Arsenal will play Valencia this Thursday in the Europa League semi-final, just one year after they faced Atletico Madrid in the same round. Spanish opposition, European semi final and sitting outside the top four… so what’s changed for Arsenal in the last year?
Unai Emery took over for Arsene Wenger, who stepped down after 22 years in charge. Wenger’s departure came after leading Arsenal to a second successive finish outside the top four, but for the first time in his tenure, the Gunners were evidently in decline, losing ground on their rivals.
Emery arrived as a breath of fresh air. He was described as “meticulous”, “intense”, and “demanding”, leaving Arsenal fans rightly very excited about the prospect of the Spaniard.
Emery was given a modest budget in his first summer transfer window, and has used it to bring in first team stars Bernd Leno, Sokratis, Lucas Torreira and Matteo Guendouzi, who have all enjoyed a successful first season at the club.
The remit was to get the Gunners back into the Champions League either via top four qualification or by winning the Europa League, which Emery has won three times prior.
One fan is happy (but very confused) after Wolves beat Arsenal in the video below…
Premier League statistics are the best measure for improvement; Arsenal in 2017-18 scored 74 goals, conceded 51 goals and kept 13 clean sheets. This season, with two games still to play, the Gunners have scored 69 goals, conceded 51 goals and kept eight clean sheets. Despite very similar statistics, Emery’s side have already bettered last season’s points tally of 63 by three with games still to play.
Despite concerns about away form Arsenal are still in a top four race, contrary to last year, and the ex-PSG boss has certainly got his side competing with their rivals. They’ve beaten Tottenham, Manchester United and Chelsea at the Emirates while drawing with Liverpool and losing just to Manchester City.
The results and performances against the big six are the best indication of improvement under Emery, no matter what the stats say. It’s a lot easier to fix poor results against the mid-table sides, as proven by Liverpool this season, who also found those fixtures to be their achilles heel for many years.
What’s most encouraging is that Arsenal no longer get bullied by sides with more investment and squad depth and are able to stand up to their rivals when facing them one-on-one. Wenger was always capable of delivering a good result against these sides, but the consistency in the high level of performance under Emery during these games is incredibly encouraging, and puts Arsenal in good stead for the semi-final.
Yes they’ve improved, and the signings have done very well to raise Arsenal’s level in big matches, but the squad isn’t good enough to sustain this form over a whole season.
The Gunners are enduring an end of season implosion which is somewhat skewing the results, with three defeats in a row and nine goals conceded in those games dragging Emery’s good work through mud. Still, it’s clear that the North Londoners have improved, and they’ll fancy themselves to go one step further in Europe this year by making the final.