“Now is the time for us to turn a new page and look forward with confidence. There’s a special feeling here and we need to recapture this and push this club forward.”
Those were just some of the words uttered by Unai Emery during his unveiling as Arsenal manager back in 2018, words that had Arsenal fans so optimistic about the future with their Spanish coach.
But fast forward 18 months and the feeling is that Emery has failed to deliver on some of the promises that he dished out during that same press conference. Overall, there's a growing sense that Emery's days in north London are already numbered.
After guiding Arsenal to fifth in the Premier League and the Europa League final last season - it doesn't matter what happened in the final, at least they got there - Emery had an OK maiden season at his new club with 'Wenger's squad'.
However, after an aggressive transfer window that saw record-signing Nicolas Pepe arrive at the club along with Real Madrid's Dani Ceballos (on loan) and Celtic hero Kieran Tierney, many expected that this Arsenal team would show signs of reaching the 'next-step', whatever that step might be.
But, despite their personnel and overall talent improving, under Emery, Arsenal aren't going anywhere drastic anytime soon.
During his time in Spain and then France, Emery gained a reputation for taking a conservative approach in games and quite frankly being 'vanilla'. This season, the Spaniard has demonstrated exactly that on a few occasions, especially with team selections.
The ones that stick out are the Spurs and Manchester United games. Against a confidence-ridden Tottenham on matchday four, Emery deployed three defensive-minded midfielders in his midfield three. As a result, the Gunners trailed 2-1 at half time and created close to zilch in the opening 45 minutes thanks to the large gap between the midfield and the front three - no-one could link play together.
Against the worst United side of the Premier League era - no, I don't care that they got a point against Liverpool - Emery used Lucas Torreira as near enough a number ten with Granit Xhaka and Matteo Guendouzi playing as the pair behind him. The result: Arsenal created - you guessed it - close to zilch and went into the break 1-0 down, this time as a result of Torreira's deficiencies as an attacking and creative threat.
The fact Arsenal still can't defend, which is a surprise considering Emery did promise he'd solve the issue, doesn't exactly help either. In both of these matches, he changed the system early on in the second half - adding a natural creator to the midfield - and Arsenal came away with a point from both games. But why did it take him to the second-half to realise the issue when most fans could identify the problem an hour before kick-off when the teams were announced?
The game at Bramall Lane against the newly-promoted Sheffield United told us a lot about Emery, and the game may well turn out to be the foundation of a nail creeping into a coffin.
What is Arsenal's attacking identity under Emery? Just putting it out there. How many times did we see have to watch Calum Chambers punt the ball downfield for Pepe or Aubameyang or watch the same 'patterns' of play unfold with Guendouzi or Xhaka distributing wide to an advancing full-back for nothing to come of it?
The fact that Emery was relying on the counter-attack to break down a newly-promoted side, albeit a stout one, says it all. Ultimately, the manager's conservative nature seemed to reflect on his players. In possession, they lacked character, especially in the midfield. Instead of taking risks on the ball, the double-pivot of Xhaka and Guendouzi persisted with 'safe' passes out to the full-back, rarely did I see a progressive pass between the lines or even a decent ball carry. They almost looked scared on it.
Despite Ceballos' typical huffing and puffing, where he'd get on the ball a lot but wouldn't do a whole lot with it, Arsenal failed to create anything at all in the second period.
No creativity, no ideas, no identity.
In the 1-0 defeat to the Blades, Emery wasn't exactly the 'protagonist' he set himself out to be or, at least, become when he arrived in England. With 20 minutes to go, he bundled on Alexandre Lacazette replacing him for Xhaka. The result: Arsenal looked like a team on Pro Clubs - no structure whatsoever and a bunch of attackers left high up the pitch. Emery went into desperation mode way too early.
It was a game that was crying out for a bit of Mesut Ozil, just a shame Emery has frozen the German out of his matchday squads.
Oh, and by the way, if your three best defenders are fit (Tierney, Rob Holding and Hector Bellerin), just play them for crying out loud.
Despite the manager's struggles, there's reason for Arsenal fans to be hopeful. With Raul Sanllehi as the Head of Football and Edu as the Technical Director, the Gunners seem to be heading in the right direction and that was reflected in the summer window.
There's been an emphasis on bringing in and promoting youth - we saw 18-year-old prodigy William Saliba sign for the club (joining next season) along with 22-year-old Tierney and 24-year-old Pepe. It was an exciting window for a club that was meant to be restricted financially.
To go with this, we've seen the likes of Joe Willock, Bukayo Saka, Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Reiss Nelson have significant opportunities in the first-team over the past couple of seasons, something Emery should be credited for.
Ultimately, Emery's words of a 'special feeling' at the club don't seem to be far off and with a crux of fresh, youthful talent coming through at Arsenal, and it does look like the club is ready to head into a successful new era.
The only problem is the man overseeing it all.
Source : 90min