So far the 2019/20 season is proving to be the difficult second album for Arsenal boss Unai Emery.
Not that his first year at the helm was a chart-topper, mind you. The Gunners had two chances to secure Champions League football – through their Premier League finish and the Europa League final against Chelsea – and blew both in spectacular fashion.
Former Gunners midfielder Ray Parlour is among the dissenting voices and, while he is evidently extremely loyal to former boss Arsène Wenger, what he says still carries weight.
“No, it’s not better (than when Wenger was in charge), but it is a real opportunity,” Parlour said on talkSPORT.
“After we started really well, people were going: ‘Oh we can challenge for the title’, and I said no chance!
“If they come fourth, it’s a great season. Champions League football is the most important thing for Arsenal now going forward.
“If they come fifth or sixth this year it has been a failure again. Because they went into the transfer market and I think everyone was quite excited about the signings.”
By the end of Wenger’s torturous final season, there were five main complaints levelled against the legendary boss. Has Emery fared any better in resolving them than his predecessor did?
We’ve taken a closer look…
1. The woeful lack of leaders in the dressing room
It’s a topic which has reared its ugly head again this season following Emery’s decision to make public his five-strong leadership group. That – somewhat unfairly – drew derision from all quarters with most deciding to overlook the fact Emery was simply confirming the hierarchy for the captain’s armband throughout the course of the season.
His big mistake, though, was making Granit Xhaka the club’s permanent captain. Paul Merson felt new-boy David Luiz should have been awarded the armband which, in itself, underlined the paucity of options available to the Arsenal boss.
Regardless, making the unpopular Swiss midfielder effectively undroppable was a decision which baffled supporters and pundits alike. One can only assume he’s held in very high regard within the dressing room.
The days of Tony Adams, Steve Bould, Martin Keown, Patrick Vieira are long gone. Arsenal cannot simply buy players of that ilk and nor are they trying to. The challenge is holding onto their most talented players long enough for them to become leaders.
Verdict: While there’s been no improvement, it’s hard to mark Emery down for it.
2. Defensively suspect
The hope was ditching Shkodran Mustafi and replacing him with Luiz would go a long way to curing Arsenal’s defensive woes. But the German remains on the books and the former Chelsea defender has been unconvincing.
During Wenger’s final season at the helm, Arsenal’s expected goals against (xGA) per 90 was 1.14. In Emery’s first 47 games manager there’s been a steep incline to 1.52 xGA per 90. But that’s only expected goals. In terms of actual goals conceded, the Gunners shipped 1.34 per game in Wenger’s final season and the same under Emery.
Furthermore, the Gunners are also facing more shots per 90 (13.7 vs. 11.13) and allowing their opponents more of the ball. The average duration of the opposition’s possession has risen from 8.7 seconds to 9.12.
For all the good work Arsenal did in last summer’s transfer window, the failure to land a top-class centre-back still haunts them. RB Leipzig‘s Dayot Upamecano was one reported target but he remained in the Bundesliga. The Gunners are paying the price now.
Verdict: The numbers say it all – Arsenal are, somehow, worse than ever defensively.
3. An over-reliance on Aubameyang and Lacazette
Having two forwards of the calibre of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette is a blessing and a curse. While they’re highly reliable goalscorers who work well in tandem, they are Arsenal’s only real threat – and teams know it.
In 2018/19 the Gunners scored 73 Premier League goals. Aubameyang (22) and Lacazette (13) got 35 of those (48.6 per cent). No-one else reached double figures with Henrikh Mkhitaryan (6) the next closest.
This term they’ve notched 13 times already. But Aubameyang has bagged seven of those while Lacazette, who’s been injured recently, has added a further two. So that’s nine in total (69 per cent).
During Wenger’s farewell season – in which Aubameyang only joined from Borussia Dortmund in January – the pair accounted for 24 of Arsenal’s 74 league strikes. Aaron Ramsey and Alexis Sánchez added seven apiece but both are now distant memories.
Arsenal simply have to find other reliable goal scorers and soon. Summer signing Gabriel Martinelli looks like a prospect but, at 18, he’s just that. Eddie Nketiah has earned positive reviews while on loan at Leeds United but isn’t a guaranteed starter at Elland Road.
It’s time summer signing Nicolas Pépé, who netted twice in Thursday night’s Europa League win over Vitória Guimarães, stepped up in the league. Beyond that, it’s hard to see where the goals are coming from.
Verdict: Arsenal are still reliant on their two star men – but how much longer will they remain?
4. Failure to get the best from Özil
Approaching January 2018, Arsenal’s two biggest names – Sánchez and Mesut Özil – were due to become free agents six months later. It was panic stations at the Emirates with the prospect of seeing both men leave for nothing a very real threat.
In the end, Arsenal negotiated what they felt was a masterstroke. Sánchez was traded to Manchester United for Mkhitaryan while Özil, after much posturing, signed a new deal worth £350,000 per week – a figure which has been a millstone around his neck ever since.
And with some justification. Since inking his new agreement, Özil has scored five times and assisted three more in 31 Premier League appearances. The output of a footballer pocketing £350k a week? Hardly.
This season Özil has been used sparingly. Initially given time off after an attempted robbery by a motorbike gang in July, the 31-year-old has made just a single Premier League appearance, totalling 71 minutes. His solitary Carabao Cup outing lasted the same amount of time.
The former Real Madrid playmaker defiantly told The Athletic he won’t leave the Emirates before his contract expires in 2021 and there are few – if any – interested clubs who could afford his salary. So we’re at an impasse.
Emery’s criticisms of his No.10 has been thinly veiled and while in the past it would have been easy to suggest there wasn’t a natural opening for Özil in the side, the Spaniard’s use of a 4-2-3-1 system is ideal.
From a political standpoint, having a top earner who has only been named in three Premier League matchday squads isn’t a good look for the under-fire Emery.
Verdict: Özil remains an under-performer for the Gunners and Emery’s inability, or refusal, to utilise him hasn’t helped matters.
5. Refusal to address weaknesses in the squad
Finally, somewhere Emery can claim mild success. The whole world has known Arsenal’s weakness is in the spine of their team and in three transfer windows Emery has assured this has been addressed – to an extent.
Bernd Leno eventually replaced Petr Čech, though there was a strange period where the £19million German international found himself playing second-fiddle to the clearly past-it Czech before finally taking over between the sticks.
But the deal felt like an afterthought and signing a top-four rival’s cast-offs is never a good look. Already, we’ve seen the worst of the Brazilian – his showing at Anfield was painful.
In midfield, the snarling Lucas Torreira is a significant upgrade on Mohamed Elneny. After starring in his maiden season in England, Emery has shown a baffling reluctance to utilising the Uruguayan enforcer who, despite his diminutive stature, packs exactly the kind of bite the Gunners have long been devoid of.
Dani Ceballos looks like a good pick-up, too, though the Spanish international is only on loan from Real Madrid and the Gunners do not hold a permanent option. Ceballos has made noises about returning to the Santiago Bernabéu when his loan deal expires, too. Only this week, Los Blancos have, reportedly, rejected a £30million offer for the midfielder.
Mattéo Guendouzi might just be the pick of the bunch so far, though. The French youngster has far exceeded all expectations and is already a fans’ favourite at the Emirates Stadium.
Verdict: The good outweighs the bad and while Pépé has sparkled intermittently so far, the Ivorian is a huge prospect. As are Kieran Tierney, William Saliba and Martinelli. Emery’s best work on this front may outlast him…