Arsenal vs Rennes: Unai Emery's Gunners have a system, a plan and a new identity - are they finally back?
This week has surely been the best of Arsenal’s season, which makes it the best of the post-Arsene Wenger era and probably their best in years
Have Arsenal finally clicked? Have they turned into a team? Are they - for the first time in years - moving forwards again?
We have been here far too many times already this season: the 11-game winning streak, the victories over Tottenham or Chelsea, the ‘we’ve got our Arsenal back’ at Craven Cottage back in October. And almost every gain has been wiped out by a move back in the opposite direction.
There has never been anything approaching rhythm or momentum or flow.
At least until now. This week has surely been the best of Arsenal’s season, which makes it the best of the post-Arsene Wenger era and probably their best in years. They have put in their two best performances under Emery, against Manchester United and Rennes, kept two clean sheets and won the games by a combined score of 5-0.
And while most of this season has seen Emery changing and trying and rotating and trying again, like a man trying to find the right key for an unfamiliar lock, only now is there some sense of stability and trust in this side. They no longer look experimental or conditional. They look like a team, with a system, a plan and an identity. When could you last say that about Arsenal?
That identity is an aggressive, physical, front food side, just like Emery’s best Sevilla teams. They play a 3-4-1-2 and make the most of their two best players, Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre Emerick Aubameyang up front. Not many teams have two front men who can move, finish and link up like those two. They were excellent against United and Aubameyang was untouchable on Thursday night. He scored two, made the other and could have had another two or three on the night.
For too long this year Emery has agonised about how to get Lacazette and Aubameyang in his team together, and after the 3-1 defeat at Manchester City he decided he could not partner the two together for a while. But after seven games of a lone striker he has gone back to the back two, and has been vindicated for it. No other teams in the Premier League or Europa League will want to face that pair this season.
This is a team that plays with real width, able to keep the pitch as wide as possible and open opponents up. Both United and Rennes came here and played a 4-4-2. Both teams were destroyed down the flanks by Sead Kolasinac and Ainsley Maitland-Niles. Here, Maitland-Niles made the first and scored the second, while Kolasinac set up the third. It barely matters right now that Arsenal’s best wing-back Hector Bellerin is out injured, which says something about the robustness of the team Emery has built here.
This is a team that plays with dynamism from midfield too. Aaron Ramsey, his future finally settled, is playing as well as he has done in years. There is no-one else quite like him when it comes to driving forwards and arriving late in the box. Especially when the opposition is preoccupied with the front two and Mesut Ozil, and then Ramsey arrives to help them out. Here he was involved in the first two goals, elusive as ever.
Too much of this season has felt like one long futile argument about Mesut Ozil, a player that Emery never knew what to do with. He has finally restored him to the team now, playing as a no10 just behind the front two, but the real triumph is the fact that Ozil is no longer the story. He was not at his best here but it barely mattered, because Arsenal were 2-0 up anyway. And when Henrikh Mkhitaryan came on for him, he immediately set up the third.
More important than any of this to Emery was the improved defensive structure of the team. They now look solid and reliable and defence, even though Shkodran Mustafi came in for the suspended Sokratis tonight.
“We can be proud of our players, it was a very difficult week with Manchester United and today Rennes,” Emery said afterwards. “Today we played a very, very consistent 90 minutes, competitive, without the ball above all. Very serious defensively.” Which is not something that has been said about this Arsenal defence much in the past.
But they are starting to prove themselves, and now the climax of the season looks like a different prospect. They are fourth in the league and in the last eight of this competition. Emery said he could see the improvement with every passing week.
“To play under pressure is good. They are growing up under pressure. Each player and the team. I feel a difficult moment gives us our best performance. Today and Sunday, we were being competitive. It is a good coincidence for us to feel that."