Their 16-game unbeaten run has many Arsenal fans celebrating a new era at the Emirates. But they are only slightly better off then at the same point last season and, while there plenty of positives from Unai Emery’s debut season, there is still plenty of work to do, writes Ryan Hunn.
In recent years, Arsenal seasons have felt like a movie franchise: the plots are the same, the endings similar and the later instalments always struggle to live up to the hype of the original trilogy. However, this reboot has a new man in the chair and die-hard fans don’t yet know what to make of it. “Just how different will it be?” one asked. “I hope they don’t mess with the formula too much,” pleaded another. But any concerns evaporated after the opening credits: two early defeats meant this outing was staying true to the original. The following run of 16 games unbeaten was a new take on the second act recovery that is an absolute staple. The renewed hope that follows the early despair is always one of the best parts. The audience might be getting anxious, as we’re getting to the bit we all knew was coming. We’ve seen it over and over again, yet it gets us every time. November.
In the Premier League era, this is the month when Arsenal’s points per game average plummets to its lowest and for Unai Emery, the new man calling the shots, the November international break was well timed. After defeats by Manchester City and Chelsea, the momentum built on 12 straight wins had started to be lost with Arsenal drawing their last three league games heading into the break. The Gunners have won just one of their last five matches in all competitions: at home to Blackpool. As the second third of the season begins, despite progress in certain areas, Arsenal remain an enigma. Part horror, part comedy, part CGI fantasy masterpiece.
The current run of 16 games without defeat has masked areas that will give Emery food for thought. Statistically, Arsenal are two points better off than at the same point last season, scoring more and conceding fewer, but have ridden their luck at times. Outscoring their expected goals totals by almost a goal a game and conceding just shy of their expected goals conceded, Arsenal are taking fewer shots and conceding more than they were last season. Two €50m+ strikers, in Lacazette and Aubameyang, finishing at a high level and a new goalkeeper in Bernd Leno doing work at the other end might explain this discrepancy. However, despite the run, Arsenal are struggling to control games and the most frequent post game comment from Emery so far has been, “We have to improve.”
A key concern for Emery will be that Arsenal have often got off to a slower start than There Will Be Blood. Apart from Cardiff, Arsenal are the only Premier League side yet to lead at half time. Just five of Arsenal’s 26 league goals have been scored in the first half, despite nine of their 15 conceded coming before the break. Luckily, like Paul Thomas Anderson, Emery has managed to ramp it up in the second half. Proactive, early substitutions as well as tactical tweaks have impacted almost every game. The latest example of this has been Henrikh Mkhitaryan, whose equalizer against Wolves arrived ten minutes after he came on as a substitute.
None of this is criticism of Emery per se, with the man himself keen to stress the task at hand way back in May. “I don't promise we will win but I can promise you we will work hard," he said during his very first press conference. Emery has been true to his word, with Arsenal leading the Premier League in distance covered, totalling 1375.7km, and are fourth in total sprints, behind Liverpool, Manchester City and Bournemouth. It’s worth noting that Arsenal’s work rate increased last season, with the introduction of Darren Burgess as Director of High Performance, but Emery’s additional impact has been immediate.
More hard work will certainly be needed as Emery enters a crucial part of his first season in charge. When domestic football resumes this weekend, Arsenal face Bournemouth, Spurs and Manchester United in the space of eleven days, with a trip to the Ukraine chucked in for good measure. After a positive display against Liverpool, performances during this run will determine whether people are into this new Arsenal or not.
Whether better or worse, this Arsenal certainly feels different. This season has already contained moments that, in the past, would have been met with the same furore as a female Doctor Who. At a club where the tiniest setback was enough to light the touch paper, it all feels very calm. Too calm. Even the announcement that Aaron Ramsey will most likely leave the club for free has barely created a spark. Well, this is change and change is what the people wanted. And, whilst it might not translate into immediate success, this latest Arsenal reboot is a welcome break from the tired, formulaic outings of old.