Two years on from Unai Emery’s sacking, where and how have Arsenal actually improved?


Arsenal, two years on

On this day two years ago, Arsenal parted ways with Unai Emery, after seven games without a win, and “due to results and performances not being at the level required”.

The Spaniard left the club in 7th place, with 18 points after 13 games, five points fewer than they have at the same stage this season. But, in the two years since Emery departed, have Arsenal actually improved?

Improvement on the pitch and the sidelines?

While current form suggests that Arsenal are in a better place than they were 2 seasons ago, it was not always looking that way.

12 months ago, they were in the midst of one of the worst runs in the club’s history, and sat in 14th place, with serious questions beginning to be asked as to whether the club could be relegated.

They have since of course recovered, but have finished in eighth place back to back, worse than the fifth-place Emery achieved in his only full season in charge at the club.

For those interested in the underlying metrics (including the divisive expected goals model) of the two regimes, this author wrote a longer comparison of the two regimes back in March, but the takeaway thoughts are essentially; under Unai Emery, Arsenal often conceded fewer and scored more than the model suggested that they should, something that eventually caught up with them.

Under Arteta, by contrast, the numbers are more in the Spaniard’s favour. Arsenal tend to “deserve” to win more games by the model, and while that often didn’t translate on the pitch last campaign, it may be beginning to this time around.

Amid the detailed analysis of Juego de Posición and tactical theory (for which I would recommend Mike McDonald’s piece on Arteta’s version), one thing is becoming clear. Arsenal are deserving to score more goals, and concede fewer, based on the way they play under Mikel Arteta, even when you compare his and Emery’s unbeaten runs.

So, in essence, Arsenal are more “deserving” of their current league position, and the results they achieve, under the current regime. But it is only now, two seasons on, that they have managed to look this way.

In the dressing room

One of the myriad of issues under Unai Emery was the supposed fracture in the dressing room. Mesut Ozil was largely ostracised, while Matteo Guendouzi struggled to control his temper and petulance.

In many ways, Emery was dealt a losing hand from the off, with the club having committed to keeping Ozil in the fold for another 3 years just six months earlier, while the departing figure of Arsene Wenger loomed large over any incoming manager.

Arteta had to deal with these issues too, but to a lesser extent. Ozil had already spent the best part of 12 months on the sidelines under Emery, and thus his exclusion was more expected than previously, while he had also much less time on his contract.

Guendouzi was quickly shipped out, first to Hertha Berlin and then to Marseilles, where he is expected to stay beyond this season. Meanwhile, the likes of Sead Kolasinac, Shkodran Mustafi and Sokratis were all found suitable destinations away from the Emirates, with their contracts dwindling and proving less of a burden on the Arsenal coffers.

Now, the dressing room are all pulling in the right direction, certainly in part to the work of Arteta and co., but also thanks to the contract situations of a whole host of players, something that Unai Emery was saddled with.

Nevertheless, it is an improvement on two years ago.

Changes in the transfer market

While results on the pitch will stay front and centre, it is perhaps no exaggeration to say that events off the pitch are what have really turned Arsenal around as a football club.

The club still bears the scars from the 2019 transfer window, and the influence of Raul Sanhelli, who was sacked a year later. In came Nicolas Pepe, still the club’s record signing, as well as William Saliba, Kieran Tierney, and Dani Ceballos on loan, while the club made a late move for Chelsea’s David Luiz on deadline day.

Of the five, only Kieran Tierney can lay claim to a first-team spot at present, while Nicolas Pepe has flattered to deceive and has since lost his place to the dynamic Hale End pair of Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe. Dani Ceballos, David Luiz and William Saliba are no longer at the club, although Saliba is due back in the summer.

In a recent Sky Sports interview, Josh Kroenke outlined the problem, saying:

“There were some quick fixes that we tried along the way… but when you really examine the squad from top to bottom, we had to redefine our culture, redefine our strategy and we had to get younger” 

How much of the problem was Unai Emery is up for debate, with the Villareal boss having previously confirmed that he didn’t want Pepe, and having seen his preferred signings passed over.

By contrast, Mikel Arteta’s word seems to carry more weight, with Takehiro Tomiyasu and Aaron Ramsdale signed on the express orders of the former midfielder. All six players that joined the club this summer were under 25 years old, adding to a youthful core at the club that is a far cry from the ageing squad Emery inherited and added to.

It has been an immense turnover of players in the past 2 years, with 13 players brought in and 10 players departing the club permanently in just two summer windows (as per Transfermarkt).

A glance at the teams for Emery’s final game and Arteta’s most recent outing demonstrates the difference clearly.

Two years on from Unai Emery’s sacking, where and how have Arsenal actually improved?

Unai Emery’s final Premier League starting XI

Two years on from Unai Emery’s sacking, where and how have Arsenal actually improved?

Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal in their 2-0 win over Newcastle.

Of the starting XI, only Aubameyang keeps his place, while Tierney, Alexandre Lacazette, Bernd Leno and Calum Chambers are the only players still in the Arsenal squad.

All aboard please

Perhaps the clearest change of them all, based on the points made above, it seems as though Arsenal are finally pulling in the same direction from top to bottom. Arteta is getting the signings he wants, playing the style of football he wants, with players that want to buy into the philosophy.

Gone are the days of a “Champions League wage bill on a Europa League budget”, as Kroenke claimed in 2019, replaced by a young core of players that Arsenal hope will grow together with a young manager into something great.

The jury remains out on whether that will happen with the current manager and crop of players, but the club seems to have an idea of how they want to get back to the top, which is more than they had under Emery.

While the league table may not show it (yet), Arsenal have improved as a club from top to bottom, although they achieved it in a roundabout way.

Read more:

How Arsenal missing out on Dusan Vlahovic could help them land Juventus star Dejan Kulusevski

Has Ralph Rangnick already told Manchester United who their next three signings should be?

This article was edited by
Ben Browning.

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Premier League table

# Team MP D P
1 Chelsea FC 13 26 30
2 Manchester City 13 20 29
3 Liverpool FC 13 28 28
4 West Ham United 13 8 23
5 Arsenal FC 13 -2 23
6 Wolverhampton Wanderers 13 0 20
7 Tottenham Hotspur 12 -6 19
8 Manchester United 13 -1 18
9 Brighton & Hove Albion 13 -2 18
10 Leicester City 13 -3 18
11 Crystal Palace 13 0 16
12 Brentford FC 13 0 16
13 Aston Villa 13 -3 16
14 Everton FC 13 -4 15
15 Southampton FC 13 -7 14
16 Watford FC 13 -6 13
17 Leeds United 13 -8 12
18 Burnley FC 12 -6 9
19 Norwich City 13 -20 9
20 Newcastle United 13 -14 6
Player Team Goals
Salah, Mohamed Liverpool FC 11
Vardy, Jamie Leicester City 9
Mane, Sadio Liverpool FC 7
Jota, Diogo Liverpool FC 7
Antonio, Michail West Ham United 6
Dennis, Emmanuel Watford FC 5
King, Joshua Watford FC 5
Cornet, Maxwel Burnley FC 5
Raphinha Leeds United 5
Sarr, Ismaila Watford FC 5
James, Reece Chelsea FC 4
Fernandes, Bruno Manchester United 4
Gallagher, Conor Crystal Palace 4
Ronaldo, Cristiano Manchester United 4
Toney, Ivan Brentford FC 4
Smith-Rowe, Emile Arsenal FC 4
Benteke, Christian Crystal Palace 4
Aubameyang, Pierre-Emerick Arsenal FC 4
Son, Heung Min Tottenham Hotspur 4
Zaha, Wilfried Crystal Palace 4


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