So: was Unai Emery’s first season at Arsenal better than Arsene Wenger’s last?
It should be an easy question to answer because sport usually provides clarity, but at Arsenal such is the pace of change that we tend to read runes, over many decades, rather than arrive at snap judgements. Arsenal fans are more like climate change scientists or evolutionary biologists than football fans; you are forced to compare almost microscopic shifts in pattern, temperature and genes in order to come up with tentative theories that may eventually be disproved in 10 seasons’ time.
Is fifth better than sixth? Yes, but only in the way that 15th is better than 16th. Is losing 4-1 in the Europa League final better than losing 3-0 in the league cup, as we did last year? I would argue that it is — we scored a goal, and it was 0-0 at half-time in the Europa League. I would, however, respect the view of anyone who argued that letting in four goals in 20-odd minutes is worse than letting in three over 90.
Is our calamitous defence any better? Statistics should be able to clear that up. We conceded 51 goals this season, compared to… oh. We conceded 51 last season, too. Attack? 74 goals scored last season, 73 this. So the attack is worse, except… not really.
Last autumn, after the predictable defeats at home to Man City and away at Chelsea were out of the way, things felt very different indeed. I sit behind the Arsenal manager’s technical area but Wenger didn’t use it that much, especially in the past few years. Every now and again he would jump off the bench and stomp over to remonstrate with the fourth official, but if technical area action was your thing, then mostly you had to content yourself with watching the tumbleweed.
Emery, however, is a blur of motion, his hands constantly guiding the ball and the players. This felt reassuring in itself, but when it became clear that his number two, Juan Carlos Carcedo, was responsible for free-kicks and corners at both ends of the pitch — he comes out and Emery drops back, as if the pair are connected mechanically — Arsenal fans in my area of the ground could convince themselves that Emery was a combination of Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola, and we were being coached by a team of crack modern technicians. So much was happening between our seats and the touchline that we hardly had time to watch the game.
Before long, the atmosphere in the ground began to change. Wenger’s teams were flat-track bullies which tended to curl up and die against better, stronger opponents, and the crowd responded appropriately, with purring appreciation or despairing silence. But in those opening months of the Emery era, Arsenal, often inspired by the warrior-like Lucas Torreira, got stuck in. We came from behind to beat Tottenham and to draw with Liverpool, and the sleepy, stupefied Emirates roared its appreciation.
If you had asked any Arsenal fan on the night of April 1, after a 2-0 home win against Newcastle that lifted us to third in the league, whether Emery’s first season had been a success, they would all have answered in the affirmative. “We’re competitive again,” we said that night. “We have a very good chance of finishing in the top four and there may be a Cup to come, too. That’s all we wanted. To be in the running in April.”
As it turned out, we wanted more than that and we’d been kidding ourselves. What we specifically didn’t want was to collapse, in a wearyingly familiar fashion, when it mattered. Emery lost 10 games this year, three fewer defeats than in the season before, but four of the 10 came in April. If just one of them — and I’m looking at you, Arsenal 2, Crystal Palace 3 — had been converted into a win, we would have finished third. If the woeful 1-1 draw at home to Brighton had finished 2-1, we’d have come fourth. Fine margins, yes, but a Champions League place was presented to Emery on a plate and his team turned up its collective nose. Manchester United and Chelsea might not be so obliging next year, although both teams look to have at least as many problems as Arsenal as things stand.
In the end, it felt like the club suffers from some kind of hereditary disease, passed on from generation to generation. We used to blame Wenger and the kinds of players he liked, the technically gifted, physically unimposing attacking midfielders who seemed to occupy every position on the pitch. Torreira, Granit Xhaka and Sokratis Papastathopoulos are of a different build and complexion entirely but it doesn’t make any difference, apparently. The post-Invincibles Arsenal team will always flake out on you when it matters, no matter who’s playing or coaching.
Some of the more excitable members of the Arsenal community — perhaps those with no interest in evolutionary biology — want Emery out already. That seems premature to me. Only two of the starting 11 in the Europa final in May were Emery buys although a third, the goalkeeper Bernd Leno, was on the bench, apparently as a sentimental gesture to Petr Cech, and a fourth, Stephan Lichtsteiner, should, I respectfully suggest, never have been signed in the first place.
This summer, however, is critical. My sources inside the club tell me that the decision to release Aaron Ramsey was down to Emery and Emery alone, and that the player was ready to sign a new deal. Emery took one look at him and decided, clearly, that he wasn’t worth the money being offered.
Even this seemed exciting at the time, reminiscent of Wenger deciding that Paul Merson wasn’t good enough for Arsenal and shipping him out. “Paul Merson! We love Paul Merson! And he’s not good enough? Bring it on!” And Wenger did. Unfortunately, Emery took a second look at Ramsey and apparently decided that he was, after all, an important part of his plans and indeed, the business-end of the collapse began with Ramsey’s season-ending injury in Naples. Unless Ramsey’s replacement is at least as good, fans will quickly resent the loss of someone who could be frustrating, but whose two Cup Final-winning goals, and a decade-long commitment to the club, have earned him Official Club Legend status.
And then there is the perennial Mesut Ozil problem. Ozil is, of course, a genius. That goal he scores when he bounces the ball into the ground and deceives the keeper… who does that? Who can even think about doing that? But he is also absurdly, ruinously absent on big occasions — compare and contrast with Eden Hazard‘s performance for Chelsea in the Europa League final — and you must reluctantly conclude that no team with ambition can afford Ozil, financially or in any other sense. Yet a couple of times this season Emery attempted to play without either Ramsey or Ozil, as next season he surely must permanently, and it wasn’t a pretty sight.
Arsenal fans are used to pretty sights and if the choice is between fifth place and no Champions League football, and sixth place with the occasional breath-taking moment of beauty, the Emirates crowd may decide that the grass was not, after all, greener.
Two of the best goals I have ever seen were scored this season, under Emery, within 10 days of each other. One was by Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, against Leicester, an incredible team goal that involved a flick from Ozil, a dummy by Ozil and an extraordinary sliced pass by Ozil. The other was also an incredible team goal, away at Fulham. It involved a pass from Ramsey, a flick from Ramsey, a headed pass from Ramsey and a back-heel into the net from Ramsey.
I hope that this is the football that Emery wants to play. I hope, too, that he knows the players he wants to play it. Perhaps some of the youngsters — Emile Smith Rowe, say, or Bukayo Saka, or Reiss Nelson — may provide the missing Wenger-esque pieces of the Emery puzzle… in which case, we are back to the old club promise of jam tomorrow, and more reading of the runes.
As ever in London N5, the jury is out.