Arsène Wenger and Arsenal were in a deep, loving, and tumultuous relationship. They had their ups – the Invincibles, and downs – losing 10-2 on aggregate to Bayern Munich. It almost ended in tears – and for some it did. The man we adored was hounded out by many of our fanbase, and whatever side of the Wenger in/out debate you stood, we can all agree it was sad to see him go. As the curtains closed on one manager, another said ‘good evening’. Let’s talk about what has changed – if anything.
It’s difficult to move on from a long-term relationship, and that has proven to be the case here. There are still old feelings ruminating, and in football terms – that equates to old, bad habits. A lot of Arsène Wenger’s team is still with us, apart from the signings of Bernd Leno, Lucas Torreira and Sokratis – the makeup of the first-team squad is the same. Towards the end of his reign, Wenger wasn’t able to get enough out of his players. I don’t think we will ever know if he actually ‘lost the dressing room’, but it’s clear the old magic in his hat had seeped out.
2017-18 vs 2018-19
Unai Emery’s first season in charge was MARGINALLY better than Wenger’s last. In terms of league position – we finished in fifth, as opposed to sixth last year. Points wise – we finished the campaign on 70, a seven-point increase on last year’s total of 63. Not exactly groundbreaking.
After a terrible start to the season, losing to Manchester City and Chelsea, we went on a 22-game unbeaten run, that had the Wenger-out brigade brimming with glee. But then came the inconsistency Arsenal fans are so familiar with. Losses to the likes of Southampton and West Ham, but then wins over Chelsea and Manchester United posed so many questions about Unai Emery’s tactics, constant chopping and changing of personnel and the old faithful: mentality.
Some of those questions would’ve been forgotten about if, with eight games to go, Arsenal got the job done and finished in the top four. It would’ve been objective achieved, everybody happy, and we can look forward to next year. BUT NO. Losses to Everton, Crystal Palace, Wolves, Leicester City, and a draw at home to Brighton ended what was a frustrating season.
Now the season hinges on the Europa League final against Chelsea in Baku. Win – and we’re back in the Champions League after two years of exile, and there’s another £30m in the kitty to spend on transfers. Lose – and it’s back to square one.
Defending? What’s that?
In a shocking turn of events, Arsenal still can’t defend. We conceded the same amount of goals (51) compared to last season, but our xGA has actually risen from 49.28 to 59.04 – which means opponents created more goalscoring opportunities against us. 3-back formation, 4-back formation, 10-back formation, it doesn’t really matter, we can’t keep the ball out of the net.
It’s a mix of personnel and tactics, whatever your thoughts on the vilification of Shkodran Mustafi, he’s not good enough for this level. Laurent Koscielny put in some heroic captain performances at the tail-end of the season, but through injury, and age, he’s not the player he once was. Sokratis has been a welcome addition, but despite his full commitment to the cause and aerial prowess, still has an air of recklessness. The one bright spark, Rob Holding suffered a horrific injury early on in the campaign, and his calmness on and off the ball was severely missed.
Emery was brought in to improve players, and in Héctor Bellerín, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, and Rob Holding he has done that. But with the others aforementioned, it’s a tougher job as they’re older and more set in their ways. It’s a systemic issue at the club, and I’d love to be a fly on the wall in training to see what Steve Bould actually does – because plainly there’s been no improvement whatsoever. Unai Emery’s constant switching of formations and personnel certainly doesn’t help things, and opting with a high-line in some games doesn’t either. If Emery wants to see out his contract, the defence has to be a priority in the summer – in terms of players coming in and out, and tactically.
Consistency? What’s that?
Similarly to last season, going forward we’re either Johan Cruyff’s brand of total football – citing goals against Fulham, Leicester, and especially in the 4-2 vs Spurs. Or, we’re banging our heads against a brick wall, which is what I do when Alex Iwobi performs his signature shuffle before proceeding to blast the ball into row Z.
We have been utterly reliant on our prolific centre-forwards, Alexandre Lacazette, and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Although we scored one less goal this season (73) compared to last term (74), our xG was a lot lower (2017-18: 74.34, 2018-19: 69.05). Meaning that we created less chances, and were effectively bailed out by our strikers being so clinical.
The stats leave us with the ultimate question, what is the plan?
We saw from the very first game of the season, Emery was going to force playing from out the back, in which Petr Čech almost scored a comical own-goal. It seems we have got fitter in terms of pressing, but have been inconsistent in employing the press. And in terms of systems, we know Emery has historically preferred a 433, but our lack of wingers forced him to change. Meaning we’ve gone from 4231 to 343 to 3412 and back again. With formations and personnel changing like the wind, how is anyone meant to know exactly what their role is?
We’ve seen an almost robotic Manchester City over the last two years replicate exactly what they do in training on the pitch, with German-like efficiency. Jürgen Klopp and Maurizio Sarri all have a clear philosophy they implement. But a year down the line, you’d struggle to decipher what exactly Emery has put into place.
Expectations vs reality, and what’s next?
Just like after any break-up, it’s going to take a long time to recover. With the mess off the pitch created by Ivan Gazidis, Arsenal have a lot of financial clean-up ahead. With a sporting director, technical director, and sky-high wage bill still to sort out, there’s a long way to go. Anyone who came in after Arsène was going to have an enormous task on their hands. So, a fifth-placed finish, and Europa League final, on balance should be considered a fairly successful season.
Fans need to get it out of their heads that Arsenal are what they used to be, or near the likes of Manchester City, and Liverpool – on and off the pitch. Emery needs to target young, promising and hungry players that can put his tactics into action on the pitch – all at a cut price. If we still haven’t improved at this stage of next season, then serious questions will need to be asked. But for now, get a tub of ice-cream, binge watch some Netflix – because it’s all going to be ok.