What exactly has changed at Arsenal under Unai Emery?

Charlie Eccleshare
The Telegraph
Unai Emery issues instructions on the Arsenal training pitch last week - Arsenal FC
Unai Emery issues instructions on the Arsenal training pitch last week - Arsenal FC

Arsenal have won nine consecutive matches in all competitions  their best run in more than three years. So what has Unai Emery changed since taking over from Arsène Wenger in the summer?

Greater attention to detail

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Towards the end of Wenger's reign at Arsenal, a sense emerged that things were being done not necessarily because they were the most effective way, but because, well, that's always how they had been done. 

After 22 years in charge, this was understandable. How many of us really think through our pre-work routine in the morning for instance?

Emery though has come in and, with the benefits of an outsider's perspective, examined all the small details at the club and evaluated how they can be improved upon. 

Take his approach to last week's away game at Qarabag. Based on conversations with his support staff and a study of the player data available to him, Emery believed that Arsenal would be better served training at the Baku Olympic Stadium in Azerbaijan the day before the game rather than doing so at London Colney as they would have done in previous years.

Arsenal have also trained more at Emirates Stadium this season than under Wenger. 

Midfielder Alex Iwobi praised the policy change prior to the Qarabag match: "It’s good for us to train on the pitch as well so we can get familiar and get used to the pitch," he said. "We’ve started doing it recently this season so it will help us adjust to that in our training session. It will be great for us to train on the pitch today and get used to it so that we can prepare for the match."

Then after the game instead of staying overnight, the squad flew home that evening and had a day off on the Friday. 

Were Arsenal's comprehensive wins against Qarabag and Fulham a direct consequence of these changes? We can't know. But we do know that these tweaks to the side's preparation were active decisions being made based on intelligence and educated guesswork rather than habit. 

Emery also differs from Wenger in his almost manic focus. As Emery's former player Joaquín once observed: "He’s obsessed by football. It’s practically an illness."

Wenger by contrast seemed to be less detail-orientated the longer his reign went on. Ahead of the Europa League game at Ostersunds, the assembled British press were stunned by Wenger's lack of knowledge about Arsenal's Swedish opponents. Wenger was also caught out by a question about who would captain the side in the match, admitting that he had not thought about it. 

Emery, like Pep Guardiola and Antonio Conte, would never leave such a decision to chance. As for his insight into Arsenal's opposition, Emery was impressive in the way he discussed Qarabag in his pre-match press conference last week. 

Tactical flexibility

In three halves of football against Qarabag and Fulham, Emery played with three different systems  about as many as Wenger used in the decade between 2006 and 2016. 

On Thursday night, central defender Sokratis pointed to the value of Emery's switching between three and four at the back against Qarabag. "It is very good we try new things," he said

"It's very good, because sometimes in matches like this you need to find a new tactic to win or play better. It is good that the manager works on a lot of situations and we learned a lot about what we have to do in games."

Emery has also frequently tweaked his system mid-game and made early substitutions, usually with positive results. After all, in all six of Arsenal's league wins this season they were drawing at half-time. 

<span>Arsenal have won nine consecutive matches in all competitions</span> <span>Credit: Getty Images&nbsp; </span>
Arsenal have won nine consecutive matches in all competitions Credit: Getty Images 

Better balanced

One of the stylistic departures from the Wenger era has been a subtle switch to a more varied way of playing. Emery's preference has always been to build from the back, but he is happy to mix this with a more pragmatic approach when required. 

In the Premier League last season, 8.49 per cent of Arsenal's passes were long, compared to a much higher 11.33 per cent this. By the same token, Arsenal hit 91.51 per cent of their passes short last season, compared to 88.67 this. 

One of the consequences is that Arsenal have been more dangerous on the counter-attack, as evidenced against Fulham.  

Too often in the last few seasons, Arsenal were laborious on the counter and in general play. It made the enduring notion that they were good to watch something of a myth. 

Allied to playing more directly has been the greater security provided by new signing Lucas Torreira. Defensive midfield has been a problem position for Arsenal for a decade, but in Torreira they have found someone who relishes the ugly side of the game. The defence has been provided with much greater protection as a result, while Granit Xhaka has been far more effective in a ball-playing rather than destroyer role. 

Arsenal are still giving away too many chances but they have conceded just one goal in the three league games Torreira has started. 

Improved coaching

There may be a degree of confirmation bias at work here, but a suspicion grew in the later Wenger years that players were not being properly coached. The improvement of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain  the poster boy for Wengerian stagnation  under Jürgen Klopp last season served to reinforce this perception. 

Now in Emery's care, players who looked to be drifting under Wenger are reasserting themselves. Iwobi is the most obvious test case here

After showing promise in his maiden 2015-16 season, Iwobi soon lost all of his early swagger and played as if he had been neutered in the following two years. 

Under Emery, the confidence is back. He is more assertive and dynamic, and above all is enjoying himself again. 

After starring from the bench against Watford, Iwobi explained the transformation. "The boss has basically told me if something doesn’t work, keep going and don’t dwell on it," he said. 

"He’s told me to stop being so critical and to just keep trying no matter what happens, no matter if things don’t go as I want them to."  

Pre-Qarabag, Iwobi added that he is not the only one benefiting from Emery's more hands-on approach: "The team is enjoying the new style and the new things we’ve brought into training so it’s not just me that’s enjoying playing with freedom, it’s my team-mates as well." 

Héctor Bellerín is another player who looks as though he's reaping the rewards of hard work on the training pitch. Bellerín's final ball has noticeably improved, and he already has the same number of Premier League assists (three) as last season. 

Youngster Emile Smith Rowe has enjoyed probably the most dramatic improvement, and said after scoring his first Arsenal goal at Qarabag last week: "He [Emery] has been a real big help to me personally because he is always talking to me after training. And as a team, he is always talking to us, having a lot of meetings after training and even before matches."

In effect, Wenger's laissez-faire approach to coaching has given way to Emery's highly-taxing methods. Emery likes to be in control of his players' output and is known to laboriously walk them through patterns of play. 

During games Emery is so high-energy in his issuing of instructions that Match of the Day produced a heat map to illustrate his perpetual movement during the 2-0 win against Watford.   

Flatter structure

As Wenger's reign came to an end, it appeared as though some of the squad took advantage of his good nature - like schoolboys with a kindly teacher approaching retirement. 

Alexis Sánchez was surely the most indulged. Despite him desperately wanting to leave the club last summer, he quickly became a first-team regular again. 

Sánchez   along with Mesut Özil, Aaron Ramsey and Xhaka  was seemingly immune from being substituted no matter how badly he was playing. 

Naturally, there is a tendency to give your best players preferential treatment, but the feeling at Arsenal this season is that no-one is safe if they turn in a sub-standard performance or miss a game. 

Xhaka and Iwobi are among those who have been hooked at half-time, while Ramsey has been in and out of the team. Record signing and top scorer Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was absent in Qarabag due to illness, and then found himself on the bench against Fulham because Danny Welbeck had impressed in Azerbaijan and in the previous few weeks. 

Last season by contrast, Wenger effectively split his squad into two during the first half of the season  one side for the league, another for the cups. It created a sense of an 'A' team and a 'B' team, with promotion and demotion between them very rare. It was no coincidence that under-valued 'B'-teamers Olivier Giroud and Theo Walcott then decided to leave in January. 

Emery's selection process has been far more fluid. First-team regulars have stayed sharp with cup run-outs, while fringe players like Welbeck and Iwobi have used the Carabao Cup and Europa League to force their way into the side.

New signings like Bernd Leno and Torreira have also been made to prove their worth, and began their Arsenal careers on the bench. Fellow new boy Sokratis started as first choice, but despite recovering from a knee injury, he was benched against Fulham in recognition of Rob Holding's impressive performances while deputising. 

Overall, there looks to be a far greater unity among the players than this time a year ago. Appearances can be deceptive but compare the celebrations at Craven Cottage on Sunday with those last December at Selhurst Park when half the team refused to celebrate with Sánchez after he had scored against Crystal Palace. 

It's hard to imagine such a situation happening now, and it will be interesting to see how Emery handles Özil's return to fitness for Arsenal's next game, at home to Leicester. Whatever the decision, you suspect it will have been made on merit. 

A note of caution

As I wrote last week, Arsenal have been grinding out victories without playing brilliantly. Broadly this means one of two things: imagine how effective they will be when they hit their stride, or their luck is going to run out soon. 

The thumping win at Fulham suggested it may be the latter, but Arsenal's expected goals (xG) stats for this season are striking. So far in the league, they have scored 8.36 more than they would have been expected to. This is by far the highest differential in the division (Leicester are next with 4.09) and suggest Arsenal's current rate of scoring is unsustainable if they continue to create the same number of chances. 

There is also the argument that Arsenal have simply won matches against lesser sides that you would expect them to. This has a certain validity, but it's worth remembering that last season Arsenal lost away at Newcastle and picked up just one point from three matches against the relegated sides. So away victories already at Newcastle, Cardiff and Fulham should not be sniffed at, nor should the fact that Arsenal have already won only one fewer away league game than they did all of last season. 

In reality, the Arsenal picture will become a lot clearer in December once they have faced Liverpool, Tottenham and Manchester United in pretty quick succession. 

Arsenal may well come unstuck, but they also might spring a surprise. The truth is, we don't know  and perhaps that is the biggest change of all from the late-Wenger era.

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