Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Why Arsenal have exceeded expectations

When Sir Alex Ferguson left Manchester United in 2012, after over 20 years at the club, he left them as Premier League champions. His successor was handpicked, and expected (by many) to take over the reins and lead the club into another era of prosperity. That man was David Moyes. We all know how that ended.

When Arsene Wenger left Arsenal in 2018, after over 20 years at the club, he left them languishing in sixth place, five points behind fourth place, and almost 25 points away from first placed Manchester City. His successor was not handpicked, if anything it was slightly rushed and inelegant. While we were all looking at Mikel Arteta, Unai Emery became available and was scooped up. Many people were unsure if he was the right man for the job.

Well here we are, 26 games into the season, and Arsenal are in a better position than they were 12 months ago. They are currently scored five points more than they had this time one year ago, which has them sitting in fifth place, just one point behind a resurgent Manchester United. They are legitimate contenders for the final Champions League position, and despite losing the first leg of their Europa League tie, it is widely expected that they will still progress into the next round of the tournament.

There seems to be a group of fans and pundits who feel that Arsenal haven’t been as successful as they were expecting this season… and I can’t understand why. Personally, they have far exceeded my expectations, and while they haven’t set the league on fire, and still have a number of issues to be resolved, they are certainly heading in the right direction.

Arsenal aiming for the top four six

One of the biggest issues Arsenal faced in Wenger’s final seasons, were their lack of competitiveness against the other clubs in the top four (expanded to the top six recently). Time and time again the Gunners would come up against one of their major rivals and find themselves on the wrong side of the scoreline.

In the 2017/18 season, Wenger’s last in charge, his record against the other clubs in the top six was:

  • 1 win
  • 3 draws
  • 6 losses

It was those dropped points against their main rivals that forced Arsenal further down the table, the big issue being that in a lot of the games, Arsenal didn’t really look like challenging. A number of times the squad seemed to just roll over and show their stomach, allowing teams like Manchester City and Liverpool to run rampant over them.

While Emery’s side have still struggled against these top tier opponents, they have put up much more of a fight in most of the games. Emery’s record against the top six so far this season is:

  • 2 wins
  • 2 draws
  • 4 losses

Meaning that with two games left to play against the top six (Manchester United at home and Spurs away), they already have more points from these fixtures than they did last season. Is it an immediate and complete turnaround? No. But it is improvement, and that’s exactly what the club needs.

Race for the top four

As I mentioned earlier, Arsenal are still very much in the battle for the top four, just one point behind that coveted Champions League place. It would be a much awaited return for the club, having missed out on the competition for the past two years, after not missing it for over two decades previously.

If Emery were able to return the club to the top four in his first season, it cannot be looked upon as anything other than a success. With the state that Wenger left the club in, a highly negative mood amongst most fans and what appeared to be an unmotivated squad, it would be a huge boost to once again bring Champions League football back to the Emirates.

Arsenal have the easiest run in for the rest of the season, when compared to Chelsea and United. Arsenal have to play both Spurs and Manchester United, however with those games coming back to back within the next month, their remaining eight fixtures all come against teams that they would be expected to beat.

Meanwhile Chelsea still have to play Manchester United, Spurs, Liverpool and Manchester City. A formidable run in, though the red side of Manchester doesn’t fare much better, as they still have to face: Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City. In theory, Arsenal have a great shot at taking fourth place.

Improvement

The main thing for Arsenal fans to take away from this season, and Emery’s tenure so far, is simply one word – improvement.

For the first time in a very long time, Arsenal are not a team in decline. They are not slowly sliding down the Premier League table year after year. This time, they are working their way back up.

Looking back to the season after Sir Alex left Manchester United, he left behind a squad that the previous season had won the Premier League. Yet his departure impacted the club so much, they dropped down and finished in seventh place in their first year without him. This kind of drop, fall, is exactly what should have been expected of Arsenal.

With Wenger leaving the club after over 20 years at the helm, especially when his reach extended so far in every aspect, it should have been expected that they would falter slightly. Struggle to replace the big gap that was left, and potentially spend a few years looking to build their way back into contention for the top four.

Yet Emery has come in, and pushed the team right back into contention for those places, providing a foundation to build from. If Arsenal managed to capture a spot in the Champions League next season, it opens up options for bringing in some of the best players in the world. It may not be the immediate turnaround that some fans were hoping for, but it’s improvement, and that should be the key thing to take away. The club is finally heading in the right direction again, and after watching them struggle for so long, just that fact should be enough to exceed expectations.

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