For Arsenal fans, victory on Wednesday evening is all that will matter. A European trophy, a return to the Champions League and a significant influx of cash that will hopefully give Emery the tools to rebuild and restructure a somewhat dysfunctional squad will be significant reward for what has been at times an underwhelming season.
Given the vitriol we are likely to see should Arsenal fail to make good on their Champions League objective, any subsequent evaluation of Emery and his progress this season may prove inconsequential. Some may argue that to appraise the Arsenal manager before his final, and possibly most important, game of the season may prove reductive – however the same could be argued in the aftermath of a one-off cup-final that is in its nature not always a barometer of a team’s competence.
Emery will be aware that deficiencies are very much apparent in this Arsenal squad: there has been no improvement in the defence, Ozil has become an even greater luxury than he was under Wenger and Xhaka is still having moments that a youth team player would be embarrassed about, to name but a few.
These weaknesses in conjunction with Arsenal’s end of season timorousness proved fatal to Arsenal’s hopes of finishing in the top four. Teams that should have been brushed aside proved to be valiant foes. Teams that should have been difficult tests became the most unpredictable of end-of-level video game baddies. These incidents should not be swept aside if Arsenal win tonight. But neither should they detract from some early positive signs.
In a recent interview with Munda, Emery suggested he wants Arsenal ‘to be a chameleon team, able to play in possession, in static attack against close opponents, or to counterattack.’
Even the most optimistic of Arsenal fans would cast aspersions over the claim that Arsenal are a confident possession-based team. But the foundations for such a claim are certainly there. Leno has proved himself to be a fine ball-playing goalkeeper. Xhaka has become an important cog in their build up. Lacazette has proved an upgrade on Giroud as he contributes goals as well as being an excellent link man. Even Mustafi has retained some value through his ability to pass out from the back and Guendouzi has been fast-tracked to the first team due to his range of passing.
Emery will hope he can build on this to support his wonderfully exciting forward line. In Lacazette and Aubameyang, Arsenal have one of the most devastating strike partnerships in the world. Like Lennon and McCartney, they can undoubtedly do it on their own but they are clearly better with a Harrison and Starr to keep them in time and an Epstein to offer them guidance. In order for Emery to fully implement his vision of a possession based team, he needs the right personnel. Unfortunately, finding the requisite quality to support the showbiz pizzazz will very much rely on their success tonight.
One significant improvement has been their preparation for games against the big six. Arsenal are no longer the befuddled grandparent at a grandchild’s 18th birthday party at the local pub – having to be brought home early on account of a draught and the music being too loud. Emery has instilled them with a bite that is reminiscent of Wenger’s earlier teams. A belief that they can upset the apple cart.
These games, so often a helter-skelter collision of two teams buoyed by the insatiable appetite of a 60,000+ crowd, act as an equalizer – eliminating the usual patterns of play that both teams rely upon throughout the course of a season; with instinct, power and pace becoming the deciding factors.
While this suits Arsenal for the time-being, Emery will surely want his teams to become more technically proficient in such big games.
The Spaniard has, as such, admitted as much. ‘[At] Arsenal we want to raise the physical level little by little, without the rest deteriorating.’ It won’t have been lost on him that Klopp is succeeding at Liverpool with a game that is as much based around the exploits of his Fab 4 as it is with the high octane energy of his two fullbacks. Guardiola has also identified the need for an effervescent team; his is a ball-playing unit that twists their opponents into submission.
It is interesting then that Emery has pinpointed two players that live on opposite ends of this philosophical spectrum: Ozil, the fulcrum when playing static possession football and Aubameyang, the danger man who ‘seeks to exploit areas behind the defences, and who also has the gift of goal.’
Emery’s struggles to combine the two – whether the problem stems from Ozil’s off-the-ball output or Aubameyang’s contribution against compact teams may be an oversimplification of the problem. Most fans are excited by the prospect of seeing the system click and plenty of pundits, particularly those with an Arsenal bias, will have you believe that it’s possible for both to co-exist in this Arsenal team.
While that may be true, I find it hard to recall an occasion when Arsenal played a possession-based game at anything other than a pedestrian pace. While this may seem like damning criticism of the Spaniard’s philosophy, it is not meant to be. Guardiola, the manager who has finished the last two seasons with 198 points had teething problems in his first season: high profile mistakes in the form of player recruitment and compatibility errors in his style of play and the players at his disposal resulted in a third place finish. In his first season in charge, Klopp finished 8th. In his second, fourth. Evidently it takes time for a philosophy to take hold.
Should Arsenal fail to win tonight, then many of the positive changes Emery has introduced will be lost in the din. But let’s not forget, the Arsenal manager has achieved success in the Europa League thrice in his career. Should Arsenal win tonight, there can be no doubt that these are the tricks in Emery’s trade.