Life after Wenger looking rosy for Arsenal with Emery
As the goals piled up and a ninth straight win began to look increasingly secure, a chant of “We’ve got our Arsenal back” boomed out from the away end at Craven Cottage.
So much for life after Arsene Wenger being fraught and a worrying leap into the unknown.
Arsenal hasn’t had it this good in years.
The 5-1 win at Fulham in the Premier League on Sunday featured traits that made most of Wenger’s teams in his 22-year tenure so enjoyable to watch: Fluidity of movement, easy-on-the-eye passing, a commitment to attack, all mixed with a certain defensive susceptibility that often ensured entertainment at both ends of the field.
After 11 games of his tenure at Arsenal, Unai Emery will take that.
The ongoing turbulence at Manchester United — more than five years after Alex Ferguson ended his long reign at Old Trafford — highlighted just how difficult a job Emery was taking on at Arsenal. Replacing Wenger, whose methods and impact was so deeply entrenched at the London club, was tantamount to replacing the irreplaceable, they said.
Yet, after opening the season with back-to-back losses against likely title contenders Manchester City and Chelsea, Arsenal has won six straight games in the league at an average of almost three goals scored per game, won both of its group matches in the Europa League, and advanced in the English League Cup.
Heading into the two-week international break, Arsenal is fourth in the Premier League and only two points behind first place.
It hasn’t been a seamless transition under Emery — the defense is still a work in progress — but Arsenal’s ability to switch from one competition to the next, often with very different lineups and formations, and still get the victories is a triumph for the Spanish coach and the approach he is trying to install. The emphatic win over Fulham on Sunday, for example, came after the squad returned from Thursday night’s Europa League game against Qarabag in Azerbaijan at 5 a.m. on Friday.
Three things, in particular, stood out against Fulham that will fill Arsenal with confidence.
Firstly, the performance of Lucas Torreira. The diminutive Uruguayan looks to be the ball-playing midfield anchorman Arsenal has needed for years, fixing a department that had become one of Wenger’s curious blind spots.
Torreira was signed from Sampdoria in the offseason and has been slowly integrated by Emery because of his exertions in the World Cup and the fact he is new to English soccer. He has energy, can read the game well, and keeps his passing simple. He also seems to be bringing the best out of midfield teammate Granit Xhaka, who never looked at home as Arsenal’s holding midfielder.
Secondly, the team goal scored by Aaron Ramsey. It was an almost-length-of-the-field move, featuring flicks, tricks, one-touch passing and an impudent finish that made the score 3-1. It revived memories of the passing move from which Jack Wilshere scored for Arsenal against Norwich in 2013, and sparked the “We’ve got our Arsenal back” chant.
Thirdly, the finishing of strikers Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who both scored two goals and whose form shows Arsenal won’t be short of goals this season. Emery still might be unsure exactly how to fit both players in the same team — Aubameyang was on the bench at the start after an illness and has sometimes played on the left wing — but they have scored a combined 11 goals this season and appear to be close on and off the field.
Arsenal played in a traditional 4-4-2 against Fulham, significantly without injured playmaker Mesut Ozil, and its attack looked as fluent as it has all season. It helped, of course, that Fulham again played such an expansive style that is bound to give opponents chances.
Arsenal should only get better as the players fully get to grips with what is wanted by Emery, who understandably was quick to downplay post-match talk of his team potentially challenging for the league title.
City, Liverpool and Chelsea, the current top three, still look to be a notch above. Yet Arsenal, after those painful last few years under Wenger, seems to be a force once more.
Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80