It can be difficult to measure the predominant feeling of a football club’s fan base, but Arsenal’s appointment of Unai Emery seemed to be considered underwhelming by large swathes of the Gunners’ support.
The former Sevilla and Paris Saint-Germain boss may have won eight trophies in his previous five seasons in management, but he is not seen as a particularly exciting coach and his installation in the Emirates Stadium dugout in May did not exactly set pulses racing in N5.
It is still early days, of course, but you would now be hard pressed to find anyone in the red and white half of north London with anything negative to say about the Spaniard. Sunday’s 4-2 victory over Tottenham Hotspur not only saw Arsenal climb into the top four but was also the best performance and result of the post-Arsene Wenger era so far.
The hosts came flying out of the traps at the Emirates, hassling and harrying Spurs high up the pitch and creating numerous chances – one of which, a Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang penalty, was converted – in the opening 20 minutes. They may have fallen behind after quick-fire goals from Eric Dier and Harry Kane, but Arsenal showed tremendous resilience to fight back and score three more times against their local rivals.
That victory means Arsenal are now unbeaten in 19 games in all competitions, with their only losses this term coming against Manchester City and Chelsea in August. There were calls for Emery to adapt his approach of playing out from the back following those reverses, but he stuck to his guns and is now reaping the rewards.
Arsenal, it is only fair to point out, have been fortunate at times in recent months – they could easily have dropped points in wins against West Ham, Everton and Watford, and were the inferior team in last month’s draw with Wolverhampton Wanderers – but there have been clear signs of progress since Emery took charge. Arsenal are now more coherent, clever and compact, while their new-found urgency and aggression has been on show in big games against Liverpool and Tottenham.
Another crunch clash awaits on Wednesday when Emery’s side face Manchester United, a club who are still struggling to move on from the departure of their own long-serving manager. The Red Devils may well beat Arsenal this midweek and could still finish above them in the table at the end of the campaign, but it does not feel premature to say that the north Londoners have made a much better job of replacing their omnipotent leader than their Mancunian counterparts.
There were certainly some factors in Arsenal’s favour. Wenger may have signed a new two-year contract in 2017, but he was always likely to leave by 2019 at the latest; Alex Ferguson, conversely, caught everyone by surprise when he announced his intention to retire just weeks before the end of the 2012/13 season. Another crucial difference is the fact that, unlike Wenger, Ferguson remained popular and successful until the very end of his tenure, so it would have been impossible – and risky – for United to try and wrest control from him while he was still at the helm.
Even so, Arsenal have made several positive steps in the last couple of years, starting with the arrival of head of recruitment Sven Mislintat and head of football relations Raul Sanllehi (who is now director of football) last season. Unlike United, Arsenal’s work in the transfer market in the last 12 months has been smart – their two standout performers against Spurs, Lucas Torreira and Aubameyang, were signed in 2018 – and despite the exit of chief executive Ivan Gazidis, there is now a solid footballing structure in place in behind the scenes. United do not have that, nor a discernible on-field identity despite the fact that Jose Mourinho has now been in charge for more than two and a half years.
Even if Arsenal lose to United on Wednesday night, they are further ahead than their upcoming opponents in the process of moving on from an all-powerful, veteran manager who had shaped the club in his image.
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