Change was called for at The Emirates and after one his first season in charge; Did Unai Emery deliver?
There was a fresh wave of optimism at The Emirates going into the 2018-19 season. Flanked by Ivan Gazidis and with one of Europe’s best sporting directors in Sven Mislintat bringing in new talent to the club, Emery had promised that Arsenal would be the protagonist and play with personality, and when not in possession – there would be intense pressing. Ultimately, the season ended with a whimper of a 4-1 defeat to Chelsea in the Europa League final and a handful of performances that matched the Spaniard’s vision.
So what happened in the 2018-19 season for Arsenal?
Emery was handed a nightmare opening two fixtures – home to reigning champions Manchester City and away to the club that dethroned them as Kings of London – Chelsea. Both fixtures ended in defeat, but there were signs of hope in the Chelsea game. Coming back from 2 goals down to go in level at half-time having created a number of clear cut chances that were spurned; Emery tinkered with his side and the attacking fluidity was sacrificed, with the Blues ending up as the victors. Those games were considered a write-off and the season was to officially begin at home to West Ham 3 games in.
A fortunate 3-1 victory would be the start of a much heralded but flawed and fortunate 22-game unbeaten run. There was much to work on at Arsenal but they were getting the rub of the green in this transitional period. There were signs of promise and the free-flowing football of old in the games against Leicester City and Fulham. A new approach to big games was taken in matches against Liverpool and a season-high home victory against Spurs. However, poor performances against Everton, Wolves & Huddersfield still saw the team come away with points; the hallmark of any good team.
Arsenal’s Away form on the surface had improved, wins were achieved at Cardiff, Fulham, Bournemouth & Newcastle whilst the points were shared at Selhurst Park & Old Trafford. Arsenal fans were loving life under Emery. They declared after the 5-1 victory against Fulham that they “had their Arsenal back” and appeared vindicated in their call for change. There were players who were also showing signs of improvement under Emery’s tenure such as Rob Holding and Hector Bellerin. Holding as the most technical central defender was at home, playing out from the back and Bellerin was relishing being a chief creative outlet at right-back. An injury suffered against Manchester United in November cut Holding’s season short and likewise, Bellerin’s season came to an end a couple of months later against Chelsea.
The Europa League was Emery’s speciality and it was proceeding as planned; along with Chelsea, Arsenal were the best equipped to win the competition and anything but an appearance in the final would be considered below par. Stronger sides were participating in the competition than in previous campaigns but there was still room for youngsters like Emile Smith Rowe to continue to show the form and promise he showed in pre-season. In the final home group game, a team of promising youngsters was put out, some of which may have expected a little more game time at that stage of the competition in a group that featured Qarabag and Vorskla Poltava. As expected, the Gunners finished the group top and unbeaten.
The 22-match run came to an end away to Southampton amidst some eye-opening selections and decisions from Emery against an out of form team who had just changed their manager. The former Sevilla tactician played a back 3 of Xhaka, Koscielny and Stephan Lichtsteiner in conjunction with Bellerin and Monreal in the wing-back positions. Injuries and suspension had led to this selection but there had been a more pragmatic element creeping into the Arsenal’s game. This is not the worst thing when playing against better teams but opting for such strategies against relegation-threatened sides is certainly a curveball. This approach had seen Arsenal struggle to get past Huddersfield Town at home the previous week. At St Mary’s, their luck finally ran out. Another take away from this result was the lack of a Hale End defender in the matchday squad when the team was ravaged by suspensions and injuries to defensive personnel.
The next 5 games produced 2 victories at strugglers Fulham & Burnley, a disappointing draw away to Brighton, a loss to West Ham and a humiliating 5-1 defeat at Anfield. The North London club were also humbled at home in the FA Cup by a resurgent Man United as the inadequacies of the last 2 seasons were resurfacing. During this stretch, Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Ozil, the side’s two best midfielders, started only two games between them and did not start together once as the team looked bereft of attacking creativity. The combination of players not doing their jobs or making individual errors coupled with poor managerial decisions had not been completely assigned to the past.
Next up in the league was a huge game in the top 4 race against Chelsea. Emery got his tactics and selection spot on with Ramsey returning to a No. 10 role and the side producing the kind of display the Gunners boss had promised at the start of season. This was the first performance of its kind since the home victory in the North London derby in November. Ramsey’s introduction changed the game and the 2-0 victory kept Arsenal in contention for the top 4.
February did not get off to the best start for Arsenal as they suffered an expected defeat at the hands of Manchester City at the Etihad courtesy of a Sergio Aguero hat-trick. The Europa League campaign restarted on Valentine’s day away to BATE, that resulted in an away defeat that would not appease the beloved fans in any way, shape or form. Sporting Director Sven Mislintat also walked away from his role at the club.
Those 2 results aside, the month proved to be a good one for the club with wins against Huddersfield, Southampton and Bournemouth. They also turned around the tie against BATE Borisov. The fixture list was kind to Arsenal in the run-up to the eagerly anticipated contest against Tottenham at the beginning of March. 75% of Arsenal games were at home and their one away day was against bottom of the table Huddersfield.
In the last few seasons, the home team has usually taken the spoils in the North London Derby. However, Mauricio Pochettino’s side were on a terrible run of form that had seen them go from title contenders to top 4 strugglers. The game ended 1-1 with Leno making a fantastic double save and Aubameyang missing a penalty at the death to clinch the tie. Nevertheless, it was a point gained and it was a case of one step forward and two steps back in the league as Arsenal lost the first leg of their Europa quarter-final against Rennes 3-1. This was followed by an impressive home victory against top 4 rivals Man United, leaving Champions League qualifications in their own hands with a favourable April fixture list.
April started well enough with a 2-0 home victory against Newcastle that left Arsenal 1 point behind Spurs with a game in hand. They had appeared to get it together at crunch time. However, the inconsistencies continued as Emery and Co. suffered a blip away to Everton the following week but redeemed themselves with victories against Napoli and Watford.
Following Tottenham’s defeat to champions-elect City, Arsenal had to opportunity to go 3rd with a victory at home to Crystal Palace. The Gunners’ home form in the league over the last 2 seasons had been that of a side that should be competing for the title and not just a place in the Top 4; in the 2017/18 campaign, Arsenal’s home record was just 3 points off Man City who had amassed a record-breaking points tally of 100 points. At this point in the season, Arsenal had only lost at home to the Sky Blues on the league on the 1st day of the season.
Just when everything seemed to be heading in the right direction, Arsenal collapsed to a 3-2 defeat against Palace. The individual defensive errors that have plagued the team for the last 2 years came back to bite them again as Shkodran Mustafi gave the opposition a helping hand in two of their 3 goals. Arsenal were still in pole position to finish in the top four, but this was the start of a terrible end to the Premier League season.
Arsenal then faced two tough away trips to Europa League hopefuls Wolves and Leicester and what transpired was nothing short of an embarrassment. Arsenal lost 3-1 at Molineux and were second best from the first to the last minute. After two losses on the bounce, Arsenal went to Leicester desperately needing a win to keep their hopes of finishing in the top 4 alive. Despite all that was riding on the game, they somehow managed to turn in an even worse performance. Arsenal were completely passive as Leicester romped to a comfortable 3-0 victory, outshooting the Gunners 24 to 6 and having 67% possession to Arsenal’s 33%.
While some may point to Ainsley Maitland-Niles’ first-half dismissal after a soft second yellow, there was no excuse for Arsenal’s poor showing. They showed no intent to win the ball back, simply sitting off and allowing Leicester to do what they wanted in possession and when they did have the ball, they were sloppy and uninventive. Despite Tottenham and Chelsea’s best efforts to gift Arsenal a place in the top 4 (both teams failed to win their games) they were throwing away their shot at guaranteed Champions League football in spectacular fashion.
Arsenal began the final month of the season with their backs against the wall. With top 4 now out of their hands, the Europa League was seemingly their best chance of qualifying for the Champions League. A semi-final tie with Valencia lay ahead and Arsenal simply had to win and win they did. Star strikers Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang laid waste to Valencia’s defence with the Frenchman scoring a brace and his Gabonese partner getting the 3rd goal in stoppage time to secure a 3-1 1st leg victory and ensure that the Gunners headed to the Mestalla with a great chance of qualifying for the final. The away leg ended in a similar fashion with Aubameyang (3) and Lacazette (1) firing Arsenal to a 4-2 victory sending Arsenal to the final in Baku with a convincing 7-3 aggregate scoreline.
The Valencia tie was a perfect analogy of Arsenal’s season. Defensive frailties and a lack of dynamism in midfield meant that Valencia created a steady flow of chances across the two legs but Arsenal’s electric striking duo struck seemingly out of nowhere every time it looked like Valencia were beginning to get control of the game. The quality of all 4 goals in the second leg are a testament to just how good Lacazette and Aubameyang are. A perfect example of high quality finishing in high-pressure situations from two high-quality strikers.
Sandwiched between the two Valencia games was yet another embarrassing league result. A 1-1 draw at home to Brighton all but ended Arsenal’s hopes of finishing in the top four and spoiled Aaron Ramsey’s farewell. He was by far one of the best and most impactful players in the Emirates era. Arsenal ended their league campaign with a 3-1 victory against Burnley finishing just 1 point behind Tottenham in 4th. Meaning that had they won just 1 of their 2 home games against Crystal Palace or Brighton they would have qualified for the Champions League.
Arsenal’s final game of the season was the Europa League final against Chelsea in Baku. Arsenal’s entire season and the immediate future of the club hinged on this fixture. Win and the season could be deemed successful and Arsenal would have had the money and stature that comes with playing in the Champions League to help them continue to rebuild their squad. What happened in Baku was an embarrassment of the highest order. Arsenal lost 4-1 to London rivals Chelsea, putting in a performance that was not even worthy of a pre-season friendly, let alone a European final.
After climbing two-thirds of the mountain, that final defeat sent Arsenal crashing back down to earth. They now have to start the same journey all over again.
Player of the Season – Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang
Arsenal’s forward line was a bright spark in an otherwise dull team and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s goals papered over large cracks for the majority of the season. The Gabonese was a consistent goal threat throughout the season despite Arsenal’s glaring lack of midfield creativity and was the team’s top scorer in both the Premier League (22) and the Europa League (8). His pace, movement and ability to explode into life when seemingly on the periphery of the game have been key to some of Arsenal’s best performances of the season.
Notably the 4-2 home win over Spurs where he scored a brace and his hat-trick in a 4-2 win away at Valencia. His partnership with Alexandre Lacazette has been a joy to watch and it is tough to choose between the two but Aubameyang’s 31 goal haul in an otherwise average team is too impressive to ignore.
The Player With A Point To Prove – Joe Willock n/a
Joe Willock managed to get one start in the Premier League in a dead rubber and had a cameo in the disastrous Europa Final against Chelsea. In his brief cameo, he showed all the industry and energy that Arsenal lacked in the final month of the season. Willock had been excelling for the u23s all season and deserved more game time in Premier League, especially with the injury to Aaron Ramsey. In his cameo in the Europa, it felt like he was proving a point to Emery and the underachieving “superstars”; Arsenal may already be in possession of their Ramsey replacement and he appears to be eager to prove that
Manager – Unai Emery – 5/10
Unai Emery arrived at Arsenal with a reputation as a meticulous but pragmatic manager. And despite initial talk of ‘protagonism’ and some expansive early season performances, Emery reverted to his original type at the business end of the season. Emery’s careful and almost obsessive consideration of the opposition’s threat can be his biggest strength and also his downfall. In big games, this approach has been fruitful with Arsenal’s results against top 6 rivals improving hugely. Illustrated by the fact that they were 3rd in the top 6 mini leagues this season compared to 6th last season. But Arsenal’s turgid performances against lesser teams was what eventually cost them a place in the top 4.
Arsenal showed too much respect to teams below them in the table, often sitting back and allowing them to have possession of the ball as well as attacking in a very slow structured manner, not allowing for much freedom of movement in attack. Emery has produced impressive tactical showings and clear errors in equal measure. This is best encapsulated by him playing 5 defenders and 2 holding midfielders in an embarrassing defeat to West Ham one week and then playing Aaron Ramsey at the top of a diamond to nullify Jorginho in a dominant 2-0 win against Chelsea the next. The awful end to the season after being in a great position to qualify for the Champions League has left a question mark over Emery and his ability to guide the team in the right direction.
Season Rating 4/10 –
A par performance before the season would have been a Top 6 finish and Europa Final, Arsenal achieved that. However, the performances in the last month of the season left a lot to be desired. Both Manager and players alike massively underperformed at the pivotal stage of the season. One win against either of Brighton, Wolves, Crystal Palace, Leicester or Chelsea would have seen the club qualify for the Champions League. When you look at it like this, with all the highs and lows taken into consideration, Arsenal’s season was below par. The high point being the 4-2 home victory against Spurs in November; the low point being the last month of the season.
The Road Ahead –
If Arsenal are to get back to the level that they once were and beyond, they must accept the level that they are now at and that there is a long road ahead. Sacrifices are necessary and the club must make astute appointments in the scouting and coaching departments. The club must look to youth and their Hale End academy which has several exciting prospects; Tyrese John Jules, Xavier Amaechi, Bukayo Saka, Emile Rowe Smith, Joe Willock and Daniel Ballard are all players that deserve to get some extended first-team action, not just a meaningless 2 minutes at the end of a game to run down the clock.
Reiss Nelson and Krystian Bielik have been on loan and are due back at the club. Both are also players that are ready for a chance to show that they have the attitude that many of the established stars at the club lack. It may not be perfect all the time, but it cannot be any worse than what has been seen in the final months of the season. Emery was told he had to integrate more academy players into the first team as part of his brief. The failure to qualify for the Champions League leaves the club as the least attractive prospect of the Top 6 and with the least amount of money. Now is the time to turn to Hale End; teams like Ajax, Spurs & Lyon have utilised their academies to great effect. The rumoured promotion of Freddie Ljungberg from the u23s to the first team might be an indication of intent to promote youth from Emery.
Read More | Borussia Dortmund Season Report | 2018/2019