In recent memory, it’s difficult to identify a manager that had such a profound effect on the footballing environment of a country; this is precisely what Arsene Wenger achieved during his 22-year tenure at Arsenal. Considering the extent of his influence at the club and given his immense success with the Gunners – he won ten major trophies with the North London side – the first season without the Frenchman at the helm was likely to be challenging for his successor.
Currently, Arsenal are situated in sixth place in the Premier League having won 14 out of a possible 25 games. To date, Unai Emery has overseen 36 games for Arsenal across all competitions, flaunting a respectable total of 22 victories, six draws and eight defeats. Six of those eight defeats have come in England’s top-flight, and despite embarking upon a 22-match unbeaten run, the Gunners lie three points and two places adrift of a top four finish.
A simple comparison between the current Premier League table and the final standings from last season would indicate that the Gunners have failed to progress significantly under Emery’s tutelage – Arsenal finished sixth in the previous league campaign, and they currently occupy that same position in the table. Yet, such an assessment would be harsh on Emery during his first season in the Premier League, and it would wrongly ignore the time required for a new manager to successfully acclimatise to a new environment and implement their ideas accordingly.
Nonetheless, the issues that Arsenal face domestically have not arisen directly from the Spaniard’s appointment. Instead, they can be traced to the latter stages of Wenger’s period as their manager. Southampton and West Ham aside, Arsenal’s remaining four league defeats have come against direct top six rivals, three of which were away from home.
Manchester City have completed the double over Arsenal, registering a comprehensive 3-1 victory last weekend. Similarly, Emery’s men endured a 5-1 demolition at Anfield against Liverpool, and they lost away to Chelsea 3-2 at the start of the season.
They also failed to beat Manchester United at Old Trafford at the start of December, a period in which the Red Devils were devoid of confidence and belief, while the Gunners maintained their unbeaten run to 20 games in all competitions. Therein is the best demonstration of Arsenal’s issues – their propensity to be utterly ineffectual away at top six teams.
When you couple this unfavourable streak with the fact that Arsenal have conceded 36 goals in 25 league games – Palace, Wolves and Brighton are among many teams that flaunt superior defensive records – then the Gunners’ hopes of triumph, at least domestically, seems rather bleak. Also, at the start of March, the Gunners travel to Tottenham in the North London Derby, a game that could have a significant bearing on the race for a top four finish.
To their credit, Arsenal have been far more defiant and competitive against the league’s best sides at the Emirates Stadium. A convincing 2-0 defeat of Chelsea and a characterful 4-2 triumph against Tottenham is evidence of their ability to compete with the best. They also contained one of the league’s most prolific attacks, Liverpool, to a solitary goal in November. However, if Arsenal are to achieve their ambitions, or replicate the days of former glory, they must improve upon their away record against the division’s best teams.
Emery commands one of the division’s most prolific and talented attacks, and it’s difficult to dismiss the quality that’s present within his squad. Yet, without generalising all of the Arsenal sides in recent memory, or without ignoring the intricacies that are involved with match preparation, Arsenal’s trend of failing to perform at the best sides’ grounds suggest that the issue is deep-rooted, and more affiliated with the team’s psychology rather than its personnel or management.
In the previous five Premier League seasons, Arsenal have faced their top six rivals (Chelsea, Spurs, Manchester City, Manchester United, and Liverpool) on 23 occasions away from home, failing to win a single game, while losing 16. During that period, they’ve conceded a staggering total of 50 goals, attaining seven points from a possible 69.
Any prospective league success is immediately curtailed by this abysmal record, and it impacts severely on their ability to achieve Champions League qualification, especially when considering that 2015/16 was the last time that the Gunners have finished in the top four. The North London side’s previous away victory at a top six team was against Manchester City in January 2015, over four years ago, a damming assessment of their fractured mentality and a definite impediment to any potential success.