While Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea – who were arguably English football’s success stories last season – have continued their impressive starts to the 2018/19 campaign, there is another name who has put their name into the ring as Premier League title contenders this season.
Despite Unai Emery’s Arsenal suffering back-to-back defeats in their first two games of the season against Man City and Chelsea, the Gunners have responded to that setback in emphatic fashion. They now have NINE consecutive victories in all competitions – including six straight wins in the Premier League.
And even though Emery’s Arsenal has yet to face any serious top four candidates over the past five weeks, the cogs are beginning to turn at the Emirates Stadium this season. A 5-1 win over Fulham on Sunday, acts as solid proof of the gallant strides made forward by the Gunners.
Here is how the Spaniard is moulding his team into an attacking – yet balanced – side.
Unai Emery’s New Blueprint
Given Arsenal’s vast array of attacking talent alongside its shaky and unreliable defence, Emery has struggled to find his best formation and starting eleven since his arrival in July.
However, the Spanish manager appears to have found a set-up which suits both the current crop of players in north London and the footballing philosophy that the Arsenal manager wants to implement on his squad.
At Fulham on Sunday, Emery moved away from a 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 line-up that he has favoured using over the past few seasons as a manager. He instead elected to play a 4-2-2-2 formation which worked to great effect against the Cottagers.
Screening the defence
One of the major plus points was the three ‘banks’ of two in midfield and attack. This allowed the Gunners to control the play and then damage the Fulham defence whilst going forward.
The deepest pairing in midfield contained Lucas Torreira and Granit Xhaka, both acting as pivots in midfield. Xhaka has often been the main focal point of criticism from Arsenal fans when results do not go the Gunners’ way. However, the Swiss international’s performances have been more positive when partnered alongside Torreira in the middle.
Indeed, Torreira has reduced Xhaka’s defensive responsibilities. This means that the latter is less burdened with having to be the deepest player in the Gunners’ midfield.
The Uruguayan international made more interceptions (6) than any other player on the Craven Cottage pitch and this defensive astuteness from Torreira means that his midfield partner can have more of an influence at the top end of the pitch. This was clearly seen on Sunday as Xhaka made more passes (71) and had a higher passing accuracy (87.5%) than any other Arsenal player.
The hard-working Torreira-Xhaka pivot means that the second pair of centrally-minded midfielders are free to influence the final third from a creative point of view. The Gunners started with Henrikh Mhkitaryan and Alex Iwobi in these attacking midfield roles against Fulham, and the pair completed five successful attacking dribbles between them as the north Londoners went into a free-scoring attacking mode against the newly-promoted Cottagers.
Old and new players give cause for hope
And the impactful introduction of Aaron Ramsey midway through the second half shows that there are a number of Arsenal players who can fill into these roles over the course of the season. This includes the unused creative influence of Mesut Ozil. He missed Sunday’s game due to a back spasm.
And the pièce de resistance in Emery’s new line-up is the Gunners’ strike pairing of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette. The pair already have ten goals and four assists between them in all competitions. This includes a brace each, against Fulham on Sunday.
Emery said in his first Arsenal press conference that he wants his side to be “protgaonists” on the pitch. If the Gunners can control the ball possession in the majority of their games this season then they have both the attacking firepower and balance in midfield to damage their opponents.
Looking at Arsenal’s last two victories – a 3-0 Europa League triumph over Qarabag in midweek and at Craven Cottage on Sunday – the Gunners have shown that they have considerable strength in depth all over the field.
Emery made nine changes to his line-up for the trip to Azerbaijan on Thursday. Yet, that starting eleven still contained eight full internationals. The Gunners were able to name a strong side, despite resting some of their key players.
And against Fulham on Sunday, the Gunners showed their firepower across the pitch by recording an impressive win. This was indeed without the influence of Ozil, often considered the club’s most creative influence in midfield.
The German was not the only absentee, however, with summer signing Sokratis Papastathopoulos dropped to the bench in favour of Shokdran Mustafi and Rob Holding. The duo looked solid at the back against Fulham’s Aleksandr Mitrovic at the Cottage.
Full-back Stephan Lichtsteiner – another summer signing – was also an unused substitute on Sunday. Hector Bellerin was instead favoured, who put in an impressive display down Arsenal’s right-hand side. The Spaniard set-up Aubameyang’s first goal of the afternoon, which was his second Premier League assist of the season and also his seventh successful dangerous cross of the season.
Add the reliable midfield duo of Mohammed Elneny and Matteo Guendouzi to the mix, alongside the fact that Danny Welbeck – like Lacazette – already has four goals to his name this season, and the Gunners have a nicely sized squad this season.
Are Arsenal the new PSG?
Should the Gunners carry on their good form and win their next three games (a home tie against Leicester before away trips to Sporting Lisbon and Crystal Palace) then they will have gone on their longest winning run in all competitions since 2007. This means that Emery has brought a winning style of football to north London this season.
Indeed, this should not come as a surprise to those who have watched and followed the Spaniard’s managerial career over the last five years. Traditionally, Emery’s sides have been very difficult to stop once they get into their stride.
Here are some of Emery’s most recent consecutive win sequences during his spells in charge of Sevilla and Paris Saint-Germain:
- February – April 2014: nine La Liga wins in ten matches.
- March – April 2015: ten match unbeaten run in La Liga (seven wins, three draws).
- December 2016 – April 2017: sixteen game unbeaten run in Ligue 1 (including an eight-game winning streak).
- August 2017 – December 2018: unbeaten in first 15 Ligue 1 matches (a run which included thirteen wins)
- January 2018 – April 2018: eleven wins in twelve Ligue 1 matches.
This suggests that when Unai Emery creates a winning atmosphere at a club, then victory almost becomes a common and regular feeling over a lengthy amount of time.
There may be greater tests to come for the Gunners over the November and festive periods. It is, however, difficult to ignore that Unai Emery’s team are an in-form side. You need to take a look at the broader picture. Arsenal have six wins out of eight in the league. They also have a 100% record in the Europa League plus a Carabao Cup last-16 tie against Blackpool to come – what is Unai Emery doing wrong at Arsenal?