There’s an odd dichotomy about Arsenal this season. They were a team that had, until just recently, won 11 straight matches in all competitions – the first time it had done so in over ten years – yet there was a reluctance to admit that the team were actually any good. Any talk of improvement from last season under Arsene Wenger, and any whisper that there’s something far greater than a run at the top four on the horizon, was greeted with a milieu of caveats.
The funny thing is, it’s all completely justified. As supporters, we have a bad habit of perceiving criticism as media bias. The joy of winning again is so intoxicating that any predictions of collapses and complaints about the performances are never welcome. Nobody wants to admit that their side might not be as good as the results suggest. Yet, deep down, most Arsenal fans know that this winning run has had its fair share of fortune.
Unai Emery has re-energised the squad
His methods are engaging the players and inspiring more determined displays, if not higher quality ones. After the thrilling 3-1 victory over Leicester, the Spaniard said that his side was now playing with more heart, but not with enough control. That “heart” has been winning the fans back after the limp displays of last season, but heart can only take a team so far. There’ll come a point where the performance of the players will really matter.
Emery knows this, hence his mantra of hard work and improvement. At no point has he appeared content with this run of victories. He’s always demanded more of his team. It’s not enough for Arsenal to win; they need better control of games, to assert themselves from the beginning and play like “protagonists” throughout.
Yet, achieving this is thus far proving difficult. Watford ran the team ragged in the second half of Arsenal’s 2-0 win at the Emirates. Their superior strength and athleticism ensured Arsenal were never comfortable at any stage. A week prior, Everton had troubled the defence with their pace and movement. On both occasions, Arsenal needed quality intervention from their star forwards and a bit of luck on refereeing decisions. Putting five past Fulham sparked jubilant chants of “we’ve got our Arsenal back” from the travelling support, but even that game saw Arsenal give up far more chances than they should have done. Then came the Leicester game, remembered for the sparkling combination play, orchestrated by the phenomenal Mesut Ozil. Thanks to him, that opening half an hour, dictated by Leicester who deservedly took the lead, was swept under the rug.
This run has been characterised by poor first half displays followed by excellent second halves. Whatever Emery has been doing at half-time has had amazing success. It’s testament to his quality as a manager that he can change the flow of a game and find a winning solution by making smart substitutions and tactical tweaks. This alone is encouraging, as Wenger had seemingly lost that magic by the end of his reign. But one has to wonder if Arsenal are relying on it too much.
Emery has struggled to find the right balance in attack. If he plays Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette together, he has to confine one of them to the flank. If he wants to play them as a front two, he has to remove Mesut Ozil from the number ten position. If he wants to get Aaron Ramsey in there as well, he has to play two of his key attackers out of position. There doesn’t appear to be an ideal solution that doesn’t involve leaving one or more of his better players on the bench.
The frequent changes in attack has harmed the rhythm of his side. Ultimately, the pending departure of Aaron Ramsey may make the decision easier for him, but it still leaves him with three players who want to play centrally.
Midfield also remains a problem area
Lucas Torreira has established himself as the key defensive midfielder, while Granit Xhaka seems to be his first-choice partner. Xhaka, though, is a one-dimensional player. For all his excellent progressive passing, he’s not much of a baller carrier or dribbler, nor does he possess a turn of pace. If you slow down his passing, Arsenal can often have trouble working the ball into their attacking players. Mateo Guendouzi looks a very promising option, but as he demonstrated against Crystal Palace, he still has a lot developing to do before he can make that spot his own.
It could take a couple more forays into the transfer market for Emery to shape the squad in his image. Meanwhile, he has to find a set-up that can extract the best of his existing players. He knows he has the quality in key areas to win games, but until he finds a set-up where that quality can be expressed in every game, this season will remain full of inconsistencies and nearly moments. In the Premier League, that might not be enough to return to the Champions League.