Much has been made about the revolution at Arsenal. Exactly a year ago, Arsenal fans were disgruntled at Arsene Wenger’s declining influence on his team, with his players unable to muster wins against even lowly oppositions away from home in the Premier League. There were calls to oust Wenger, but even the staunchest of Arsenal fans dreaded Arsene’s single-mindedness in that he would respect his contract, which would have run until the end of the current season. But then, without anyone expecting the announcement, the Frenchman revealed that he planned to step down as Arsenal’s manager at the end of last season.
The following weeks saw Arsenal fans, who wanted Wenger to leave with a flourish by helping Arsenal lift the Europa League, speculate hysterically about who would fill Arsene’s shoes. They were pretty big ones too, considering the change of culture that Wenger had first instilled on the London team since taking over in September 1996. For all their decrying of Wenger’s decline as a tactical granddad, Arsenal fans knew what the Frenchman had brought to Arsenal could not be replicated so easily.
During the summer, too, even as the World Cup distracted fans, Arsenal fans were waiting with bated breath about the announcement of the club’s next manager. It almost seemed like former Arsenal player and second-in-command to Manchester City’s Pep Guardiola, Mikel Arteta, was ready to take over at North London, only for the club to announce that they had picked Unai Emery, who had recently been released by PSG, to become Arsenal’s next manager.
Most English fans and global supporters of Arsenal knew little about Emery except that he had guided PSG to a domestic treble but had been unable to script a Champions League victory for the star-studded side. There were mixed reactions, but there was a consensus after Wenger’s whimpering end that the new manager be given time to make his stamp on the team.
Arsenal had a good pre-season, before facing champions City and Chelsea in successive games to start their Premier League campaign. While the first game hardly saw Arsenal even compete with the efficiency of City, the second game, which Arsenal also lost, at least showed glimpses of what Emery could bring to the team. So Arsenal fans waited.
The Gunners first faced victory under Emery in the next game against London rivals West Ham, which began a string of 11 wins for Arsenal. Although not all wins were satisfactory as far as the performances were concerned, there was an increasingly evident bite to the team which had been lacking in Wenger’s later years. And more importantly, even as Arsenal continued to churn out the results, they showed glimpses of pure class in wins against teams like Fulham and Leicester City.
Since then, Arsenal have drawn against Liverpool, won against their fiercest rivals Tottenham Hotspur (which probably was the most glowing endorsement of the newfound passion at the club under Emery), and drawn against Manchester United. They failed to win some matches that they should have won, but even in the worst of performances, Emery made sure that his team didn’t lose.
Now we are four months into the Premier League season and Emery’s team have gone 22 games without defeat. His start to the Premier League has been the best ever, beating even Pep Guardiola’s record when he took over at City more than two years ago. Even with the team that Emery inherited from Wenger, he has been able to make his stamp with an increased awareness among his players about tactics and an unrelenting spirit not to concede defeat.
And yet, Arsenal lie fifth in the table. This is a testament to what faces Arsenal now — the competitiveness in the Premier League has never been so closely-contested, at least as far as the top teams are concerned. Unai Emery, ever the perfectionist, knows as much and said that he needs his side to get better if they want to finish in the top four.
“I think we need more,” Emery said of his side ahead of Arsenal’s Sunday match against Southampton.
“I think our beginning is good, but at the moment in the table we are fifth and our mind is focused on being in the first four positions. I think we are doing our way and improving, but the reality is that we need more. Our ideas and work with the players is to learn together. All of us can give everybody new ideas. I think the players are open to listening to us about our new tactical work with our analysis in videos. We need to do this work quickly, but we also need patience.”
After initial confusion about whether or not Arsenal fans will warm up to Emery project, there is little doubt that the fans and players are all on board now. But for Arsenal to reach the heights they did under Arsene’s first decade, they cannot get carried away because the Gunners have still not achieved anything. There is a long way to go and we all know how a string of poor results can change the atmosphere around the club. It would be interesting to see how we look back at this period at the end of this season. While Arsenal’s fans are firmly behind Emery, we will know more about their acceptance of the Spaniard only in May.
But by all accounts, even if this season won’t bring all the glory fans crave, it has already given them a sight of amazing things which could follow. In Emery we trust?