In sports, as in life, one’s true colours and potential can only be revealed with great challenge.
Arsenal played their third “top six” opponent of the season on Saturday: Liverpool. A great time to check in on Emery’s progress at Arsenal.
The Gunners started their season with a 0-2 loss against reigning champions Man City and a 2-3 defeat to rivals Chelsea. It was evident then that when considering not only the results – but their performances too – Arsenal were a team with a steep mountain to climb and would likely struggle against their fiercest Premier League competitors this season. A regained Champions League spot through league qualification was a hopeful, unlikely dream.
83 days after the opening losses Arsenal welcomed Liverpool; a team at the apex of Klopp’s time at the club, had their most impressive season since perhaps the mid 2000s, and is believed to be Man City’s only obstacle in their pursuit of another league title. It was a match-up that tested Emery’s talent, vision as well as the progression that has been expanding in between these games, in which the Spaniard’s raw Arsenal side have won 12, drawn one, lost none.
Liverpool’s visit has, if not answered, at least indicated conclusions to the questions forming a mist around the Emirates: How good are Arsenal really? Is their recent 13-game unbeatable streak all a facade built on luck?
Arsenal shone bright against Liverpool on Saturday. Emery showed that not only has the team progressed from a raw, uncertain, learning-on-the-go team to a group that will use what they’ve learnt in a limited time to the fullest – and play to win with courage and confidence – against a team that was rightfully big favourites.
Arsenal played with cohesion, tactical understanding and determination. Playing out from the back has improved significantly since August, as evident by Arsenal’s equaliser and numerous other goals (like Ramsey’s flick against Fulham). The team isn’t as awkward in Emery’s pivotal pressing system. Bellerin is consistently producing good performances and attacking contributions with one less assist than all of last season (4). All the central midfielders are thriving in a deeper, more role-oriented system (Torreira the tireless ball-winner and Xhaka/Guendouzi the playmakers). And the problem facilitating both Aubameyang and Lacazette in the starting lineup has been addressed with success (although not a perfect solution).
The players showed that the work done at the training ground is applicable on the big stage, and they’re completely onboard with Emery’s philosophies.
Arsenal aren’t perfect, there are still issues, but the 1-1 draw was a fair result in regards to statistics and performances that depicts Arsenal’s impressive progress since August. It proved that Emery’s Arsenal, as of this moment, have developed into a viable competitor to the likes of Liverpool.
As Emery said after the game:
“Today is one test, how we are against a team like Liverpool. Maybe after Manchester City and Chelsea, today we are more near those teams. But we need this quality in every match.”
While Arsenal shone so bright against Liverpool, it also highlighted the main issue of the season: the defensive instability. This is where Emery should focus the team’s future progress. Too many chances are still conceded. Combined with Arsenal’s usually slow starts it puts most games right on the edge, where they can go either way in a moment of individual error or misfortune.
Can it continue?
Watching Arsenal this season has been like watching a puppy grow; it happens eerily quick. And by putting Liverpool to such a test, coming out of it with a point and a performance to be proud of, Emery has proved that Arsenal aren’t overhyped and do deserve to be in contention of a top finish this season. A top four placement certainly looks more likely now than at the beginning of the season.
That being said, Arsenal haven’t experienced a big set-back yet. The (important) players have remained relatively injury-free, the team haven’t lost due to misfortune, their enthusiasm haven’t been broken.
The Arsenal rocket has been surging high and fast, and as it exceeds more and more expectations, one can’t help but wonder how much fuel is in this thing. It will be interesting to see how Arsenal deal with such a set-back, when if finally comes.
If progress continues in this tempo, though, Arsenal could reach the stars next season.