Change can sometimes be a very daunting thing, especially after 22 years of consistency.
Vast change is what Arsenal were facing at the beginning of this season following the departure of longstanding servant, Arsène Wenger. The commanding presence he had over the club which he constructed over his 22-year tenure was suddenly gone and ultimately the task of taking over from an accomplished manager such as Wenger was always going to be a demanding one.
Unai Emery was the man chosen to supersede Wenger at Arsenal and there were extremely high expectations of him as the season got underway. Yet, this has not phased the Spaniard in the slightest and the Gunners currently sit fourth in the table with seven wins and 22 points, only four behind the current league leaders. He has seemed to set the Emirates alight early on in his tenure – but just how has he achieved this empathic start and how is this new-look side different to Arsenal’s Wenger era?
Arsène Wenger had put his tactical stamp on Arsenal Football Club. The team were renowned for playing ‘the Wenger way’ – a way of playing football that had been ingrained in the identity of the club over the course of two decades – so to appoint a manager with a tactical style so starkly contrasting to Wenger’s in Emery was a bold move by Stan Kroenke and the men in suits at Arsenal.
Wenger’s footballing distinctiveness embodied an exuberant and unrestricted attacking brand of football; a laissez-faire approach by the Frenchman that allowed talented and creative players like Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp to thrive in the final third of the pitch and fire Arsenal to the acquisition of multiple pieces of silverware in an enchanting manner. Emery, on the other hand, brings meticulous and organised football to the Emirates. No longer are Arsenal playing ‘the Wenger way’; a way that brought Arsenal success but whose stubbornness to that fixed style brought discontent among supporters, instead they are playing in a way which allows the team to be fluid and to adapt to their opposition in a daunting way.
Adaptation is key for Emery and patience is key for the fans. This season, Arsenal have regularly lined up in a 4-2-3-1 formation with the clinical Alexandre Lacazette spearheading the attack and finally finding his form. However, Emery has demonstrated countless times that this formation is certainly not fixed, regularly shifting into a 4-4-2 to incorporate Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang alongside Lacazette to really punish tentative defences like Fulham’s three-man defence at Craven Cottage three weeks ago – a game finishing 5-1 to Emery’s side.
Where Wenger and Emery do have similarities, however, is in their centricity on attacking football; with Emery choosing to overload the final third of the pitch to provide more passing options as well as creating pockets of space where Arsenal’s high-toned passing style can create chances. Whilst this eager attacking style perhaps puts a lot of pressure on the two central sitting midfielders to provide passing support as well as covering channels in the event of a counter attack; Arsenal’s unique passing style has proved efficient countless times this season as we saw in fixtures vs Fulham and Leicester respectively and it is a style which is still being perfected by Emery himself.
The Spaniard’s attacking football requires every player to work as an individual cog in a well-oiled machine – a principal highlighted clearly by Shkrodran Mustafi’s position at the top of Arsenal’s passing standings; despite playing at centre-back. The Spaniard favours his full-backs, in Nacho Monreal and Hector Bellerin, to dart forward and either draw defenders away from Arsenal’s attacking players or fulfil roles on the attacking flanks to put balls into the box – a move that is clearly paying off with Bellerin playing a crucial part in all three of Arsenal’s goals against Leicester.
The attacking full-backs shift passing responsibilities onto Mustafi and Rob Holding, whom are expected to play long passes out to the flanks or balls vertically from their high defensive line, creating swift attacking moves from Arsenal’s own half. However, an overhaul of attacking responsibilities clearly leads to more chances conceded from counter-attacks. Arsenal sit second only to Manchester United in goals conceded from teams in the top-half of the table with 13 – 10 more goals than Manchester City who are only one-point ahead of the Gunners. The new integration of confident sweeper-keeper Bernd Leno in place of veteran Petr Čech is certainly an attempt to limit the concession of goals, but Unai Emery clearly embodies the “we’ll score more than you” philosophy whilst manning the Arsenal squad.
Change can certainly be a rugged process, especially change through the prominent contrast between Wenger and his successor. Whilst creases most-certainly need to be ironed out and the current side are world’s apart from “the Invincibles”, lets not kid ourselves, it wouldn’t be hyperbolic to suggest that the Gunners are starting to look like a real threat again – a step in the right direction from the bleak end of Wenger’s reign.
Without a doubt, this is a new-look Arsenal and a new-look that other big Premier League sides aren’t best pleased to see.