Emery’s Arsenal emerge: Better, brighter, more evolved

Words By Seb Stafford-Bloor Illustration by Philippe Fenner
December 4, 2018
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The lasting impression left by Arsenal win in the North London derby wasn’t their tactical superiority. Nor was it really an occasion to gaze upon team selections, individual players or different shapes. Instead, what will have endured when people talk of this fixture in the future, will be the adrenaline of the performance and just how often Unai Emery’s side shimmered with invention.

Many years ago, right at the beginning of his broadcasting career, Gary Neville spoke about the physical experience of facing Arsenal during their early-Arsene Wenger prime. He described being spun from his equilibrium by their range of passing and being left dizzy by their quick changes in attacking focus. It was a fascinating insight, but it seemed terribly out of date by the time it was heard. By that point, Wenger’s team were giving that kind of performance every couple of months, not every week, and their default setting had become staler, more predictable and, crucially, much, much slower

On Sunday, though, everything seemed fast again. And new. One of the fundamental complaints about Wenger was always his reluctance to innovate, learn and adjust. Each season, his side would clatter into the same obstacles and over time, the frustration over his inability to see those potholes reached a sustained crescendo. In that regard, the appointment of his successor was very smart. Emery is showing himself to be a problem-solver, an anti-Wenger of sorts, and that difference was shown in the derby.

Prior to Sunday, Arsenal’s form had been little more than encouraging. A good performance against Liverpool aside, their long, unbeaten sequence owed as much to the standard of opposition as it did their own growth. Even as recently as the previous weekend, against Bournemouth at Dean Court, there was little indication that they were capable of pressing their foot to the neck of a high-powered opponent.

Arsenal had been typically slow in starting, they gave away a very cheap equaliser to Josh King and then rather plodded their way to full-time. Bournemouth are competent, but anyone with Tottenham loyalties could have been forgiven for contrasting that performance with their own side’s win over Chelsea the evening before and concluding, not unreasonably, that there was little to worry about.

So praise Emery’s effect, because the tone of the derby could not have been more different. it exuded freshness – not in the legs, but in the range of ideas. Mauricio Pochettino’s team chased the game so helplessly in the opening stages that, at times, it looked as if they’d been prepared to face an entirely different side. Arsenal began the game at a ferocious pace, but also with great accuracy. There was no easing into the street fight, rather the players started as if they’d been told exactly how to hurt their opponents and believed wholeheartedly in those instructions.

And they did hurt Tottenham. With twenty minutes played and the penalty scored, they’d already registered seven shots on goal by four different players. Some statistics are false, but that one provides a faithful retelling of the opening quarter. It was a merciless blitz of precise, attacking football and for those minutes Spurs were entirely at their mercy. It was a triumph of spirit and the body language among the home players confirmed that they were properly attuned to the gravity of the occasion, but presenting the difference between the two sides in emotional terms is wrong. Worse, it does a great disservice to Emery. Wenger seemed to pay little attention to an opponent’s strengths and weaknesses. To watch an Arsenal side play like this, then, was quite startling.

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What quickly became clear was that Emery had focused in on Pochettino’s full-backs and the awkward channels outside his centre-halves . It was a pattern which would continue throughout the game, but the signature of those opening minutes was just how high up the field Hector Bellerin and Sead Kolasinac were and just how orchestrated their involvement seemed to be. For a time, every Arsenal move seemed to end with one or the other charging into space and their supporting teammates arrowing into the visiting box.

This tallied with what we know of Emery and the anecdotes which proceeded his arrival. He’s intellectually diligent and a strong advocate of video analysis within his match preparation. There may not be anything original in that, but within the context of Arsenal’s recent past the difference is night and day. Gone are Wenger’s vague, artistic wafts. In their place, Emery’s dilated pupils and his barrage of instructions.

There’s a brutality to him too. Tottenham stumbled their way in front on Sunday and, while mighty inconvenient at the time, that helped provide further evidence of Arsenal’s change. Off came Alex Iwobi and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, and on in their place, presumably to the sound of collective gasps, came Alexandre Lacazette and Aaron Ramsey. It was dramatic, but it was the moment the game was won. Lacazette was placed alongside Aubameyang, adding a second direct threat to a defence which was already struggling to cope with just one, and Ramsey was tucked behind and instructed to fill the gaps vacated by Tottenham’s wandering midfield. Ramsey may have had just 23 touches of the ball, but he used them to have three shots and set up two goals. A soft spot found, then, and a battle won within the war.

But the tactical reasons behind that success aren’t nearly as important as the statement it made; the real value was in showing the cost of underperformance. The day had begun with Mesut Ozil left out of the squad altogether and here, at its midpoint, was another reminder that Arsenal are now a team pitched neatly between meritocracy and pragmatism, ruled by a manager with the conviction to act when something isn’t working as it should. It was a Mourinhoism, back in the days when that actually meant something good. With Wenger, there was always another chance for a player. Always another run of games, always an extra quarter-of-an-hour. It was that Theo Walcott syndrome which made him popular with his players and often made them loyal to him, but over timemanifested in declining accountability and, inevitably, falling standards.

Elsewhere, this win has been pronounced as Emery’s arrival. Given how many false starts and new dawns Arsenal have had, it’s the kind of reactionary rhetoric which should ordinarily be dismissed out of hand. This time, it feels appropriate: this was something that looked and felt different. It wasn’t just a win that passed the eye test, but one which showed Arsenal to be superior in all manner of categories. They completed almost 150 more passes than Spurs, they recovered the ball at a quicker rate (0.49/m vs 0.46/m) and, despite their opponent’s reputation for being the high-pressing side, forced exactly the same number of possession changes in the attacking half. The red and white shirts, the accuracy in the passing and the light footed technique clearly belonged to Arsenal, but the performance was that of a new team, one who better understand the realities of the modern game. The usual caveats apply and, of course, trips to Anfield, the Etihad and (this week) Old Trafford will provide a further examination, but Spurs are not the doormat they once were and they’re rarely made to look this inferior.

So why not embrace this progress? For much of the last decade, the club’s supporters having been chasing the memory of something which existed a long time ago. The new Thierry Henry; the new Patrick Vieira; the new ‘old’ Arsene Wenger. Beating Tottenham will always be special and scoring four goals and playing with a flourish will always stir the senses, but perhaps this game’s legacy is not in the points or the bragging rights, but that it represented a clear point of evolution which is years overdue.

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