Towards the end of his tenure as Arsenal manager, Arsène Wenger became a divisive figure.
There were two core camps: Wenger In and Wenger out. When the Frenchman finally decided to leave the club after 22 years in charge, it was supposed to mark the beginning of a new era, with Unai Emery taking over for the start of the 2018/19 campaign.
His reign started with back-to-back defeats against Manchester City and Chelsea, and at that point it would have been logical to begin questioning whether Wenger’s departure had actually been in the club’s best interests. However, it would prove to be just a short blip as Emery then led his team on a 22-game unbeaten run in all competitions according to The Panini Tabloid.
On paper, that looked terrific. Seldom do teams manage to avoid defeat for so long, especially whilst competing for trophies on multiple fronts. If we delve deeper, though, it does not tell the whole story.
Throughout the run, there was a huge contrast between Arsenal’s first and second half performances. In 14 unbeaten Premier League fixtures, the Gunners were almost always the better side after the break and were never beaten in the second period.
They scored 34 goals and conceded 12, outscoring their opponents on 12 separate occasions. But before the interval, they scored just seven goals and conceded ten, and they never went in ahead at the break.
The evidence clearly proves Arsenal were reliant on big second-half performances to make up for their slow starts, usually after Emery had made changes to his side by use of the bench.
The quality of the opposition they faced during the run was also questionable. In the Premier League matches they were consecutively undefeated in, eight came against teams who ended the season in the bottom half, including all three who were relegated.
The only noteworthy victory was over Tottenham, who they beat 4-2. Other top six match-ups included a 2-2 draw with Manchester United, who were poor throughout most of last term, and a 1-1 draw with Liverpool, in which they needed a late equaliser to take something from the game.
After Southampton ended the run, Arsenal’s form waned. Spurs brushed them aside in the Carabao Cup quarter-final, whilst Liverpool dished out a 5-1 hammering at Anfield. Eventually, Emery’s team would only finish fifth in the Premier League and miss out on Champions League football after losing the Europa League final. All of the early optimism ended up being a false dawn.
Throughout those 22 games, Arsenal rarely set the world alight. And what does it say about English football right now that a team can go so long unbeaten without actually playing well? The gap between the elite and the sides below is as large as ever, it seems.
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