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A Work in Progress: Assessing Unai Emery's start at Arsenal


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The collective cheers that greeted Danny Welbeck's 93rd minute goal against West Ham United on Saturday were less triumphant cries of victory and more out of relief than anything.

Having trailed from Marko Arnautovic's early goal, the Gunners turned it around through Nacho Monreal and a fortuitous own goal by Issa Diop.

Yet, this could be Arsenal's most important result of the season. Most realistically, Arsenal fans did not expect anything from the opening two matches - Chelsea at Stamford Bridge and home to the champions is a hard start for anyone - but, you would expect them to beat West Ham United, especially considering that Manuel Pellegrini's new-look outfit are struggling badly in the opening weeks. 

Emery's Arsenal is very different to Wenger's incarnation of the side. Gone is the patient possession, long goal kicks and the three-at-the-back that they deployed last year. 

Instead, there is a focus on playing out from the back, traditional widemen and a faster transition between attack and defence.

Arsenal's current squad is nowhere near being ready for this style of play. They are struggling to really buy into Emery's thinking, the languid nature of the final fractious years of Wenger's reign still painfully evident.

Although the Frenchman will always be remembered rightly as an Arsenal legend, there are strong reminders even now that he perhaps overstayed his welcome. So where does Emery's squad stand, a couple of months into the brave new post-Wenger era?

Petr Cech has been a wonderful goalkeeper and an icon in the Premier League, but his powers are waning and you imagine Bernd Leno will seize the No. 1 jersey soon. Emery signed the German because he can play out from the back, but the Czech's leadership qualities on and off the pitch seem highly valued. 

The defence is a much harder puzzle to solve. Although Emery plucked Sokratis Papastathopoulos from Borussia Dortmund, the big Greek is struggling to adapt to the English game with his lack of pace being badly exposed.

The frustrating and inconsistent Shkodran Mustafi has flopped badly since his big-money move from Valencia and Hector Bellerin's defensive skills pale against his offensive assets.

Monreal is solid, if not spectacular, but he is the wrong side of thirty. Emery is a fan of dynamic attacking defenders and you wonder if Monreal will fit into the picture in the longer term.

The back four were exposed many times last week against Chelsea, were absolutely hopeless against City and lacked confidence against West Ham. It is no surprise that Arsenal was linked with names like David Luiz at times in the summer - Emery wants ball-playing central defenders and you suspect it will take several transfer windows to get a squad in his image. 

The midfield is another area of contention and Arsenal look poorly equipped in this area. Although Mateo Guendouzi has impressed in the early weeks, he is still only nineteen and will be inconsistent at times.

Aaron Ramsey's contract negotiations are threatening to relegate him to the reserves, whilst Mo Elneny appears to have fallen out of favour.

Lucas Torreira has impressed in bursts after being substituted in and the bite he provides is much lacking from the Arsenal midfield, which has been too soft and weak for a number of years.

The key conundrum for Emery is Granit Xhaka, who continues to underperform, offering little more than a guaranteed yellow card a game. But, as he is a designated captain and a leader in Emery's eyes, the Spaniard consistently is finding himself needing to include the Swiss international in his starting eleven, despite his underwhelming performances.

Although Emery has not been afraid to hook poor performers, Xhaka's first half against Chelsea was disgraceful and he was rightfully hooked at half-time, it would not be a shock to see Emery bring in his own midfielders in the January, and Summer 2019 windows with the turnover of players continuing at The Emirates.

Another pure defensive enforcer seems to be on the shopping list, though the Spaniard has missed out on his first choice target; Steven N'Zonzi, Emery's powerhouse lieutenant at Sevilla has moved to Italy and Roma this summer. 

One area that Wenger's Arsenal did not struggle in last year was the attack and Emery can call on the quality strikeforce of Alexandre Lacazette and Gabonesian Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang, but there is a worry they are too similar.

Although they've played well together, they are yet to both start under Emery who prefers to utilise wide attackers. The problem is that Arsenal does not have a surplus of these players - Ozil and Mkhitaryan are inconsistent when deployed in the No. 10 role and neither has the natural pace to really beat fullbacks.

Alex Iwobi seems to have impressed Emery early and looks set to get plenty of minutes this year, while Reiss Nelson will hope to break through properly this year.

If Emery continues to deploy the 4-2-3-1 that he has started with for three matches, it poses another issue. Ozil, Mkhitaryan and Ramsey all want to play in the centre of the 3 and only one can start.

The ex-PSG manager will need to rotate sensibly to keep all three happy, and the rumours of a training ground bust-up already with the enigmatic German Mesut Ozil is hardly a positive sign this early on.

With all of this considered, what is a realistic expectation for Emery this season? Although Arsenal fans might hate to hear it, they are a long way off challenging for the title.

You can't see them overtaking Chelsea, Manchester City, Liverpool, whilst noisy neighbours Tottenham Hotspur will continue to stake a claim as top dogs in North London.

If you consider the above as the top four, then where do Arsenal fit in after this? Probably scrapping with Manchester United for the fifth position, a strong run in a domestic cup and a serious run at the Europa League would be considered progress.

Although previously viewed as Europe's inferior competition, Arsenal would fancy giving any other team in it a good game and will probably be (along with Chelsea) one of the favourites for the competition. 

In the longer term, Arsenal fans will be expecting to be up and challenging for a first Premier League title in over fourteen years.

However, Stan Kroenke will be expecting to see a return on his investment this year, and if Emery is too far off the pace, then Arsenal fans will fear that the top job at The Emirates could start to operate the revolving door policy more commonly seen in SW6 or The Etihad. 

Image Credit - Wikipedia Commons. Maxpixel. 

Main image shows new Arsenal boss Unai Emery. Image above shows Mesut Ozil in action for Arsenal. 

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