This season, the first at Arsenal in over two decades with a new manager at the helm, there is a palpable sense of excitement around the club. With an undefeated streak stretching way back into August and an excitable manager who has lived and died with every kick this season, the mood surrounding the club is as positive as it has been in years. Within the media, some are divided over the validity of the Gunners’ top 4 challenge, as their excellent run of results is underpinned by some concerning statistics that might suggest over-performance. However, as it pertains to the players in the team, few are in doubt that there have been tangible improvements made by many of the players in the squad.
Here at We Are The Arsenal, we have gathered our writers to opine on which player has improved the most this season under Unai Emery. With improvement almost everywhere you look, we have been spoiled a bit for choice. At the back, we have several candidates for the honour, including the experienced Shkodran Mustafi and the younger Hector Bellerin and Rob Holding. In the midfield, Granit Xhaka has only solidified his place as one of the Premier League’s surest bets to start week in and week out, while Alex Iwobi has been nutmegging his way into the hearts of fans and more minutes on the pitch this season in a more advanced role. But which one has improved the most? We discuss!
Lorihanna Shushkova – Shkodran Mustafi
As much as I don’t want to say it, because I’m not a big fan, I think that Mustafi has improved a lot this season.
Although there are still some issues at the back, Mustafi’s performances are more solid now. His passing accuracy has been high enough – 89.3% on average. He now sends more long balls in total, and more of them are accurate compared to the start of the season. Something than I am sure not a lot of people have noticed is that his dribbling success rate is pretty high too – 83,6% per 90 mins, compared to 77% last season. He is not making dribble attempts too often but every once in a while he tries, they usually turn out successful. And having in mind his style of play, this sounds like a nice way to improve. Unfortunately, one of the things he is still not that good at is winning his duels as he wins only half of them. He’s improved in making interceptions since the start of the campaign too, making 11 against Liverpool for example. When it comes to sliding tackles, he either has nothing or 100% of them are successful. There is no in between.
There clearly is an overall improvement in the defensive line, but Shkodran definitely plays better under Unai Emery. It seems like now the biggest problem in his performance is the timing of his interventions. But as the season goes on, he continues to be one of the highly rated players. As he also continues to be highly underrated by the team’s supporters. Mustafi himself answered a question about his improvement:
“Unai Emery tells you exactly what he wants you to do. But then at the same time, he gives you the freedom to expose your talent. For example, when we don’t have the ball, he tells you exactly where to stand and how to get the ball from the opponent. And when we have the ball, he gives you the options that you can use but still, you can decide which option you’re going to choose. So for me, it’s a good mix between freedom and still very disciplined, and having the same plan in the whole team.”
Art de Roché – Rob Holding
Going into the season I had big hopes for both Rob Holding and Calum Chambers. As a pair I felt they could create a great centre back partnership, but with Chambers at Fulham, we’ll have to wait a while for that.
Anyway, with Emery deciding to keep Holding at the club, this has seen his performances excel. The main factor in this is the consistency of the quality and frequency of his time on the pitch. So far this season, Holding has already played over half the Premier League games he did last season (12).
With this, focusing on his stats at this point may be less useful as they will be based on totals. However, the biggest indication that Holding is on the right track is that Arsenal haven’t lost with him in the side.
When watching Holding, we also see that he has become more vocal in the Arsenal defence which is having a positive effect on his game. The pro-activeness can be seen as he is only five away from his ‘headed clearance’ tally from last season (18).
Although his stats may not be too useful at the moment, Holding has evidently matured this season. We can see this from the way in which he starts attacks by stepping into midfield to the way he conducts himself in defence. Personally, I believe his growth from last season’s ‘Europa League’ team to the first team this season has been great to watch.
Muhammad Uways Nisar – Alex Iwobi
Arguably one of the most improved players this season, if not the most improved. Alex Iwobi has come leaps and bounds from what was a shocking campaign last season. Iwobi’s career at Arsenal was in danger of petering out with many fans and pundits arguing that he didn’t have the level of talent and commitment to make it arsenal. However, Unai Emery seems to have given the Nigerian a new lease of life and it shows on the pitch.
I was present at Arsenal’s Premier League game at home to Liverpool, where for once in Iwobi’s career, fans in the crowd were begging for his introduction off the bench, in light of Henrikh Mkihtaryan’s rather poor performance, and how right they were to call for the youngster. Iwobi was instrumental in assisting the equalising goal for Alexander Lacazette with a sublime pass that split open a sturdy and improved Liverpool defence.
However, the stand out improvement in Alex Iwobi’s game this season is his ability to run and take on his defender when hes has the ball out wide in attacking positions. This is apparent in his statistics this season where Iwobi averages a mammoth 5.96 dribbles per Premier League game, compared to a rather meek 3.12 dribbles per game last season in Arsene Wenger’s last season at the helm at Arsenal.
Iwobi’s efforts are already being rewarded on the pitch and in the final third this season. The 22 year Arsenal academy graduate has already contributed 6 goals in 15 games in all competitions this season, compared to a lowly 10 goals and assists in 39 games throughout the whole of last season.
If Iwobi thinks he has a starting position nailed down, then the youngster needs to rethink that. His performance against Wolves at home was a small reminder of the Iwobi of last season, with Iwobi losing the ball on numerous occasions. There is still more work to be done if Iwobi is to claim a starting place in a star-studded Arsenal attack, however, he is on the right path under new guidance this season.
Devanté – Hector Bellerin
Hector Bellerin came under scrutiny in recent seasons from Arsenal fans, after poor performances from the Spanish international. Arsene Wenger used to be around to help him during these dark times with some words of encouragement.
Under Unai Emery, he has shown to be among the improved packs making waves in the first team and one demanding his regular start as a key first-team player. Alex Iwobi, Rob Holding and Granit Xhaka are in this category which Nate is happy to see, nonetheless, it’s worthy we praise these players when they start putting together a string of eye-catching performances, as consistency oftentimes proves to be the hardest thing in life.
So far, the young right-back has made twelve league appearances for his team, contributing four assists thus far, which has made him a key entity to our offensive game. Among the players with the most completed passes, Bellerin sits among the top seven players for the Gunners, as Emery sacrifices the player for the benefit of the team’s offensive game due to his sheer pace.
Positionally speaking, Bellerin has been caught out a few times so far this season. This is part of the double-edged sword of having such an offensive-minded fullback, while also not providing cover with an exceptionally mobile defensive midfielder. Xhaka, for instance, is simply superb on the ball with his distribution and also raked in a good number for ball recoveries in the game against Liverpool at the Emirates.
Whilst the fullback isn’t there yet defensively, he’s surely improving his overall game and surely will improve the defensive aspect of his game, as Emery continues to coach, lead and implement his tactics with his team and Hector Bellerin surely.
Nate Smith – Granit Xhaka
Let’s get one thing straight from the off: Granit Xhaka has never been as terrible as some fans were inclined to believe. Since signing from Borussia Monchengladbach in the summer of 2016, Xhaka has dismayed as many supporters with his lack of pace and occasional error as he has delighted with his Katyusha of a left foot and unerring determination and work rate. By the end of last season, opinion had turned against the Swiss international due to his Premier League leading 3 errors resulting in a goal and his poor disciplinary record. However, Xhaka has surprised many of those same detractors this season with marked improvement throughout his game and a continued monopoly on one of the two starting berths in central midfield under Unai Emery.
In truth, Xhaka’s improvement has not just been personal, but has been influenced as well by the summer signing of Lucas Torreira from Sampdoria. The diminutive Uruguayan has been a defensive dynamo for the Gunners this season, taking on much of the leg work and defensive activity that was once entrusted solely to Xhaka, freeing up the Switzerland international to focus more on the traits that make him so valuable to the team. Due to his elite passing range and innate sense of tempo, Xhaka is one of the best controlling midfielders in the game. If Mesut Ozil is the Arsenal player most likely to unlock a defence in the final third, Xhaka is the one most likely to have started that chance with a perfectly weighted ball into the forward line or out wide into space. In buildup play, Xhaka has added around 0.5 expected goals to the Gunners’ tally, a very good number for a deep lying midfielder. His xG chain (a slightly mystifying stat that seeks to quantify the contribution made to goals by players in buildup that haven’t scored or provided the assist) of 0.5 also speaks to his ability to shift the Gunners into dangerous attacking positions.
While a glance at the underlying stats doesn’t suggest much improvement, with his passing accuracy declining slightly from last season and negligible differences in his defensive statistics, he looks a different player to the eye. His first touch is more assured and taken further away from a pressing opponent, his decision making has quickened and his defensive positioning has improved. He even appears to have improved his pace, or at the very least, he has learned how better to cope with his deficiencies in that regard. He even showed off his positional versatility earlier this season when an injury crisis forced him into deputising as a fullback for a 3 game stretch.
Granit Xhaka is simply one of those players whose best work often goes unnoticed. When a striker scores a highlight reel goal from a great team move, fans seldom remember the pass that first sprung the attack. A player who consistently makes the correct, if simple, play isn’t often noticed for his good work, but there are few players in Europe who take the correct decision as often as Xhaka. A couple glaring mistakes in the last 3 matches have refocused the ire of some fans at him once again, but that does not change what has been exceedingly obvious to Unai Emery: that Granit Xhaka is hugely important to the success of this Arsenal team. When taking this into consideration, and when focusing on the incremental improvements he has made to nearly every facet of his game, Granit Xhaka is the most improved player at Arsenal this season.