Country, has been warmly embraced both on and off the pitch in his first six months in charge as he seeks to introduce a new cutting edge to Arsenal’s game.
Although the Gunners still find themselves battling to hang onto the coat tails of the Champions League places, their swashbuckling approach to games has curried favour with the Arsenal faithful. There is no doubt that the Gunners’ more cavalier style of play has made them a greater goal threat this season. However, finding the right balance between defence and attack is something that Emery will be desperate to work on. Too often they have given away soft goals this term, making them a staple inclusion in most weekly Premier League both teams to score tips.
Emery was nowhere to be seen at the top of the list of likely replacements for Wenger last summer. However, his achievements of securing a domestic treble for PSG in France in 2017/18 did not go unnoticed by the Arsenal hierarchy, who were impressed by his long-term vision for the Gunners and his in-depth knowledge of the club. An early season run of nine successive wins in all competitions helped to breed a new winning mentality throughout the squad. Their recent comprehensive derby victory over Chelsea also underlined that Emery’s system is capable of grinding out results when it really matters. So, what are the main tweaks that Emery has made to the squad to make them such a good watch for the neutral in 2018/19?
Although many pundits would argue that Emery’s encouraging start to life at the Emirates shouldn’t be pinned on one player, the arrival of Lucas Torreira from Sampdoria has certainly been the addition the Gunners have needed in their engine room for many seasons. The lack of a specialist holding midfielder has too often let Arsenal down in tight games through the years, but Torreira’s steel and dynamism has offered the defensive protection that supporters have craved since Patrick Vieira. The Uruguayan’s susceptibility to injury has however been noted by Emery, who appears to be handling him with kid gloves of late.
Emery has also gone to great lengths to encourage his players to press at a far higher intensity than they were used to under Wenger. Too often, the Gunners did not focus enough on what they did without the ball and, while Arsenal’s pressing game is not quite as incessant as Liverpool’s, it still helps the side to play further in the opposition’s half. On the subject of Arsenal’s new pressing game, this has also been aided by the performances of strike duo, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette. The pair have defended from the front in tandem with huge success and their pace and power are now a recognised threat to all Premier League and Champions League defences.
One of the main accusations levelled at Arsene Wenger towards the end of his tenure was that he failed to get the best out of his players. The Frenchman was increasingly less involved on the training ground, but Emery could not be more different. He is a typical tracksuit manager by day and a suave, sophisticated Spaniard on the touchline on a Saturday afternoon. Tactically, Emery has worked particularly hard with his midfielders to create a more cohesive unit in the middle of the park. All too often last season, Arsenal lacked organisation and any semblance of a plan, which saw them regularly found out by their title rivals.
Emery’s reign remains a work in progress, with his defensive personnel still showing fragility at times, but there is a lot to be encouraged about from a Gunners perspective. The one disappointment for Arsenal fans must surely be the announcement of Sven Mislintat’s departure in February. The German arrived from Borussia Dortmund as the club’s new Head of Recruitment and played a key role in the signing of Aubameyang and the identification of Unai Emery. Replacing Mislintat with another forward-thinking technical director will be at the top of Vinai Venkatesham’s 2019 to-do list.