Unai Emery's first six months at Arsenal: fresh optimism for fans and a team that can contend
Arsenal's winning streak might have ended with Sunday's 2-2 draw at Crystal Palace, but the sense of a new beginning still possesses the club. Those 11 victories, Arsenal's best streak in a decade, came parallel to a palpable sense of progress in a time of considerable change.
In a little more than two weeks, Unai Emery will have been Arsenal manager for six months, a period in which a club held in stasis for so long under Arsene Wenger has been undergoing rapid reinvention. In conjunction with a new manager, a whole new power structure has been put in place. New ideas, new approaches, new opportunities and also, no doubt, new threats.
Once supporters could predict, often with grim inevitability, what Arsenal's fortunes would be. They intimately knew every aspect of Wenger, from his overarching football philosophy down to every last turn of phrase and eccentricity. Now everything has changed.
In the final, fractious years of Wenger's reign, many Arsenal supporters had to fight for that change. Some hit the streets in organised protest while others began to howl their disappointment from the stands and their sofas; another faction of fans dissented more quietly. All of these groups were often told, in gently patronising tones, that they should "be careful what they wish for." But change did come, and now those who advocated so strongly for Wenger to leave, as well as those who were more circumspect, are both going through the same process of discovery together. But what have some of Arsenal's closest observers made of the transformation from Wenger to Emery?
"I think Emery has settled in well at the club," says Mark Sandell, who held a season ticket for more than 20 years. "The transition between the two managers has, so far, been a smooth and painless experience for both the club and its supporters. Bearing in mind the legacy left by Wenger, it's been a real blessing."
Aside from two opening defeats to Manchester City and Chelsea, it has been a remarkably painless affair. Arsenal's 11-game winning streak might have glossed over persistent defensive issues, but there were some truly magic moments too. The standout might have been the third goal in a 3-1 win over Leicester, when Mesut Ozil's bewitching build-up play resulted in Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang slotting home. The scenes of euphoria spoke of a genuine excitement that seems to have returned. More than anything, though, is the fact that, after two decades of Wenger, there are new ideas being implemented.
"What's fun is that things aren't predictable. The puzzle is the same, but the way we solve things is different," says Andrew Allen, a season-ticket holder since 2006. "Whether it's shifting formation or hooking players early, it feels like the manager knows he can influence a game with his decision-making. In the past few years of Arsene's reign, substitutions always felt like a last throw of the dice and added to a sense of desperation."
Emery's enthusiasm for early substitutions is a recurring reference point for supporters, and his general responsiveness to match situations, in contrast to Wenger's stubborn streak, appears to have won fans over.
"While Arsenal have ridden their luck at times, they've looked more decisive in their play, as shown by some clinical attacking and finishing," says supporter James Dall. "There is a flexibility to Emery's tactics too, depending on the opponents, which was something very much lacking under Wenger."
For many supporters, this season will be the first in their living memory without Wenger in charge. Those with decades more experience of supporting the club see echoes in history.
"Some of us have seen all this before, but a vast amount have not," says Darren Epstein, a season-ticket holder for over 35 years and a shareholder for 30. "I hark back to when George Graham arrived. The fans were low, but they saw that we had some decent youth players, as did George. But we had sacred cows in the side. He came in, got rid of some and brought young players in for a mix. The fans were completely behind that, and it was supremely positive. I think the same is true now."
A re-established meritocracy has seen some established figures struggle, like Aaron Ramsey, and some unlikely heroes emerge, with Emery rejuvenating players whose stagnation had become a real source of concern.
"We sort of knew that Arsene's players were underperforming rather than bad, and we hoped that a new coach might be able to coax them back to a higher level," Allen says. "In that respect, it's been positive seeing the likes of [Hector] Bellerin, [Rob] Holding and [Alex] Iwobi thrive this season."
New acquisitions have played their part too, and one in particular keeps cropping up in every conversation you have with Arsenal fans. Lucas Torreira is a player of the type Arsenal have needed for years, and a type for which Wenger developed a chronic blind spot.
"The addition of Torreira is huge, it's just a shame that we didn't buy such a player three years ago; I am convinced we would have won the league," Epstein says. "He is as responsible as anyone for the run we have gone on."
The Uruguayan has embodied the changes at Arsenal over the past six months. As well as being a new face, Torreira has transplanted some much-needed fight into a team that, while still far from perfect, now has greater quality and greater motivation to reach its targets. Defensive issues remain a concern across the fan base and many are careful not to get too carried away by early results, but the sense of excitement is unmistakable.
As Sandell says: "The team seem to have a new vigour and enthusiasm. They look as if they enjoy playing under Emery's leadership. Most importantly our results have started to improve. We are playing good exciting football again. It'll take time, but I think the club is moving in the right direction. Fingers crossed."