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Just how bad were Arsenal 12 months ago, and are they better off now?

At the time of writing, on this day last year, Arsenal were well beaten 2-0 by Leicester City and were in the middle of a winless run which would see Head Coach, Unai Emery, sacked. Fast forward to now and they have just been played off the park and humiliated by Aston Villa in their own back yard. Mikel Arteta has received plaudits during his tenure so far, largely for leading the club to FA Cup glory, but the Spaniard claimed full responsibility for the abysmal display against Villa. With some fans questioning team selections and performances, I take a look at if Arsenal are in fact in a better place now than they were before Arteta’s arrival.

First of all, do they have a stronger squad? Popular goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez left for Aston Villa, to many fans dismay, in a bid to raise funds. Martinez was too good to be sat on the bench and after rejecting a new contract to seek first team football elsewhere, the board were forced to cash in. Bernd Leno has had an indifferent start to the season, however his man of the match performance at Anfield in the Carabao Cup, showed a reminder that for the most part they are in safe hands. Henrikh Mkhitaryan left on a free whilst: Konstantinos Mavropanos, Lucas Torreira, Dejan Iliev and outcast Matteo Guendouzi all left the club on loan.

The wages saved and money made allowed for some incomings, the first being Willian on a free transfer. One good performance, against a weak Fulham side, has done little to prove that giving the 32-year-old a three-year deal was a smart choice.

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Rúnar Alex Rúnarsson was a budget replacement for Martinez whilst Cedric Soares and Pablo Mari’s loan deals were made permanent. The signings of Cedric and Mari have been uninspiring with the latter having been injured for a large majority of his stay. The jury is still out on Mari however the decision to give Cedric a 4-year deal when Southampton were happy to let his contract expire is a puzzling one. Overall the team has been strengthened, largely due to the signings of Gabriel Magalhaes and Thomas Partey. Gabriel, who is still only 22, has been head and shoulders their best defender this season and his performances earned him a thoroughly deserved player of the month award.

Thomas Partey on the other hand looks to be a midfield general that the Gunners have been missing for years. Two Man of the match displays in his four appearances so far, including a dazzling display in a 1-0 win at Old Trafford, has had even Roy Keane comparing him to his arch nemesis Patrick Vieira. Whilst id err on the side of caution when comparing to him to one of the all-time greats, the early signs are promising. Gabriel and Partey have injected a significant improvement to the spine of the team and despite their lack of goals, the new boys have excelled in their short spells.

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Most football fans have a very fickle memory and very firm recency bias. After the United victory, Arsenal fans were optimistic after they ended their 5-year winless run away at a big six side. One week later and it is all doom and gloom with comparisons to Unai Emery being drawn, so with that in mind it’s worth taking a look at just how bad were things at the club before Arteta?

Emery’s first season went quite well for the most part, that is until an embarrassing collapse at the end of the season, as well as a 5-1 defeat at Anfield earlier in the season. Upon our next visit to Anfield, Unai Emery stated that ‘we never want to play Liverpool’ which goes a long way in summarising the mentality at the club under the Spaniard. Back to the humiliating collapse however, Arsenal finished just a point off of the top four and just two behind Chelsea in third, meaning that had they beat: Brighton, Crystal Palace, Wolves or Leicester in what was four of their last five games of the season, they would have secured a long awaited return to Champions League football. The Gunners secured one point over the course of these games and shipped three goals in each of three embarrassing defeats. Not to worry though, if they were to win the Europa League final against London rivals Chelsea, that would earn them qualification. Chelsea thumped them 4-1 in what was the clubs’ biggest game of the past decade and qualification had slipped through their hands.

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Arsenal fans were hoping to abolish the memories of the season prior however they were unaware that they were about to embark on their worst season in 25 years. The warning signs were there when Burnley visited the Emirates and registered 18 shots on goal. A defeat to Liverpool and a draw with Tottenham followed before a trip to eventually relegated Watford, in which Arsenal blew a two-goal lead and conceded 31 shots. Despite not losing it was a truly shambolic display. A month later they were beaten by newly promoted Sheffield United and required two late free kicks to see off Vitoria SC at the Emirates, who once again out-shot them.

A winless run would which would see Emery lose his job started with them once again blowing a two-goal lead, this time against Crystal Palace followed by them blowing leads against Liverpool, Wolves and Vitoria. They did not even have a lead to blow against Leicester who played them off the park at the King Power registering 19 shots. Next up it was Southampton’s turn to pepper the Emirates goal frame registering 22 shots in a 2-2 draw, with Arsenal requiring a 96th minute equaliser to scrape a point. A defeat at home to Frankfurt in the Europa League was the final straw and Emery was gone, much to the relief of fans at the time.

Match-going Arsenal fan Daniel Prince, 22, said that in his young lifetime, the end of the Emery era were his worst days as a fan to date. “It was bad, every time I went to the Emirates, I was resigned to us not winning and even if we were winning, I was wondering how we would throw it away. It sounds dramatic but I think I went to 5 or 6 home games in a row in which we were awful, including an 20:15 kick off to get turned over by Brighton and getting thumped 3-0 by City in which quite frankly it was boys against men.”

“It sounds trivial because some lower league clubs are probably accustomed to this, but at Arsenal there is an expectancy and it just was not good enough.” Dan also touched on the extortionate amount of money he paid to go and see the club during their torrid run of form. “In the game against City, we were behind from the second minute and quite frankly we didn’t even have a kick. I spent over £100 that day just on the match ticket and travel alone. The whole experience was draining and soul destroying.

After Emery, Freddie Ljungberg’s stepped in as caretaker manager. In his first game the Gunners drew at newly promoted Norwich and were then beaten 2-1 at home by Brighton, conceding 35 shots over the two games. He would oversee just one win in his six games as boss, a 3-1 win at West Ham, ending a 9-game winless run – Arsenal’s worst run of form since 1977.

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Now after triggering Arsenal fans PTSD, Has the club improved with Mikel Arteta at the helm? There’s two ways to spin this so I will give you both sides to help you make an informed decision. The worrying and slightly scary perspective for Arsenal fans is that Unai Emery had a better record at this point in his reign than Mikel Arteta does. With 28 league games played each, Emery boasts 17 wins (60.7%) compared to Arteta’s 13 (46.4%). Emery only lost six times in this period compared to Arteta’s nine defeats so far whilst massively outscoring his Spanish counterpart as they bagged 60 goals under Emery and a lowly 41 under Arteta. In fact, Arsenal haven’t scored a Premier League goal from open play for six hours and 26 minutes, they currently sit 13th in the league for goals scored and 16th for expected goals (XG). Seems pretty conclusive evidence but there is much more than meets the eye.

First of all, it is worth bearing in mind that Arteta’s record includes when he first took over when as previously mentioned, Arsenal were in their worst run of form since 1977. A rookie manager walking into that mess was never going to shoot them straight to the top of the league, so here’s what he did do.

He fixed a defence full of defenders which well respected pundit and ex-player, Gary Neville, labelled as ‘uncoachable’. Arsenal went into the weekend just gone with the best defensive record in the league having kept a clean sheet at Old Trafford in their previous run out. The same game saw them record their first league win away at Manchester United in 14 years and ended a 29-game winless run away at the Premier League’s traditional ‘big six’ sides, a run stretching back five years. In fact, Arsenal have been consistently more competitive against the top six since Arteta’s appointment. Under Emery they recorded just three wins in 17 games against them, whilst conceding an abysmal 39 goals in the meantime. Arteta however has overseen six wins, including two penalty shootout victories over Liverpool, in 13 games, whilst conceding only 16 goals.

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Arteta also lead the club to a record breaking 14th FA cup victory in his inaugural season in management whilst also playing a key role in persuading FA Cup hero Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to sign a new long-term deal. He’s also helped tie their most promising youngsters, Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli down to new long-term deals. It seems Arteta has the players full support and was instrumental in persuading them to take pay cuts due to the financial implications of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Arsenal’s recent attacking form is a worry but there is reason for Arsenal fans to be hopeful. There has only been one summer window since his appointment and in this window, the clubs’ two marquee signings look to be a success. With a few more windows, Arteta will be able to bring in more players of the quality of Gabriel and Partey and in time will find the balance between attack and defence. It took Liverpool three and a half years to complete a process similar to what Arteta is aiming to do at Arsenal: it will not be easy, it will take time and it will take patience, but there is reason for fans to be optimistic that Arsenal will get there eventually.

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