ARSENAL AND UNAI EMERY: THE STORY SO FAR
At the end of the 2017/18 season, Arsene Wenger’s reign as Arsenal coach came to an end. The Frenchman was appointed in October 1996 and won 17 titles with the Gunners -7 FA cups, 3 Premier League titles (an unforgettable unbeaten season in 2003/04), 7 community shields, in his 22-year spell. Arsenal was going to go through a transition. A transition phase for any group -even outside sports- is never easy, in most cases.
Many did not know what the future held for the club. A new coach was needed to steer Arsenal’s ship. The appointment of a new head coach was inevitable and the next agenda ahead of the 2018/19 season. Many names were linked to the club, most notably former captain Mikel Arteta -the bookmakers’ favourite. Arsenal moved to the next chapter by appointing Unai Emery, a vastly experienced manager. The Spaniard was available and his impressive CV was too hard to ignore. He had coached Valencia, Spartak Moscow, led Sevilla to three consecutive Europa League titles and also won titles with PSG. The ‘Wenger Out’ supporters had been crying for change and change they finally got.
Emery’s start to life in England wasn’t a rosy one. Replacing ‘Le Professeur’ after 22yrs in charge was always going to be a herculean task. Arsenal suffered back to back defeats against Man City and Chelsea, which was widely expected. He then led Arsenal to 11-straight wins in all competitions (7 straight wins in the premier league). That winning run came to an end at Selhurst Park, as Arsenal drew 2-2 with Crystal Palace, conceding a penalty in the first half and another late in the game.
In the games against West Ham, Everton, Watford, Leicester and Crystal Palace, Arsenal were guilty of conceding clear-cut goal-scoring chances to their opponents and could have been 2 or 3 goals down in the first half. According to some, Arsenal have been ‘riding their luck’ and have not been absolutely convincing. The Gunners do not start games strongly, as they have never been ahead in any Premier League game in the first-half this season. Their display against Crystal Palace left a lot to be desired.
The highlight of the Gunners campaign this season was the thrilling 1-1 draw with Liverpool -considered by many as very strong title contenders- at the Emirates. Many didn’t give Arsenal any chance against the Reds, most notably former Arsenal player, Paul Merson, who predicted a 3-1 score against Arsenal. They were all so wrong. Arsenal produced an unbelievable performance against Liverpool, dominated from start to finish, and could have won. Arsenal’s defence came against Liverpool’s deadly front three in Mane, Firmino and Salah -the league’s highest goalscorer last season, who scored a record-breaking 32 goals in a 38 game premier league season, and still impressed.
The Gunners played out a disappointing 1-1 draw with Wolves at the Emirates, a game many expected the Gunners to win after a great performance against Liverpool. Arsenal lacked creativity and the needed attacking spark, as they managed to snatch a point late in the game against a newly-promoted Wolves team. The Gunners could even have lost late in the game. Danny Welbeck’s terrible ankle injury is also one of the lows of this new era and I wish him a speedy recovery.
There are positives for Arsenal under the new Emery era. Summer signings Bernd Leno, Lucas Torreira, Sokratis, Lichsteiner, and the precocious Matteo Guendouzi have proved to be good acquisitions for the club. The coach is very good at making substitutions and the team produces better second-half performances. Emery has brought a pressing style of football and instilled a winning mentality -a 16-game unbeaten run is no fluke- into the squad. His training methods are more intense. The players look fitter, sharper and they cover more distance on the pitch than before. Rob Holding, Hector Bellerin and Alex Iwobi have shown improvements in their game this season.
The 5-1 and 3-1 victory over Fulham and Leicester respectively, got the fans chanting “we’ve got our Arsenal back”, which was a delight to watch. As delightful as it was, we’ve not got our Arsenal back. Some Arsenal fans were even talking of winning the PL title few weeks ago. The Gunners’ unimpressive first-half display against Wolves should serve as a reality check to such fans. We certainly won’t win the title this season. Manchester City are head and shoulders above other PL clubs. Arsenal still needs a minor -not a major- surgical operation to be able to win the title or mount a sustained title challenge. Finishing in the top four should be our priority, and I think it’s achievable. Arsenal will visit the Vitality Stadium to play against a very good Bournemouth team after the international break.
Arsenal’s story thus far under the Spanish tactician has been good but, nowhere near perfect. Will Emery bring back the glory days to Arsenal? It remains to be seen. Will Arsenal make it into the top four this season? Will Arsenal’s story under Unai Emery be better than Arsene Wenger’s? These are questions begging for answers. Like the saying goes: time will tell. And rightly so, only time will provide the answers to these questions.