Unai Emery’s first season at Arsenal technically will not end until the final whistle of the Europa League final. However, with three of four competitions now completed, this is a good time to review the Spanish manager’s first season in north London.
Arsenal went into this season with limited expectations. Unlike in Arsene Wenger’s final year in charge, no one from the club had the audacity to claim that their goal for the season was to win the league. For the Gunners, the one and only goal for the season was to qualify for the Champions League.
Their campaign got off to a bit of a rocky start, losing the opening two matches to Manchester City and Chelsea respectively. However, fortunes soon turned as the club then went on a miraculous 22-game unbeaten run.
While the performances at times left something to be desired, Emery was getting the results. For a club desperate to return to the Champions League, results are really all that matter.
However, the middle portion of the season following the unbeaten run got away from Arsenal somewhat. Losses to Southampton, West Ham and Liverpool, along with a draw to Brighton and Hove Albion, gave fans pause.
One thing that defines this Arsenal squad, though, is their lack of consistency. Just as the good times did not last, neither did the bad. Within a month of this poor run of form, they managed to defeat Chelsea 2-0 in the league.
Between that victory and the win over Manchester United by the same scoreline, Arsenal again proved their inability to maintain form, good or bad. In the Europa League, they lost to both BATE Borisov and, soon after, Stade Rennes.
Late Season Madness
From the end of the last international break to the end of the season, this inconsistency turned to complete madness. The final eight league matches of the campaign yielded just three wins and ten points. This collapse saw the Gunners stutter to a fifth-place finish.
However, they were immaculate in the Europa League. Napoli were held goalless in two legs, being dumped out 3-0 on aggregate. Then, it was Valencia’s turn. A Pierre-Emerick Aubemayeng hat trick led the way to a massive 7-3 aggregate scoreline.
There is still the Europa League final to play, but Unai Emery’s first season is nearly complete.
Marginal Gains in the League
In terms of both points and position, Unai Emery’s first season at Arsenal was a minor success. He brought the team from sixth to fifth in the table and from 63 points to 70.
However, the goals scored and allowed stats are virtually unchanged. Last season, the Gunners shipped 51 goals and netted 74. This time around, they allowed 51 and scored 73.
Emery finishes the league season with 21 wins, seven draws and ten defeats. Arsene Wenger’s last season in charge saw 19 wins, six draws and 13 defeats.
Interestingly, despite the marginal differences in points and position, Arsenal’s xG and xGA stats changed drastically.
Arsenal xG and xGA stats from the 2017/18 season
Last season, the Gunners scored an xG of 74.34, while allowed an xGA of 49.28.
Arsenal xG and xGA stats from the 2018/19 season
This year, Arsenal scored an xG of 69.05, while allowed an xGA of 59.04. In other words, despite creating lesser quality chances this season, the Gunners only scored one fewer goal. At the same time, they allowed better quality chances yet conceded at the same rate as one year ago.
xG and xGA stats courtesy of Understat.
There are two reasons for this anomaly: first, the overall quality of the club has ticked up slightly. Gone is the controversial figure of Alexis Sanchez, who sapped the team of emotional energy. Gone is the inconsistent finishing of Olivier Giroud, who was not quite of the calibre required at Arsenal.
Now, the club have Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette up front. These two not only get along like yin and yang, but they are also both quality finishers.
The second reason for this difference is the player’s mentality. Last season when things went wrong, the players would drop their heads and retreat within themselves. This allowed their opponents to walk all over them.
Emery has also found a way to help his players keep their concentration. Under Wenger, whenever Arsenal would try to defend a result, they would concede. While they are still not defensively secure enough to challenge Manchester City or Liverpool, there has been a real change in attitude.
Europe and the Cups
As far as the season outside of the league, only the Europa League mattered. Winning silverware is nice, but neither the League nor FA Cups can get a club into the Champions League. Therefore, neither of these competitions really mattered on the balance of the season.
In the League Cup, Arsenal were knocked out by Tottenham Hotspur in the quarterfinal, a decent run. In the FA Cup, it was Manchester United who ended the Gunners’ hopes in the fourth round. While that was an early exit, losing out to the Red Devils is no ignominious feat.
Only the Europa League mattered out of the cups. Unai Emery knew it and did what was necessary to make the final. It was not always pretty; losses to both BATE Borisov and Stade Rennes prove that much.
At the end of the day, however, it is all about who wins the tie. Unlike Wenger, Emery has gotten his club to the final and to the precipice of the Champions League.
One More Year?
Whether or not Unai Emery’s first season at Arsenal has been a success is down to the Europa League final. He was given one goal; deliver Champions League football.
However, does that mean his future rides on that one result? Certainly, before the late-season collapse, the answer was no. After all, Emery has improved the squad and challenged the likes of Spurs, Chelsea and United.
After the collapse, fans are now wondering. There is a contingent which already believes the club are worse off now than one year ago, despite the slight improvement in the league table.
One thing to bear in mind is that Stan Kroenke is a patient owner. He was willing to give Wenger time to right the ship, no doubt he will do the same with Emery. Especially for a manager who has only had the job one year, not 20.
Count on seeing Unai Emery at Arsenal next season. Whether or not they will be in the Champions League remains to be seen.
Unai Emery’s first season at Arsenal has been nothing if not inconsistent.
He has seen the highs of a 4-2 derby win and the lows of a 3-0 thrashing to a newly-promoted side. He has improved the player’s mentality, yet seen them fade during the season.
We have also seen his pragmatism at work. He is not afraid to change his tactics, formation or personnel between matches or even during them. Emery is also not afraid to make an unpopular decision, like bench Mesut Ozil.
He is certainly different from Wenger, although shares his inconsistency. Has Emery been a success? Yes, although with caveats. He has improved the club yet shown there is plenty of work to be done.
He has earned one more year in the job, although is he the manager of the future for Arsenal? Or just a transition manager meant to do one job, qualify for the Champions League?
We will see in one year’s time.
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