Just three days separated Arsenal from, arguably, their worst result of the season so far from, arguably, their best result of the season so far. Defeat to Rennes in the Europa League on Thursday felt like a nadir for the Gunners under Unai Emery. Victory over Manchester United on Sunday, however, had the air of a reawakening.
If there has been one week to reflect the season Arsenal have experienced to date, it came in this three-day stretch. It can be difficult to know whether the Gunners are moving forward or falling backwards and these two games encapsulated the wild back and forth swings of momentum that have so far defined the 2018/19 campaign at the Emirates Stadium.
A few weeks ago, it seemed Emery was experiencing many of the same problems succeeding Wenger that David Moyes experienced in replacing Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United. Defeat to Manchester City at the start of February saw Arsenal drop down to sixth place in the Premier League table, with an FA Cup exit at home to Man Utd just one week previously also hitting hard.
Since then, the Gunners have won four from five Premier League fixtures, drawing the other one to drag themselves back into the top four. The objective set for Emery at the start of the season was Champions League qualification and Arsenal remain on course for that, whether that be through the league or through the Europa League (despite the loss to Rennes).
At this point of the 2017/18 season, Wenger’s last season in charge, Arsenal had 48 points, while at present under Emery they have 60 points - an improvement of 25%. On current form, the Gunners are on course to finish the season on 76 points. Only once before in the last decade have they reached that tally.
And yet, in the minds of many Emery’s appointment remains without vindication. Arsenal have taken so many steps forward followed immediately by steps backwards, or vice versa, that they have, by and large, stood still. They are just as likely to finish sixth as they are to finish in the top four. They are just as likely to crash out of the Europa League at an early stage as they are to go all the way. The Gunners have, all season long, been a contradiction.
Some will argue that Arsenal’s development, or lack thereof, can be explained by the club’s transfer strategy. In attack, there are signs of progress under Emery. That is, not coincidentally, where Arsenal have invested heavily in recent years. They spent £56 million on Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang last year, also splurging £46.5 million on Alexandre Lacazette six months before that, meanwhile Mesut Ozil is the highest paid player at the club on a contract reportedly worth £350,000 a week.
At the back, however, there are lingering signs of ‘Wengerism.’ How much of that is down to the way Arsenal have scrimped on defensive additions in recent transfer windows? Against Man Utd on Sunday, the Gunners came up against Victor Lindelof, a centre back who cost £31 million. In contrast, Arsenal’s entire back five was assembled for that roughly that amount.
Josh Kroenke was in attendance at the Emirates on Sunday and so it’s possible, having been impressed by the performance turned in by Emery’s side against Manchester United, the American’s family will boost the transfer kitty for the summer. Nobody at Arsenal should count on that, though. It’s only a few weeks since the January window closed, when only loan signings were sanctioned.
In the post-Arsene Wenger age, Arsenal’s structural problems have become clearer. Somewhat unfairly, the Frenchman became a scapegoat for the troubles faced by the Gunners over the latter period of his tenure. Of course, Wenger deserved criticism, but the discourse was dominated, to an unhealthy extent, by questions over his future at the club. There was no oxygen left to talk about anything else. Now with Wenger gone, other issues are finally being discussed.
Moyes could have used this sort of protection over the course of his ill-fated, and short-lived, time as Man Utd manager. Instead, he was made to answer for team selection, transfer strategy, contract renewals, youth development, everything. They failed to recognise the freakish capacity of Ferguson for controlling every aspect of a superclub in the modern game and in this sense, it seems that Arsenal learned some lessons from what Man Utd suffered in trying to step out from underneath the shadow of a legendary manager.
Emery was always likely to find himself compared to Moyes such was the similarity of the situation he entered after replacing Wenger in the summer. Moyes was limited in a way the Spaniard isn’t, though. What's more, while Moyes dragged down the winning mentality that already existed at Old Trafford, Emery has strengthened the mindset of his Arsenal squad, even if they remain mentally weaker than any team of such a calibre should be. The comparisons have grown a little tired.
“When we were struggling in the table with more points difference, we stayed balanced and now, after this victory, we can be positive but we won’t change our idea… which is to think game by game,” Emery said after Sunday’s win over Man Utd, attempting to imply a sense of mental level headedness among his players.
“We are happy today but Chelsea is with us, and so are United and Tottenham. At the moment, I think we are playing confidently in each match and today we showed everybody that. But we must be calm, be patient and continue improving. Controlling emotion is very important. Keeping this consistency in our mind is very important.”
Indeed, Emery is right to point out the importance of controlling emotion. Far too frequently in football, this is overlooked as an aspect of management. This is what accelerates a slide into a spiral, a decline into a demise. A few weeks ago, it seemed that, emotionally, Arsenal were starting to buckle. Victory over United just one week after the draining away draw against Spurs, in which a stoppage time penalty was spurned, and just days after the loss to Rennes, showed some mental stability has been regained.
Arsenal’s progress under Emery, if there has been any, has been incremental. The revolution many predicted post-Wenger hasn’t quite materialised with Emery left to manage, generally speaking, the same group of players many deemed to be substandard last season. In terms of philosophy and footballing identity, whether or not Arsenal have progressed or regressed, or stood still, is largely down to individual interpretation. Thankfully for Emery, though, there is a ranking system to quantify his success or failure - a league table. By that measure, expectations are being met. Just.