By Lee Drake
Unai Emery’s Arsenal have had an up-and-down season. They started off with an impressive, if a little flattering, unbeaten run of 22 games in all competitions but have now finished outside the top four after amassing an embarrassing 7 points from a possible 21 in the league. Most pundits would agree that any new manager at a club will need time to shape their project but the doubts around Arsène Wenger’s successor will naturally start creeping into media and fan discourse if they fail to win the Europa League after also finishing outside of the Champions League qualification spots.
Although numerous Twitter accounts and Youtube channels would have you believe otherwise, many fans are reasoned, level-headed individuals who would happily give the right manager the time and resources to turn the club around. However, the most pertinent question is have they appointed the right man for the job?
To blindly give a newly appointed manager three years to work their magic would be admirable but foolhardy without the right measures of progress in place. It goes without saying that a professional outfit like Arsenal would have given Emery targets to hit but, in an industry with such fine lines between success and failure, how do you measure improvement when narrowly missing out on a league position or a cup victory doesn’t necessarily mean a team has failed to make progress?
American biochemist and winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, Roger D. Kornberg defines his own measure of progress as:
‘I never thought of it in terms of time or years but only in terms of solutions to problems. I always felt that if I did something that represented a step forward on a given day, that was something solid, it was something that I could build upon.’
As such the question is, have Arsenal addressed their problems and has Emery given them a better base upon which to build throughout the rest of his tenure? In order to answer that question, we need to first look at the issues he inherited.
At the end of last season, Arsenal lost Santi Cazorla, Jack Wilshere and Per Mertesacker to other clubs and retirement, respectively. Naturally, this left a dent in their midfield and at the back. Emery, Chief Executive Ivan Gazidis and the appointed backroom team of Raul Sanllehi and Sven Mislintat attempted to address the change by bringing in Torreira, Guendouzi, Litchtsteiner and Sokratis.
Of the four, only Lichtsteiner could really be deemed a flop. Torreira has produced several outstanding performances in the middle of the park and has been hailed as the signing that Wenger should’ve made many years ago. Guendouzi, on the other hand, seems every bit the signing that Wenger would’ve made — young, cheap and talented. Both midfielders started brightly but, along with the rest of the team, faded as the season drew to a close.
Arguably, however, Arsenal’s best signing of the summer came in the form of the surly Greek centreback Sokratis Papastathopoulos. The very definition of a no-nonsense centre-half, Sokratis has brought an invaluable consistency to a back line that has been blighted by injuries to Laurent Koscielny and Rob Holding and erratic performances by Shkodran Mustafi. Frustratingly for Arsenal fans, Holding had been showing the signs of having a breakthrough season before his untimely ligament injury in December.
On paper, you would be hard-pushed to argue Emery’s side is any better or worse off than the one Wenger left behind, even at a time of unavoidable upheaval. He, and the team behind him, has recruited well with young talent being brought in alongside more established names and Cech’s impending retirement being offset by talented stopper Bernd Leno.
2018/2019 may have been a period of transition for Arsenal but the real test of the North London club’s recruitment policy will surely come this summer.
Emery’s Arsenal finished the season seven points better off in the league, having lost three fewer games than last year. However, this year’s crop are slightly more goal shy with 1.89 goals per match compared to last year’s 1.95.
The xG, a stat that calculates the number of goals a team is expected to score based on the perceived quality of chances it creates, tells a similar story. In Wenger’s last, and by far least impressive season, his team averaged 73.33 xG across the entire season, compared to the 62.17 for Emery’s debut year in North London. These stats suggest that Emery’s side isn’t a creative as Wenger’s but how does he stack up defensively?
Given that they conceded exactly the same number of goals this year as last, Arsenal’s xA is surprisingly disparate across the two seasons. Statistically, Emery’s side were expected to concede 8.79 fewer goals than Wenger’s despite in actuality not a single goal separating the two sides. This difference could be down to poorer goalkeeping but most fans would agree that Leno has been one of their side’s better performers.
The numbers, therefore, seem to suggest that Emery’s side is less potent going forward but more secure at the back. This is perhaps unsurprising given that attacking football was Arsène Wenger’s forte.
The statistics also suggest Wenger’s iconic brand of football is on its way out with Emery’s side completing an average of 71 fewer passes per game. However, a high number of passes isn’t actually a trait of the best Arsenal sides Arsène Wenger constructed over the years with most of his teams over the previous two decades averaging less than 500 passes per game compared to the 619 in his last season and 547 in Emery’s first, respectively.
The footballing style of Wenger’s later years at the club were not Arsenal’s finest. With the exception of a few standout goals, much of their attacking play had become turgid and unimaginative so a move away from that style would not be unwelcomed.
However, Emery’s Arsenal has shown no great strides toward the style with which Arsenal graced the Premier League in the late 90s and early 00s. Tactically, he has switched formation often and frequently relies almost exclusively on Sead Kolasinac playing a one-two to break the lines before cutting the ball back towards the penalty spot.
It is perhaps unreasonable to expect a great change in style after one year. It takes time for a manager to imprint their personality on a team. Neither Klopp’s Liverpool nor Guardiola’s City were the finished product after one season. They both needed signings and the backing of their board and fans to get to the position they are in now.
According to Roger D. Kornberg’s definition, progress is something to build upon. Football is a cut-throat business where foundations don’t win prizes and managers are often cast aside prematurely. The appointment of a new manager is always a risk. Great managers need time to make their projects come to fruition but the mercurial sporting landscape means investing time in the wrong man could be an extremely costly mistake.
The inability of boards and fans to identify and appreciate progress has cost many a manager their job and restricted the growth and curtailed the success of many clubs. At Arsenal, the board have a difficult task on their hands. If they back the wrong horse now they could lose their status as an elite club for decades to come but if their faith in Emery pays off they could be catapulted back into the upper echelons of club football. The balancing act is familiar to many but easy to none.