Throughout the beginning of the 21st Century, Arsenal were a club accustomed to playing in the Champions League. 2017, however, marked an end to the club’s record-breaking streak of 19 successive seasons in Europe’s elite tournament.
Arsene Wenger raised a few eyebrows by citing that run – rather than, say, the legendary ‘invincibles’ season – as the proudest achievement of his tenure at the club. However, Wenger’s proud streak came to a miserable end two seasons ago. This was when Arsenal finished below their bitter local rivals Tottenham for the first time in 20 years. More than anything else, this was the straw that broke the camel’s back in cementing a once great manager’s departure.
Is Unai Emery the man for Champions League Qualification?
One season later, with the Gunners again failing to regain a place in Europe’s top competition, the club’s hierarchy finally lost patience with their man. Cue Premier League newcomer Unai Emery, welcomed with open arms by the Emirates faithful. He arrived in North London hoping to fill the giant shoes left by his predecessor. After an anti-climactic (and unlucky) start to life in the premier league, Emery’s new look arsenal have been quietly improving.
The 12 points they’ve already gained represent a modest improvement on last season’s tally after as many games (10). Indeed, the Gunners have gained 5 more points this season than they did in the corresponding fixtures last time round. Players like Lucas Torreira have reignited a long-lost sense of hope among the club’s fans, while a potent partnership looks to be brewing up front between Messrs Alex Lacazette and Pierre Emerick Aubameyang. It is still too early, however, for the club’s champions league return to become a reality.
To be clear, Unai Emery is the right man for the job at Arsenal and should be given time to implement his philosophy at the club. Close observers of his experiences in Seville and Paris note that the understated Spaniard likes his teams to play a high intensity, attacking style of football. In addition, his obsessively detailed preparation notes and video analyses help them to achieve this. It still won’t be enough to get Arsenal in the top 4 this season, though. To discover why, Emery’s men need look no further than their own defence.
Why Arsenal won’t make the top 4 this season
Going into this season’s game at Cardiff, the Gunners had lost 8 of their past 9 away games. Once again, the all too familiar defensive frailties which have cost them on the road became apparent. Before their game against Arsenal, the Bluebirds had not scored in the Premier League, but they managed 2 against Arsenal and could have had more. Arsenal gave away more Premier League goals last season than ever before. This time around, the North London outfit lie tenth in the table for goals conceded. If they hope to finish anywhere near the top 4 in this season or the next, then these dire defensive statistics must improve.
The team’s struggles at the back are best summed up by the substandard Mustafi. Time and again, the German has proved himself a player not good enough to wear the shirt. Last season, his failure to track the run of Perez led to a costly 2-1 defeat at St James’ Park. Later on in the season, the centre-back was beaten by a simple run near-post run from Long at Southampton. If the likes of Long and Perez can do this to Mustafi, Arsenal fans can only dread to imagine how he will fare against a Harry Kane or a Sergio Aguero.
Playing under a new manager doesn’t seem to have improved his performances much either. Being outmuscled, outrun and out of position for Morata’s opening goal at Stamford Bridge ranks among many defensive situations in which the centre back has been found wanting this season.
What next for Emery’s Arsenal?
If Arsenal hope to reclaim the club’s place in the champions league, they will need to replace Mustafi with a higher quality central defender playing within a settled back four. Will Unai Emery learn from the mistakes of his predecessor, and finally get the Gunners organized in defence? We’ll see about that. Will it be enough to get the club back into the Champions League? We’ll see about that too.