Arsenal have finally moved on from Arsene Wenger and stumbled on winning formula under Unai Emery
Not since 2015 had Arsenal won nine games on the trot. Emery's achievements, winning with a group who do not really suit either his tactics or each other, is a feat in itself
After the catchy chorus, the debate about its meaning. “We’ve got our Arsenal back,” sang their fans in the 5-1 thrashing of Fulham earlier this month. By winning away from home? It was something they did as few times as Watford, Bournemouth and Newcastle United in the league last season. By winning nine games in a row? Arsenal last did that in 2015, a season when they secured a trophy and qualified for the Uefa Champions League.
By scoring a goal of sumptuous brilliance, combining teamwork with individual virtuosity? Aaron Ramsey’s audacious backheeled third was worthy of any of Arsene Wenger’s greatest sides. By resuming a familiar position? Arsenal are now in the top four, ahead of Tottenham Hotspur in a way that felt entirely normal for the vast majority of Wenger’s reign.
One plausible theory is that it referred to the renewed sense of unity. The Arsenal civil war is over, the various factions with their differing positions if Wenger should go now coalescing behind Unai Emery. Arsenal are in an unfamiliar position, comparatively unburdened by expectation, savouring the sense of something different, at least knowing the pattern of groundhog seasons has been abruptly ended.
Whether it is actually their old Arsenal, however, is a moot point. The signing of the combative Lucas Torreira can be seen as a welcome to reversion to old values, restoring the kind of defensive midfielder Arsenal used to have and then lacked. Yet the decision to back out of contract talks with Ramsey, probably prompting his departure his next summer, could herald another break with the past.
There has been an exodus of the constants of the Emirates Stadium over the last three transfer windows. The prospect of Ramsey and Danny Welbeck, another whose current deal expires next summer, leaving for free could also make Emery’s rebuilding job harder.
Arsenal supporters on club's past and future: Unai Emery arrival, Arsene Wenger departure
And the backdrop has made his start more impressive. The opening two defeats to Manchester City and Chelsea highlighted the problems of a club who finished 37 points off the pace last season. None of the subsequent nine victories have come against elite teams. But, one meeting with Liverpool aside, Arsenal do not face any until December. Churning out victories against inferior opponents is an art in itself: indeed, it was one Wenger long mastered when his sides struggled against the best but nonetheless amassed enough points against the rest.
Winning with a group who do not really suit either his tactics or each other is another feat. Petr Cech’s problems playing the ball out from the back were well-documented. Some of Emery’s defenders lack the pace to operate with the high defensive line he favours. Some are injured.
Perhaps only Henrikh Mkhitaryan of the senior midfielders and forwards actually prefers to start in a wider role, and even then the Armenian can play as a No 10. Compromise has been necessitated by an unbalanced squad. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Mesut Ozil, arguably Arsenal’s two biggest names, have taken their turns on the sidelines.
Perhaps Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette sum up the new Arsenal: both potent and showing signs of chemistry, but also ideally wanting the same spot in the side. They also both boast a turn of pace. Arsenal have completed the most sprints (960) and covered the most distance (908.2 km) in the Premier League this season.
Arsenal have rediscovered urgency and industry, qualities they mislaid at times in recent years but which Wenger’s best teams displayed as they allied the technical with the physical. Perhaps that is the Arsenal that has returned. While Wenger has said he will return to football in the New Year, Arsenal have moved on. That shift in attitude and focus, in a decidedly imperfect situation, is to Emery’s credit.
Updated: October 17, 2018 04:37 PM