While we all wanted change, any change, in response to the stale, dreary atmosphere around the club in Arsène’s final season, I am not sure any of us really anticipated just how much of a breath of fresh air our new Basque Head Coach would prove to be. Now with fifteen league games played including one each against each of the other ‘Big Six’ clubs, it feels like an appropriate time to stop, take stock and to try to analyse why things feel so much better at the club than they had been for a long time?
This time a year ago Arsenal had just been humbled 3-1 at home by Manchester United in a match where, if I remember correctly, defensive fragility and bluntness in front of goal aided and abetted by another world class performance from an opposition goalkeeper, David DeGea, proved their undoing. They stood in fifth place in the table with 28 points. This time around they have 3 more points; while this isn’t a major improvement so much feels different around the club, the team and most noticeably amongst the fanbase.
From the very start of the season there has been a freshness about Arsenal under their new coach. Even in the defeats in the first two games at home to Man City and away at Chelsea there was the sense of a new mentality, a will to win, a suspicion gleaned from soundbites and rumours emerging form the training ground that the molly-coddling and indulgence of the players was over. There were suggestions of double training sessions, carried out with a much higher intensity, of more running, fitness and strength work and of course Emery’s famed almost obsessively meticulous attention to tactical detail.
On the pitch the style of play is noticeably different with an evident focus on trying to win the ball higher up the pitch, to play out from the back and, to quote the coach himself, ‘a greater verticality’ to our attacking play. It is this new, more exciting style of play combined with his all too clear involvement on the touchline that has encouraged the Gooner faithful, and seemingly the players, to take to the new coach, understand his philosophy and appreciate what he is trying to achieve. Plus of course an unbeaten run of twenty games in all competitions has also inevitably helped the cause.
In the latter seasons of Wenger’s tenure those of us that had fully accepted that change was not only needed but in fact long overdue, were often warned by those still remaining loyal to the long-serving manager to be ‘careful what we wished for’; with the situation at Manchester United being cited as an example of how things could go wrong if succession and change were not planned and managed properly. While it was certainly a concern, at this early stage things feel different at Arsenal. Although this may be in no small part due to how stale things had become at the club meaning that anything at all different would be seen as an improvement.
While Emery isn’t solely responsible, unlike his predecessor, for player recruitment now that the club have updated their management structure; the new players that have come in have for the most part impressed. Leno looks to be the ball-playing goalkeeper that the modern game requires, Lichsteiner and Sokratis have added the steel, niggle and cool (cynical?) professionalism that Arsenal have lacked since the breakup of the Invincibles, Guendouzi is an exciting prospect and carries all the hallmarks of a player that will be a big part of the club for a long time, and Lucas Torreira has simply been a revelation, the type of player that the team has been crying out for since Gilberto Silva was allowed to leave.
As things stand, Arsenal are the second highest scoring team in the Premier League so far this season and are scoring at a rate of more than two goals per game, and there is an excitement and fluidity to their attacking play not seen for so long and reminiscent of the swashbuckling style of the thrilling teams of the first decade of Wenger’s tenure.
There is also a new toughness through the team, no longer the soft under-bellied, easy to bully, side of the last ten years or so, but much more resilient and up for the fight as characterised by the scenes on the touchline after Dier’s equalizer last Sunday.
However, for all the feel-good factor and the sense that things are moving in the right direction, there does remain the feeling that the project is still very much a work in progress, that several more transfer windows and some pruning of the squad is still required if Arsenal are ever to mount a creditable title challenge for the first time since it all fell apart on that fateful day at St Andrews back in 2008.
For all the attacking flair demonstrated thus far, there remains a fragility at the back, a potential to concede goals cheaply through avoidable errors as characterised by the two goals conceded immediately after taking the lead each time at Old Trafford on Wednesday evening.
After twenty-two games in charge it is becoming clearer which players Emery seems to trust to deliver his style of play and which he feels may be surplus to requirements. The starkest case in point being that of overly delicate former German international playmaker, Mesut Özil, who last featured in a match for Arsenal some three and a half weeks ago against Wolves at home. Since then Emery has adapted his system to a 3-4-3 and it remains unclear as to how Özil might slot into a formation that has no specific Number 10 role and requires a significant work rate from both an attacking and defensive point of view from its wide forwards.
If rumours are to be believed, Özil’s recent absence with a back injury may be more to do with him not being Emery’s kind of player than any physical ailment. Would it be too much of a leap to believe that the new coach has decided to jettison the highest wage earner in the squad to generate sufficient budget to keep Aaron Ramsey, a player who seems ideal for the style of football he is implementing at the club?
In reality Arsenal are not good enough yet to challenge Manchester City and Liverpool, the two standout teams in the campaign thus far, however the results and performances to date provide enough encouragement for us long-suffering Gooners to not only believe the future is bright but also that we might just be ahead of schedule in getting back to where we want to be.