Arsenal have as many as three matches left, but with the League season all but done and over 50 matches in the books, it feels like a good time to take a look at how things went in Unai Emery’s first season at Arsenal.
The first thing to do is to set a baseline of what was expected for Emery and use that to judge him. Arsenal don’t publish the rubric that they will use to measure success, so I will use my own, broken down into different sections.
I felt that at the start of the season Arsenal were the 5th best team, about on the same level as Manchester United but not significantly behind Tottenham. I felt that Chelsea had more talent but that it would be a hard year for them as they adjusted to a completely new philosophy under Maurizio Sarri.
So for League finish, I thought that a realistic goal was to make it into fourth place. Outside of a major goal difference swing in the last game of the season, Arsenal will finish either fifth or sixth. If the sequencing of matches were different, with the run of bad form coming in February or March instead or April, the finish might have been acceptable.
However when you have finishing in the top four in your own hands and finish the season taking four points from a possible 18 against teams all below you in the table, that really hurts the way you look at a season. There isn’t even the silver lining to point to that the team played well and were unlucky, in every match Arsenal were handily beaten.
For the Europa League, my expectations were that Arsenal at least get to the semi-final. This was a bit flexible, because in unseeded knockout tournaments you can get tougher draws early in the tournament.
It looks really good that Arsenal will get into the final (knocks on wood) after a 3-1 first leg win over Valencia. Depending on who they face in the final, they should have roughly a coin flip-type chance (44% if Chelsea, 52% if Frankfurt) of lifting the trophy.
On performance, Emery has beat expectations and looks like he is living up to his reputation as a Europa League specialist. That doesn’t mean I don’t have complaints about how things went.
Emery played really strong teams in the group stages over giving some of Arsenal’s bright prospects development time and rest to Arsenal’s first team players. With a squad that isn’t deep in experienced talent, a couple hundred fewer minutes on the legs of first team players, and possibly developing a player or two who could help when key players were injured, would have been great.
Arsenal had a lot of similar issues in the Europa League as in the Premier League, where beating the “lesser” teams was harder than the gaps in talent would have suggested.
Grade: B minimum and I would revise to an A if he wins the cup.
Be the protagonist
In his opening press conference Emery said the following about his philosophy:
My idea is to be a ‘protagonist’ all the match. Arsenal play possession football and throughout my career I’ve always been a coach who wants possession. There is something I would like to add to my philosophy, that I like to win the ball back as quickly as possible. So it’s about two things: possession and pressing. What I want is for Arsenal to transmit energy and emotion to the fans.
The term protagonist is hard to define, but we can look at things like possession, pressing and how well Arsenal attacked.
For possession Arsenal averaged 56% of the ball, which is fifth best in the League. Last season Arsenal had 58% of the ball and had the third highest average possession in the League.
For pressing I will use the stat Passes Allowed per Defensive Action (PPDA). This season Arsenal allowed 9.4 PPDA, which is the third fewest (indicating a more pressing team). That number is just behind Tottenham’s 9.3 and not far behind Manchester City at 8.5. Last season Arsenal allowed 9.1 PPDA, which was also third fewest.
For attacking, I’ll use three stats, two basic and one more “advanced”: goals, shots, and xG. This season Arsenal have scored 70 goals for third most, have taken 450 shots for 11th most and had 58.1 non penalty xG which is fourth best.
Last year Arsenal scored 74 goals tied for third most, took 594 shots for fifth most and had 68.5 non penalty xG which was third best.
So looking at the three things that Emery wanted from the team, Arsenal have gotten worse than last season. Arsenal had less possession, they stayed in the same rank for the measure of pressing but the rate was down slightly (I will say that the press has looked much better coordinated) and the attack has gotten worse with the shot and xG numbers significantly worse this season.
Improve the defense
One of the major criticisms of Arsene Wenger is that he didn’t care about defense and that even a half decent coach would be able to come in and improve this aspect of the team. This was an area that I fully expected that would look better even if meant that the attack wasn’t at the same level.
For this I will use the same measures as I did for attack.
This season Arsenal have allowed 50 goals (11th most), have allowed 485 shots for 10th most and allowed 50.2 non penalty xG which is 10th best. Last year Arsenal allowed 51 goals for 13th most, allowed 422 shots for sixth fewest and conceded 44.2 non penalty xG which was sixth best.
To me these stats are damning. It is obvious that Arsenal don’t have stellar defensive talent, but with pretty much the same talent (maybe even less as Arsenal bought a starting center back, goal keeper and defensive midfielder in the summer), Arsenal were a better defensive team last season than this.
Emery has made Arsenal’s press more coordinated, but he could not improve the underlying defensive structure. At times things have been worse, as Emery has played a more conservative style without seeing the defensive improvements that should come with that tactical switch.
This has been a disappointing season but could still finish on a high note.
Emery from the start looked like a bridge type of coach that would take Arsenal from the end of the Wenger Era, through a quick reloading (no real talk of a multi season rebuilding project was communicated) back into the Champions League and on to the next really good Arsenal teams (maybe under a new coach as he was given just a two year plus option contract).
On the measurable statistics Arsenal are a worse team then they were 12 months ago. This isn’t all on Emery; the players have not performed that well, and the way that the squad was built is incredibly unbalanced, old and not very deep.
He reached the bare minimum expectations in the league given the teams financial and talent advantages. He looks like he is going to beat expectations in the Europa League. He failed to implement a visible philosophy in attack making things worse than last year. The major weakness of the team, defense has also not improved and if not for Bernd Leno doing a very good job of stopping more shots than expected would have given up more goals than the worst Arsenal defense in a generation.
For an overall grade I would give Unai Emery a D+.
I doubt that the board and owners will look to move on from Emery this summer but this coaching performance was far from acceptable for a team with ambition to be among the best in the world. Next season with Emery in charge I fully expect more of the same with Arsenal fighting in the 5th to 7th range on the fringes of the automatic Champions League spots.