No matter how well Unai Emery does in his first season in charge at Arsenal , his performance was always going to be compared to Arsene Wenger’s.
The Spaniard took over from the Gunners’ longest-serving manager during the summer, with a view to getting the north London club back into the Champions League and competing with Europe’s biggest clubs once again.
And the former PSG and Sevilla coach has guided Arsenal into fourth place with only eight Premier League matches remaining, while Emery also has the back-up option of qualifying through winning the Europa League.
The Gunners have reached the quarter-final stage of the competition where they will face Italian side Napoli.
But how different is Emery’s edition of the Arsenal squad compared to Wenger’s? We take a look at the comparisons between last season’s Arsenal and this year’s.
How have the starting XIs compared?
Arsenal starting XI vs Huddersfield (13th May 2018 – Wenger’s last game):
(4-3-3): Ospina; Bellerin, Mustafi, Holding, Kolasinac; Iwobi, Ramsey, Xhaka; Mhkitaryan, Lacazette, Aubameyang.
Arsenal starting XI vs Manchester United (10th March 2019 – Emery’s most recent league game):
(3-4-1-2): Leno; Sokratis, Koscielny, Monreal; Maitland-Niles, Ramsey, Xhaka, Kolasinac; Ozil; Lacazette, Aubameyang.
A goalkeeper who plays out the back
When Bernd Leno signed from Bayer Leverkusen over the summer, many believe that Emery was simply looking for a better individual between the sticks.
After all, the Gunners had conceded 51 goals during Wenger’s final season in charge – more than any other Arsenal team in the Premier League era before them.
However, Leno’s arrival coincides with Emery’s wish to play out from defence, particularly from goal kicks. The German shot stopper is more comfortable with his feet than veteran goalkeeper Petr Cech, and is therefore a more useful option with regards to starting build-up play from deep.
The Gunners’ statistics show how Emery has introduced this new style of play which was not always regular under the Arsene Wenger reign. This season, Leno has more attempted passes per game (30.6) than Cech had (23.9) when he was the Gunners’ first-choice ‘keeper last year.
The German also has a better passing accuracy (69.2%) than Cech had during the 2017-18 campaign (65.4%), proving that the former is more suited to Emery’s progressive style of play.
Aggressive and attacking full-backs
One clear difference between the two line-ups above is that Emery has been more open to playing with three central defenders. Although Wenger did occasionally revert to a back three in his final two seasons in charge, the Gunners looked far from convincing whilst deploying this system.
This year, Emery has frequently alternated between a back three and a more familiar back four, but the north London side look more organised and prepared for the risks that come with only three central defenders.
In short, the Arsenal head coach can afford to play a back three because of the efficient wing-backs that he has at his disposal. Emery has Hector Bellerin and Sead Kolasinac as his first-choice picks, who are natural defensive fullbacks who can affect matters at the top end of the pitch.
And both players already have more Premier League assists (5 each) than they did over the entirety of last season (Bellerin 3, Kolasinac 4), which shows how reliant Emery is on his wide players getting forward.
While Bellerin has been ruled out since early January after damaging his ACL in a match against Chelsea , young academy product Ainsley Maitland-Niles has filled in with ease, with superb displays in the Gunners’ last two games against Manchester United and Rennes.
A hard-working midfield
One area where Emery has certainly improved the Arsenal side is in midfield, as the Gunners appears to have more substance in the middle of the park compared to previous seasons under Wenger.
Not only has the new Arsenal head coach brought in improvements from outside the club – most notably the summer arrivals of middle men Lucas Torreira and Matteo Guendouzi – but Emery has improved the performances of the existing crop of Arsenal midfielders, including Aaron Ramsey and Granit Xhaka.
In the final game of last season against Huddersfield – Arsene Wenger’s final match as manager of Arsenal – both Ramsey and Xhaka made zero midfield interceptions against the Terriers, as the Yorkshire side were allowed nineteen shots on goal against the Gunners.
Two weeks ago against Manchester United, perhaps one of Unai Emery’s finest wins as Arsenal manager to date, both players attempted a combined total of ten interceptions against a talented United midfield.
Ramsey and Xhaka, alongside the rest of Arsenal’s midfield, appear to be more proactive than last season and not only does this give the Gunners more opportunities going forward, but also relieves a lot of pressure on their not-so-convincing defence.
A more central Aubameyang
When Arsenal completed the club record signing of striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang from Borussia Dortmund in January 2018, the Gunners suddenly had two top class strikers at their disposal, as the Gabon international joined former Lyon striker Alexandre Lacazette in the striking options at the Emirates.
While Wenger pleased Gunners fans by playing both forwards together on the same pitch, Aubameyang was often shoehorned out to the left hand side towards the back end of last season.
In the current regime, however, Emery has tried to avoid playing the Gabonese forward in a wide role and has kept him playing through the middle wherever possible, sometimes even in a front two with Lacazette.
This decision has brought about huge success; out of Aubameyang’s 17 Premier League goals this season, 14 of them have come whilst the striker has been playing in a central position.
And Aubameyang’s goalscoring exploits have not come at the expense of Lacazette’s, as the Frenchman himself has hit 12 league goals this campaign, including all-important goals in big games against Chelsea, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur.
The pair have 29 Premier League goals between them in 30 Premier League matches, making the Aubameyang-Lacazette partnership one of the most lethal in the division.
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