When Unai Emery joined Arsenal in May 2018, he had a firm idea of what the club represented.
“Arsenal is known and loved throughout the world for its style of play, its commitment to young players, the fantastic stadium, the way the club is run,” he said.
It was understandably an optimistic view of the Gunners, and not how some supporters would characterise the club during the final throes of Arsene Wenger’s tenure. The departure of the Frenchman after nigh 22 years was a critical moment for Arsenal, if only because it represented an opportunity to break away from the frailties that had crept into the club.
“I’m excited about what we can do together, and I look forward to giving everyone who loves Arsenal some special moments and memories.”
Emery has delivered on that front, but those ‘moments’ are only half of what has been a polarising period post-Wenger. Sunday’s heart-stopping 3-2 victory against Aston Villa was a microcosm for that duality, as Arsenal ocellated between despair and delight.
It was a more enjoyable conclusion than Arsenal’s previous fixture against Watford, during which they surrendered a two-goal lead to draw 2-2. The defending that day was close to amateurish. While both the Watford and Villa games were fantastic entertainment for the neutral, they were likely draining for Arsenal fans and players alike.
At their prime, under Wenger, the Gunners were entertaining for neutrals because of their attacking football. Now that same entertainment is drawn from the potential calamity that will unfold (Dean Smith likened Sunday’s meeting to “a basketball game”).
Emery will know this intensity is not sustainable nor practical for a team competing across multiple competitions with aspirations of a top-four finish. If this were Emery’s first season at the helm these mistakes would be understandable. After 18 months in charge, however, it is not unfair to expect more clarity in his vision.
One of the long-standing concerns is central midfield. Mesut Ozil remains a pariah, and his relationship with Emery seems permanently broken. On the field, Grant Xhaka, the club’s fifth most expensive signing, is an enigma.
The 26-year-old is inconsistent on the ball and at times reckless off it, and that means he never exudes the control and composure Arsenal so desperately require. His commitment is admirable, but his replacements on Sunday, Lucas Torreira and Joe Willock, alongside Mattéo Guendouzi, helped turn the game in Arsenal’s favour.
Emery has sought to lean on experienced players in defence, but that has done him few favours either. David Luiz’s reputation as a technically gifted but erratic defender has not changed since his summer move from Chelsea.
The Brazilian’s partnership with Sokratis Papastathopoulos has also not inspired confidence. Given there are so many question marks over the spine of this side, it is no shock that results and performances remain inconsistent.
It is not all bad. The form of Arsenal’s front line and the emergence of the club’s young players this season have provided enjoyment and excitement for supporters.
Joe Willock, Reiss Nelson, Bukayo Saka, and Ainsley Maitland-Niles have all made positive contributions to the campaign, (even if Maitland-Niles is not playing in his preferred position of midfield). That core hints at a potentially bright future for Arsenal in terms of home-grown products.
Whether Emery will be in charge by that point remains unclear. He seems adamant the team play out of the back, and while one can admire his commitment to a principle, it seems a high-risk, low reward, approach for this group. One wonders quite how different things would be if Emery had better players at his disposal.
Emery had a reputation for being a detail-orientated coach that valued structure and pragmatism. Unfortunately, those qualities also appear absent from this Arsenal side.
Arsenal may sit fourth now, but there is a no sense of assurance that they will stay there. Emery was sure of what he was inheriting what he joined Arsenal. The vision he has built on top of that foundation is still hard to understand, however, and that cannot persist.