The relationship between Arsenal’s club and fans is a unique one to say the least. They always seem to ask the impossible of their team and are almost always disappointed. An expectation of quality, dating back to the height of Wenger’s reign, has dissipated in recent years – ultimately leading to his sacking. Even before serious protests against Wenger had begun, Arsenal had firmly established themselves as a top 4 side, not as champions.
Wenger was ousted from the club due to fan pressure: “Wenger Out” banners and protests had raised tensions to a boiling point. Emery’s appointment marked a crossroads in Arsenal’s history. Would he have an instant impact, leading Arsenal back to their day in the sun? Or would he continue Arsenal on their downwards trajectory, much like Lopetegui is doing with Real Madrid in Spain? Though still early in the season, after 9 games, the Arsenal team appear to display a style and understanding which has been lacking for some time.
Wilshere’s goal is, to me, the perfect homage to Arsenal’s past. The quality of touches and short passing had declined during Wenger’s final few years as manager, and Emery had a massive task on his hands when he first arrived. Not only did his team finish 6th last season, the lowest finish for over 20 years, but they also failed to retain their most valuable player: Alexis Sanchez. The partnership between Lacazette and Aubameyang had also failed to pay dividends.
Fast forward from Emery’s appointment to the first game of the season, a massive test for a new manager against reigning champions Manchester City. Burgeoning with hope and anticipation, Arsenal fans young and old made their way to the Emirates stadium to see their rebranded team play. But as with the first pancake from the batter, Arsenal were not at their best. They were swept aside easily by an archetypically clinical City team, and Arsenal’s season was already looking bleak.
A week later, those who still believed in their team turned up to Stamford Bridge to face London rivals Chelsea. But, like Tantalus reaching out for the fruit above, they came agonisingly close to a first point of the season, only for their efforts to be in vain. Despite going 2-0 down after 20 minutes, and with reality slowly sinking in for Arsenal fans, they fought back to 2-2 by half-time, giving the impression of a classic comeback – much like United staged against City towards the end of last season. It seemed as if they should go on to score another, only for the prolific Eden Hazard to score as the final 10 minutes edged around.
Two straight losses at the start of the season must have been a tough pill to swallow, but it is also understandable considering the players are adjusting to a new system, and then suddenly are thrust into the lion’s den two weeks in a row to begin their campaign. Many wrote Arsenal off after those initial two games. However, what followed could potentially lay the foundations for an excellent season.
Coming off the back of two disappointing defeats, Arsenal went on to win their next seven Premier League games. With 21 points after the latest game, only two behind leaders Manchester City, they now have the most positive form in the league. Emery has managed the team with aplomb, turning around a write-off season and putting them right back in the title race. Arsenal’s meteoric rise (almost) to the top could signify the start to a whole new era of success for the club. It just needs to continue through the busy winter months…
One man who has never been able to catch a break in an Arsenal shirt is Mesut Özil. Despite his undeniable quality, he has been called lazy and uninterested. To be fair, he has had his fair share of lacklustre performances. The issue is that he came with such a reputation that anything other than perfection would be regarded as failure. Wenger was unable to capture his magic, but under Emery he seems transformed. Maybe it is due to the recent controversy surrounding his early retirement from the German team. It is possible he now seeks to prove a point. If there’s one thing that is certain, though, it is that Emery will not be complaining – and neither will the fans.
Özil has scored 3 goals in the first 9 games, almost reaching his tally of 4 from last season. This in itself is a clear improvement, but beyond the goal-scoring, there is a glimpse of something even more impressive. During the most recent match, against Leicester, he both scored and assisted, yet had a level of influence on the game he now rarely ever reaches. He seemed to be everywhere on the pitch, controlling the game. He played with the finesse of a much younger Özil. The sort of play that turned heads in the early days of his career.
As well as his contribution to the goals, he managed to play through Bellerin perfectly to assist Aubameyang’s first. His sublime passing demonstrated why Arsenal payed so much for him in the first place. A classic performance. It is this level of play that can make him for Arsenal what Hazard is for Chelsea. He could be the talisman. He could be the key to unlocking Arsenal’s renewed potential.
One of Wenger’s faults last season, in my opinion, was his choice of formation. With the arrival of Sead Kolasinac, Wenger dabbled with wing-backs and 3 central defenders, imitating the successful Chelsea layout of the previous season. But it didn’t work last year, as the defensive capabilities of the full-backs was poor. This was a major part of their defensive problems. The offensive mindset of the wing-backs would have been fine, if they had contributed enough goals to match those conceded. However, asking Bellerin to play defensively is like asking a horse to ‘moo’. The somewhat expected result is, well, Arsenal finished 6th.
This year, Emery is bringing back the classic 4 at the back approach. As well as this, he is playing Lacazette and Aubameyang together (something Wenger ignored for some time). The slightly deeper full backs provide a stronger, wider defence. The inclusion of both strikers provides a more creative, faster attacking edge.
Emery’s Arsenal evolves the classic idea of Arsenal’s creative attack, whilst also redefining the defensive structure they used to thrive on. Despite their rough start, Arsenal promise to provide excitement this season. With the best form and, arguably, the best striking pair in the country, anything is possible. Everyone is talking of the “top three” as referring to Chelsea, Liverpool, and City. At the current rate, by Christmas, Arsenal may well just be the team on everyone’s lips.
Arsenal’s season-defining fixture against Liverpool on November 3 will tell us if they really have what it takes.