Arsenal under Unai Emery: What has changed at the Emirates?

Arsenal under Unai Emery

It was confirmed at the end of last season that Unai Emery would succeed Arsene Wenger as Arsenal manager and the introduction of one of club football’s most distinct identities has made for riveting viewing in the first few months of the new season. Here are the most notable changes at Arsenal so far this season.

Arsenal play Sporting Lisbon in the UEFA Europa League on Thursday and will have the opportunity to not just assume top spot in Group E but also to extend their current 10-match winning streak.

After many a tough season at the Emirates, Arsenal and Emery have been making headlines for all the right reasons in the recent weeks and here is an attempt to understand what has triggered a return to winning ways for the Londoners.

An ability to win ugly

Consecutive defeats at the hands of Manchester City and Chelsea to start Emery’s reign were severe blows to both the Spaniard and Arsenal. Both performances lacked quality and the panic buttons that seemingly worked overtime during Wenger’s reign were pushed again.

It would be understandable for one to look at the 10-match streak that has come since and assume that Arsenal’s level of play has improved no end. However, such a conjecture would be wrong.

Arsenal’s football is currently on a gradual upward trajectory but a fair few of the victories in the ongoing run have come despite sub-par showings – think the chaotic 3-2 triumph over Cardiff, the two goals conceded at home to Ukranian minnows Vorskla Poltava, and the lacklustre first half showing against Leicester City in their most recent win.

In years gone by, when Arsenal were not at their swanky best they generally lost. With Emery in charge, it seems they are developing the ability to win ugly – a characteristic any realistic trophy challenger simply has to have.

A refusal to be predictable

As previously mentioned, in Wenger’s 22-year tenure, Arsenal established an identity as a football side that was quite possibly the most noticeable in world football.

Come hell or high water, when one watched Arsenal you knew what was coming – a team who prioritised a conceptualisation of football as an art form above all else, sometimes even above victory, who would try to win by tapping the ball into the net after a lengthy series of intricate short passes and who placed significantly more emphasis on their efforts with the ball than their efforts without the ball.

It seems Emery will not adhere to any such predetermined way of playing. Results are his only currency.

Never has that been more clear than after Arsenal’s 3-1 win over Leicester on Monday evening. When pushed to attribute Arsenal’s flowing second goal to Wenger’s legacy, Emery never took the bait, saying that his side had many ways to score goals.

Responsibility has been given to Ozil

Whilst on the subject of Monday night, stand-in captain Mesut Ozil was magnificent against the Foxes, a far cry from the form he showed under Wenger for the most part.

That may or may not have been the product of Emery’s fresh approach to the at-times-mercurial-at-times-doleful German. Where Wenger allowed Ozil’s inconsistency, Emery seems to have adopted a zero-tolerance policy.

An apathetic start to the campaign saw Ozil first subbed early against Chelsea and then left out of the squad altogether for the fixture against West Ham. An upturn in form saw Ozil return to the starting 11 and even rewarded with the captaincy.

Gone are the days of Ozil being protected by his manager, even when that guardianship was not warranted. Emery has taken the stance that if Ozil produces, he will form part of the core at Arsenal. If he doesn’t produce, he will form part of the periphery. Surprisingly, Ozil seems to have responded well to that arrangement.

The rejuvenation of a learning culture

There was a sense that by the end of his occupancy at the helm of Arsenal, Wenger had lost his ability to better his players. If the progress of the likes of Hector Bellerin, Alex Iwobi and Granit Xhaka didn’t stall in Wenger’s last few seasons, then it certainly slowed significantly. While Wenger was more Laissez-faire on the training pitch, Emery is intense, particular and hands-on. This has been to the benefit of most players.

“In training, he is always letting me try new things,” Iwobi said of his new boss. “Be positive, be direct and prove it in the games. It is working for me so I just have to keep it going.”

Xhaka shared the same sentiment. “It is going well and I am improving,” said the Swiss international. “On a tactical level, the manager has really helped me.”

Even 36-year-old Petr Cech felt Emery was pushing him to grow. “Over most of my career I was always asked to play long, so this is a pleasant change for me,” said the veteran stopper of the impact of Emery’s instructions to play out from the back.

An air of positivity now surrounds the Emirates

Whatever the opinion of Wenger was in his final seasons in the English capital, it was simply undeniable that the Emirates had become a poisonous place to play for Arsenal.

The concession of early goals during home games was almost welcomed by much of the stadium so that the “Wenger Out” campaign could be justified. A nasty split amongst fans emerged too (those for and against Wenger) and consequently, the efforts to support the club were diluted and misled, energy wasted in many different directions.

It’s likely that any managerial change would have been welcomed in North London and greeted with zest, but the Arsenal faithful have taken especially well to Emery and for the first time in a long time, the Emirates is rocking again.

Even the usually vociferous protests against Stan Kroenke’s ownership of the club seemed to have quietened a bit as the focus has turned to the players on the field.

It’s early doors in Emery’s reign at Arsenal. After weathering an initial storm, he has done well to steady the ship and produce 10 consecutive victories. He has a very real opportunity to extend that record to 13 with upcoming games against Sporting, Crystal Palace and Blackpool.

However, then the acid test of progress will come against Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool.

Regardless of how the coming weeks play out though, it’s certain that Arsenal will be different under Emery. Whether that is for better or for worse, only time will tell.