Arsenal, in recent years mocked as every year’s fourth placed side under Arsène Wenger, have undergone a radical change since the appointment of Unai Emery.
At least that’s the public opinion. But have they really managed to realign their team and club since last season? Or are outcomes still the same with the Gunners and are expensive transfers only hiding Arsenal’s main problems?
Emerys debut season and the lessons learned
When Unai Emery was presented at the Emirates Stadium for the 2018/19 season, he found a club that finished sixth during the season. A result the fans were certainly not satisfied with.
It wasn’t so much the ranking then rather the way the last two to three years had gone by. Many times Arsenal started the season well, and were in good form until the autumn or early winter and would then capitulate due to their lack of squad depth.
With the signings of Mesut Özil (2013/14), Alexis Sánchez (2014/15) and Alexandre Lacazette (2017/18) the team pointed fingers at the competition in recent years and strengthened its position at the top.
However, Arsenal largely neglected the midfield and defence. Granit Xhaka and Shkodran Mustafi came in 2016/17 for over €40 million each, but have failed to make a lasting impression.
Fan favourites including Aaron Ramsey, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Wojciech Szczesny could not be convinced to stay or were over-used so much that they regularly injured themselves in key stages of the season.
Whilst winger Serge Gnabry is now excelling in Germany with FC Bayern, Ligue 1 side Lyon recently paid almost €20 million for Jeff Reine-Adélaïde.
Ismaël Bennacer is a seasoned player who, thanks to his great performances at Empoli and the AFCON, moved to AC Milan in Italy, where he will likely be a key player in the future.
In defence, Laurent Koscielny was not the only player without an above-average counterpart. The signing of Shkodran Mustafi turned out to be an expensive mishap. And that’s exactly what Arsenal’s biggest problem has been in the recent past.
Year after year they have a high budget, which is spent lightly on under-average players, who have failed to offer the goods or are simply too old.
With a major change on the sidelines, the Gunners wanted to send a first clear signal to its competition. Emery was a little discredited at that time because he was symbolic of Paris Saint-Germain’s embarrassing defeat at the hands of an excellent Barcelona comeback.
But not only is he one of the best coaches in recent times, made notable by his Europa League successes with Sevilla, but he also achieved a higher point average than Thomas Tuchel has in Paris.
Under him, Giovani Lo Celso, Alphonse Areola and Presnel Kimpembe also made their debuts.
So Emery was greeted with great expectations and high praise in London Colney, Arsenal’s training centre. Joining him: Bernd Leno, Sokratis, Lucas Torreira and Mattéo Guendouzi. All of whom have performed well and have been key parts of the squad since their arrivals.
Emery’s opening season could be described as good. The Gunners finished fifth just behind Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea, where expected to finish at the beginning of the season, and Arsenal reached final of the Europa League.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Lacazette developed into a very good strike duo, scoring 35 goals between them.
Despite the upheavals last winter, with the departure of seasoned players and the confidence they placed in newcomers, Emery had a good season considering the task at hand.
Style of play and trust in youth
Arsenal’s approach under Emery in the first post-Wenger campaign was not always brilliant. There were some wins that were quite lucky. Hardly anything better could have happened to Emery.
Right from the start, they fought against Manchester City and Chelsea and in doing so showed a lot of bravery. Afterwards, Arsenal went unbeaten in Premier League until mid-December and even managed seven consecutive victories.
Emery was able to gain a lot of credit from these achievements in particular, even though the style of play was often quite straightforward. This gained confidence in the Spaniard was enormously important for future tasks.
However, the Gooners were quick to see that he wanted to develop his team further. The fast ball possession football of the 4-2-3-1 was after some time added to with a rigid 3-4-1-2. Football should not be as soporific as in the last years under Wenger.
Flat, fast combinations through the centre were just as much a part of the daily routine as counterattacks for Aubameyang & Co.
A central component for this was the younger core of players, in which Emery has put a lot of faith in. This is especially notable with Guendouzi, with whom the coach showed a lot of patience.
Last season, the young Frenchman made a lot of mistakes in the game’s build-up, which also led to conceded goals. The Spanish gentleman, however, has given him the necessary boost and in total over 3,000 minutes to play.
Guendouzi is expected to be a support in Arsenal’s squad for both the long and the short term.
Also Arsenal’s own youth academy seems to want to give Emery more attention, too. Although Ainsley Maitland-Niles was repeatedly deployed on both wings and in the center under Wenger, he now seems to feel comfortable at right-back.
In midfield, Joe Willock has also been trusted since the start of this season, which he repaid with good performances against Newcastle United and Burnley.
Whether he will maintain this confidence for a whole season is hard to predict due to the competition in midfield and how Emery likes to rotate. But bringing him in now is the right step, which in the recent past has often been missed with talents.
Forward Reiss Nelson strikes a similar notch. He already has proven his potential in Germany with Hoffenheim, but Nelson will also be carefully built up by Emery and will be used as a useful substitute this season.
The transfer window 2019
Arsenal are stereotypically known for not paying huge amounts of transfer fees, but every season they make sure that the account is halfway balanced.
But before this transfer summer, when they publicly communicated that they only had a budget of €50-60 million for transfers, some Gooners were seemingly surprised.
Again, such a dull summer? To be associated again with the big ones and at the end of the transfer window to be let down with another signing of a reservist?
The summer began with the signing of Gabriel Martinelli. At just 18, he is an investment for the future.
He will first have to get used to London and its weather before he can be expected to play at a more regular basis. The transfer fee of almost €7 million indicates that Arsenal rate him highly.
Well, until 25th July, the day many Arsenal fans won’t soon forget. The new technical director and ex-Invincible Edú Gaspar bagged the transfer of William Saliba, who was again loaned back to France.
In addition, Dani Ceballos was guided from the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu to the Emirates Stadium in a great loan deal.
The icing on the cake was Sead Kolašinac’s fight with two attackers armed with knives. That’s right, all of that happened on 25th July!
And only one week later Nicolas Pépé from Lille was presented, who was signed for a record fee of €80million plus bonuses.
On Deadline Day, Kieran Tierney from Celtic and surprisingly David Luiz from Chelsea were brought in after lots of back and forth negotiations.
The Gooners were finally satisfied for the first time in a long time. Edú Gaspar and Raul Sanllehi had won the favour of the fans within a very short time.
And rightly so: it was finally possible to hire well-known stars and improve the squad. But appearances are a little deceptive when you look at the big picture.
Yes, Arsenal had needed to strengthen the attack and yes, Arsenal also needed to add quality in the midfield, because a strategist was missing.
€80 million was used to increase Arsenal’s attacking options and thereby exhausting its budget. And that for a position where such big investment was not necessary.
Let’s have a look at the defence: For years it was not possible to get an equal partner or useful replacement for Laurent Koscielny. Now a young talent has been signed with Saliba, but until his comeback from his loan he will just be 19-year-old and will still have to prove himself.
Moreover, he can’t help during this season. So, the best central defender at Arsenal’s disposal is 31-year-old Sokratis.
Although his partner David Luiz (32) is a leading player, he can only be seen as a temporary solution and unfortunately fits into the aforementioned scheme of the overpriced player who is above their peak.
🗣 "I’m excited to play for this big club. I grew up watching a lot of Arsenal games, especially the great players from the past, so I’m excited to try to help this club to do some big things."@DavidLuiz_4 💪
— Arsenal (@Arsenal) August 10, 2019
The alternatives, Mustafi, Callum Chambers and Holding, do not meet Arsenal’s requirements. That’s why they are paying the price for their hesitant economic activity in the recent years.
In midfield, the loan of Ceballos merely bought time. That’s not reprehensible, FC Bayern have done it in an even larger scale. It will be important who will follow Ceballos.
If you look at which central midfielders have left their clubs for comparatively little money in the summer, Arsenal could have found an ideal long-term solution. Kerem Demirbay, Xaver Schlager, Diadie Samassékou or Ismaël Bennacer would all have been able to be signed for a comparable low fee.
Arsenal probably wants to wait here for an even better opportunity next summer or calculates its chances of signing Ceballos later on.
Finally, one has to say that the transfer window was good, but not perfect as some have said. They didn’t strengthen themselves wisely enough, especially at centre back, and only found a temporary solution in midfield.
Most of the money was spent on the comparatively well-positioned offensive, which apparently meant that there was no more capacity for the immediate and above all long-term reinforcement of the other two positions.
Is Emery creating a new era at Arsenal?
Nevertheless, Arsenal has been doing a good job again for quite some time. The squad was thinned out in the summer as players like Stephen Lichtsteiner, Carl Jenkinson and Danny Welbeck left the club.
For Alex Iwobi they received more than €30million from Everton. But he could as well have stayed. Shortly before the closure of the transfer window at the end of August, Mkhitaryan, Elneny and Monreal left the club, which was also necessary.
Arsenal still has Özil and Mustafi in the squad, who earn a high salary and therefore are difficult to sell. That should be Arsenal’s and Emery’s goal in the coming months.
Either they manage to integrate the undoubtedly outstanding abilities of Özil or they will have to find a club who is willing to sign him next summer, even if that could mean that no profit was made with this transfer.
They don’t want to sell him yet, as the club mentioned in the last couple of days.
👊 P A S S I O N 👊
— Arsenal (@Arsenal) August 13, 2019
Unai Emery, however, managed to bring the club’s environment and leadership to his side within a very short time. The team is competitive again and looks more homogeneous than last season, even with its arguable tactical issues.
They support youth players including Nelson and Willock and allowed Eddie Nketiah to gain much needed experience at Leeds United in the Championship, as the competition on his position is currently too strong for him.
Arsenal seem to have managed the radical change better than they initially thought – in this sense they are on the right track. But for Emery to be able to fully implement his plan, high earning players have to be sold.
This allows the club to rehabilitate itself bit by bit and become more competitive on the big stage again.