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Arsenal sacked Unai Emery one year ago today

The $64,000 question: are they better off?

Villarreal CF v Real Madrid - La Liga Santander Photo by Jose Breton/Pics Action/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Happy anniversary, Gooners. Today marks a year since Arsenal sacked Unai Emery, a day after a home loss to Eintracht Frankfurt in the Europa League and on the heels of a 2-2 draw with then 19th-placed Southampton, which stretched the club’s Premier League winless run to five matches. The club named Freddie Ljungberg interim manager, who coached 6 matches before Mikel Arteta was hired.

The $64,000 question: are Arsenal better off one year out? A loaded question if I’ve ever seen one.

I suppose the answer to that question depends on what “better off” means. If it means right now, on the pitch, the answer is probably not. Unai Emery’s sides gave up way too many shots and chances, but they scored goals. Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal give up fewer shots and chances, and critically, have conceded fewer goals, although they’re currently outperforming xGA. There is that tiny problem of their current inability to score from open play in the Premier League. Both iterations of Arsenal are flawed.

If it means overall, including the direction things are trending, I think the answer is a tentative yes. To be fair, at this precise, Arsenal are moving in the wrong direction — the team is playing worse than they did over the summer. But overall the arc of the Arsenal universe is bending towards improvement. I think the problems are fixable. They may not be fixable until the transfer window, but it’s patently obvious that the biggest flaw at the club is one of roster construction — the complete lack of creativity in the center of the midfield — as opposed to a tactical / structural one.

Stretching back to the late Arsene Wenger days, Arsenal’s defense was awful. The club conceded way too many goals to be a contender. Mikel Arteta has largely fixed that problem, although time will tell whether he has simply swapped one problem, conceding, for another, scoring. More importantly, to my eye, there is a clear plan with Mikel Arteta where there wasn’t one under Unai Emery. The defensive improvement has been consistent and appears sustainable. That’s a foundation upon which Arsenal and Arteta can build.

Perhaps the bigger takeaway is that the Arsenal squad just isn’t very good. The club has good pieces and promising young talent but a significant amount of deadwood. For what it’s worth, I think Unai Emery inherited a better squad than Mikel Arteta did, but the bottom line is that the roster still needs work. There are too many players who aren’t good enough to be playing for a club with Arsenal’s ambitions.

Firing Unai Emery was the right decision. He’s probably a better coach than he showed at Arsenal, but it wasn’t the right fit. I’m not sure anybody was going to survive being Arsene Wenger’s immediate replacement without getting Arsenal back into the Champions League.

Arsenal seem to have “Their Guy” with Mikel Arteta at the helm. Given the mid-season hiring and the continuing chaos that is COVID-19’s effect on football, I think he needs more time before we can say whether he’s got what it takes to be the long-term managerial solution. The FA Cup win bought him a fair bit of goodwill and time.

I recognize that not everybody shares my position on Arteta’s tenure thus far and that I may be going more off the eye test and soft factors. The stats, comparatively, aren’t flattering and don’t give a definitive answer. But I’m not sure how much that matters, to be honest. Arsenal need to stick with Mikel Arteta and not because he’s clearly the answer at the manager spot. The Gunners need stability and consistency.

Look at Manchester United post-Ferguson — David Moyes, Louis van Gaal, Jose Mourinho, and now Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Four guys who all spent a bunch of money, brought in a bunch of players, and what does the club have to show for it? Not very much. Arsenal quite literally cannot afford that kind of churn. The Gunners can’t “miss” on any more signings (“more” because the jury is still out on Nicolas Pépé). Multiple managers with different plans increases the likelihood of misses and leads to a fractured roster, which, when your roster already needs work, is sub-optimal.

That’s a long way of saying that I think Arsenal are better off under Mikel Arteta than Unai Emery but that there is plenty of room for debate. I see the problem areas and deficiencies of Arteta’s Arsenal right now. It boils down to which factors you give more comparative weight. I think the longer-term view is the more important one, and I think Arteta’s “track” if you will is light years ahead of the long-term prospectus of the Emery project.

I’ve sorta tip-toed around this the entire post, but when the answer to “are Arsenal better off under the new guy” isn’t a definitive, resounding “yes,” you get the inevitable follow-up — “how long does the new guy get / should we get rid of him, too?”

Not yet, give him more time is the short answer. The long answer deserves its own post.