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The five best matches of the Unai Emery era

Looking back at the best of Emery’s short tenure

Arsenal FC v Tottenham Hotspur - Premier League Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Recency bias is a hell of a thing. Nothing is as memorable or more pressing as what is happening in the current moment, and as we get further from the past, it becomes a fuzzy series of snapshots that becomes increasingly more blurry as the days fly by. The current Arsenal, as we all know, is very, very bad, and has felt that way for quite some time.

This awful stretch of Arsenal is, we all hope, temporary. The sacking of Unai Emery punctuated the worst run of form in over 30 years for the Gunners during a dismal 7 match winless stretch. We and many others have covered the listless end of the Emery era and the many shortcomings that led to his inevitable sacking with article after article filled with lamentations, frustrations, and regrets.

But this article is not one of those. For at least one article, we wanted to look back over Emery’s 18 month tenure and highlight the best of it. The cynics among us will surely scoff, roll eyes, and mutter some pithy sarcastic quips about how there was no “best” under Emery. If you are among those or not, perhaps this will be a pleasant reminder of better times and good ebenings for Arsenal.

5: Arsenal 3-2 Aston Villa, September 22nd, 2019

This is, admittedly, the most contentious of the list. While the current Premier League season has been noticeably devoid of positives for Arsenal, September’s home match against the Villans is certainly the most memorable match of the campaign. It encapsulated the season perfectly - defensive ineptitude, infuriating fouls, and some fortunate finishing by Arsenal’s talented attackers to save a result.

But it was also anomalous to the season in many ways. After Ainsley Maitland-Niles’ second yellow saw him sent off in the first half, Arsenal showed a surprising amount of composure, fighting back to win the match short handed, composure which has been absent in the past month or so as the Gunners have thrown away leads in their last five matches. Arsenal conceded a poor early goal and played shorthanded for the majority of the match and still found a way to tough it out and battle back for an exciting and much-needed win.

4: Fulham 1-5 Arsenal, October 7th, 2018

This match marked the first of only three times under Emery that Arsenal defeated a team in Premier League play by more than two goals - the other two came against Bournemouth (4-1) and Fulham (4-1) once more that season. The match will be remembered by some for a pair of braces by Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette, but it will certainly be remembered most of all for the brilliant front-to-back team goal capped by a cheeky Aaron Ramsey backheel.

Arsenal’s second half scoring clinic felt like a corner had been turned after a slow start to the league, and while it became more of the outlier than the norm, it still stands as one of the most dominant displays by Arsenal in Unai Emery’s 18 months as manager, and one of the few away victories under his reign.

3: Arsenal 2-0 Napoli, April 11th, 2019

When Arsenal made it into the knockout stages of last season’s Europa League, they were fortunate to draw BATE Borisov in the first round. Compared to some of the other teams in the draw, Arsenal’s matchup was exceedingly favorable - quite ironic since the Gunners lose the first leg 1-0 before winning at home 3-0 in the second leg.

The quarterfinal draw, however, saw Arsenal matched up with the one club that many perceived to be the toughest team left in the competition - Napoli. Powered by one of Europe’s most blistering attacks, the prospect of Lorenzo Insigne and Dries Mertens wreaking havoc on Arsenal’s hobbled back line seemed like the perfect storm for Arsenal to get thrashed. However, Emery was heralded as a Europa League whisperer, so many were eager to see the first real test for Arsenal in the competition.

All fears were quickly dashed as Arsenal put together a dominant first half where they looked like the type of protagonists that Emery had promised when he was initially hired. Arsenal were relentless and lived in Napoli’s defensive third while snuffing out their attacking chances all match. Aaron Ramsey’s goal in the 14th minute and Koulibaly own goal off a Lucas Torreira shot in the 25th gave the Gunners the 2-0 win in the end, but Arsenal looked like they could have poured in 5 goals on that day if not for some poor shot luck and excellent keeper play by Napoli’s Alex Meret.

Arsenal would go on to win the away leg 1-0, securing their spot in the semifinals.

Sadly, this match would mark the last performance at the Emirates by Ramsey before a hamstring injury in the away leg ended his season ahead of his move to Juventus. At the very least, he gave Arsenal fans one more moment of brilliance to remember him by.

2: Arsenal 3-1 Leicester City, October 22nd, 2018

Arsenal’s domination of Leicester was emblematic of Arsenal’s best run of form under Unai Emery. Having won nine straight across all competitions heading into the match, Arsenal were flying high. The match marked the first time in over a decade that Arsenal had won 10 straight - it had last occurred in 2007.

After conceding first through an unfortunate deflected own goal from Hector Bellerin, Mesut Ozil, who had been named captain for the match, orchestrated a brilliant comeback with a vintage Man of the Match performance. He brought the Gunners level before half when he barreled up field, played it wide to Bellerin who then hit a low cross into the path of the streaking German for him to slot home cooly.

In the second half, Ozil would set up Bellerin once more for an assist, this time for Aubameyang tap-in at the back post. A mere two minutes later, Ozil was assisting Aubameyang on one of the best team goals in Arsenal history, a goal that started with goalkeeper Bernd Leno and ended with Ozil chipping an easy ball to Aubameyang after a series that involved 9 of Arsenal’s 11 players on the pitch. Ozil put his stamp on the build up to the goal with a flicked back heel pass, a dummy to Lacazette, and a coy outside of the foot chip to set up Auba.

On that night, Ozil, whose public feud with Emery tended to overshadow the rest of the team’s problems, looked better than he had all season, and Arsenal looked like they could have beaten anyone.

1: Arsenal 4-2 Tottenham, December 2nd, 2018

Let’s be honest. There was no way this wasn’t going to be number one.

This match will go down in North London Derby history as one of the series’ most exciting matches. It had it all - antagonistic celebrations, a sideline dustup, penalties on both sides, lead changes, some of the series’ most memorable goals, and a sending off for good measure.

Words cannot do this match justice, so let’s roll the tape:

This match was a masterclass of tactics by Emery. Despite being behind at halftime, he turned the match on its ear in the second half with the substitution of Aaron Ramsey into the attack. Ramsey’s play was crucial in both the equalizing goal as well as the eventual winning goal, assisting both Aubameyang and Lacazette with his relentless play and deft passing. While Emery had ended up being undone by his tinkering in the end, the NLD was a sterling example of what happens when he got it right.

Honorable mentions

Although Emery’s tenure ended with a whimper, it’s hard to deny that his time at Arsenal gave us some truly memorable matches, and to his credit, he did maintain one impressive stat: at home against the top 6, Emery’s side lost only once - last season’s season-opening 2-0 defeat at the hands of eventual champions Manchester City.

So long, and thanks for the positive memories Unai, even if they were far less often than many would have liked.