Why Arsenal are a season away from contention

Mesut Ozil Arsenal Tactical Analysis Unai Emery

It’s been very difficult to gauge Arsenal’s season in 2018/19. The Gunners have had highs and lows, and while some may be satisfied that new manager Unai Emery seems to have been a net positive, others will undoubtedly be more impatient for a return to the top of the league.

For his part, Emery has shown immense promise, partly through his own doing and partly by being a new face. Arsene Wenger has a wonderful legacy as the boss at the Emirates, but he had also – by most every estimation – worn out his welcome by the end of the 2017/18 campaign. Wenger simply had to go for the club to reboot its culture somewhat and gain some forward momentum in the quest to return to Premier League (and Champions League) glory. Any decent manager would have been well received, and Emery has proven to be far better than decent. It’s no small task to take over even a top club and not take notable steps back; most would say Arsenal is better than it was a season ago.

On the other hand, the refreshing act of moving forward and the promising management of Emery still hasn’t vaulted the Gunners into contention. Looking not just at the standings but at the odds and predictions posted at the most up-to-date sites for football speculation, it’s clear that Arsenal is scraping and clawing to finish fourth and earn the right to play into the Champions League. A top-four finish, for a lot of clubs, is a wonderful achievement, and under the circumstances of transition, it may even be considered as such for Arsenal. However, longtime supporters will be disappointed that the top three doesn’t appear to be on the table.

Regardless of where anyone falls between these two reads on the situation, however, there is less doubt about the future. Under Emery, there appear to be legitimate reasons for optimism for the seasons ahead. It will take a lot for Arsenal to challenge Manchester City and Liverpool for the league in the next season or two, but nudging out Tottenham, Chelsea, and Manchester United to position itself in the top tier is within reach.

Specifically, here’s why things are looking up.

Defence Is A Clear Priority

One would think we could have written this in any of the last five, or almost 10 years. The defence at the Emirates has been a problem for far too long, and it remains an issue this season. The difference between this and some recent years past, however, is that Emery has clearly made it a priority to upfield the defensive positions and build from the back. That it hasn’t exactly clicked just yet is frustrating for supporters, but they should take heart that the club is on the case. There are some reports of targeting midfield upgrades in the summer transfer window, but Emery’s work thus far also suggests he’ll be pursuing a defensive unit that can bring about meaningful improvement.

The Attack Is A Machine

No longer is the Gunners’ attack revolving around an unhappy Alexis Sanchez or the always good but seldom great Olivier Giroud. Arsenal his scoring at an even pace with the best teams in the EPL, save Manchester City, which frankly has a ludicrous attack these days. This is largely thanks to the creative and aggressive duo of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette, and while the numbers aren’t dramatically better than those of some recent seasons, something about this attack feels more sustainable and reliable. The chemistry is good and getting better, and this only seems to highlight the fact that even a mild shoring up of the defence could be all the Gunners need to vault into the top tier.

There’s Movement On The Ozil Front

You can hardly run an online search for Arsenal these days without uncovering a story about what’s to be done with Mesut Ozil. Once one of the most promising additions in modern club history, and at times a brilliant midfield force, Ozil and the club have never quite gotten comfortable with one another, and at this point, it’s fair to say it’s become a distraction. Ozil appears to be intent on staying in London, but at the same time there are whispers of a replacement – specifically Bayer Leverkusen’s Kai Havertz, a 19-year-old rising star said to be favoured by Emery. There’s no telling how this resolves, but it’s encouraging even to hear that there might be a resolution in the near future.

Culture Shift Is Real

Somewhat intangibly, but perhaps most importantly, there is also a very real culture shift at Arsenal. There have been various stories written that all essentially hint at the same thing, which is that football under Emery feels fun again for the Gunners. It’s maybe most visible in the play of the aforementioned forwards, who have for the most part appeared to have a blast headlining the Arsenal attack all season. A visible culture shift when we’re still only a handful of months into the first new management tenure in decades is no small matter. If this team continues to have fun, develop its new persona under Emery, and jell as a unit, it may all amount to more improvement than can ever be made via the transfer market or tactical shifts.

Considering all of the above, it’s not a stretch to say Arsenal is just a season away from real EPL contention.