Unai Emery has not shied away from criticising Arsenal’s defensive fragility under Arsène Wenger.
“With time, only technical quality and offensive freedom were taken care of while losing defensive structure,” he told Marca ahead of Sunday’s Premier League game against Bournemouth.
“What I want is to combine both and become more competitive. Arsenal was in a decline. We had to stop this and begin climbing.”
Clearly, Emery’s priority following his arrival from Paris Saint-Germain in the summer was to address these defensive issues. This is not the first time he has spoken of it. Within weeks of his appointment he pointed out the problem and it has since become clear that there is more work to do.
Though an effort has clearly been made to make Arsenal more compact, more disciplined off the ball, similar issues have persisted.
The Gunners have conceded 15 goals in 12 league games, at a rate of 1.25 goals per match. It is a minor improvement on last season – Wenger’s team conceded 51 goals in 38 games at a rate of 1.34 per 90 – but it is still hardly a strong record.
There remain question marks over Arsenal’s personnel at the back. Sokratis Papastathopoulos was brought in from Borussia Dortmund in the summer but has only been able to start six league games. Shkodran Mustafi has not always convinced and Rob Holding, while a player with great potential, is still relatively inexperienced.
There is more structure in front of the back four – certainly away from home, where Arsenal were consistently poor last season. Heavy defeats away from home, particularly against the league’s biggest clubs, became an all too regular occurrence towards the end of Wenger’s near 22-year tenure.
Emery could certainly argue that he has at least instilled some resilience. Arsenal have only once this season lost a game by more than one goal, a 2-0 defeat against league leaders Manchester City on the opening day.
And things have got better defensively after a shaky start. The Gunners conceded eight of their 15 goals in the opening four games of the league season. Since then, they have shipped seven in eight.
Still, they are some way off Manchester City and Liverpool, who have both conceded just five goals all season. Chelsea and Tottenham, too, who make up the top four, boast stronger defensive records than Arsenal.
That will concern Emery. He is aware of the importance of minimising the number of goals conceded, and Arsenal might struggle to keep up in the race for a place in the Champions League if they continue to ship goals at the current rate.
“First we need to work on confidence with our defensive players,” the Spaniard said in September. “Second is working tactically to be more compact. But not only for the defensive players, for the whole team, the first XI and the other players.
“This process needs also time, but it’s our first disappointment of the first games this season. I think we need to improve this.”
Arsenal have managed only two clean sheets in the Premier League and they are still allowing their opposition chances. It means that when their lead is a narrow one, they can never really feel confident in holding on to it.
Last season, Arsenal’s xG conceded per game was 1.14. It has increased this season, up to 1.25. So teams know that opportunities will arise, that Arsenal are still susceptible at the back.
Perhaps by the end of the season, the stats will present a more promising picture. The improvement in recent weeks suggests Emery is beginning to have an influence, and his changes can’t be expected to take place overnight.
“I want a team that knows how to play with spaces, to be able to counter-attack quickly,” Emery added in his interview with Marca. “We started with an Arsenal that barely won against the top six, even though this year we haven’t done so yet either, but while also having serious difficulty winning away from home, something we have already improved upon.”
Emery has certainly made progress at Arsenal, and the signs suggest he is on his way to building a cohesive, well-organised team. But we are still in the nascent stages of his tenure.
There is, clearly, a lot more work to do.