Unai Emery was always going to have big shoes to fill this season, in the immediate wake of Arsene Wenger’s departure from the Arsenal helm after 22 years in charge of the club.
Though Wenger led Arsenal to nineteen consecutive seasons of Champions League football and won numerous trophies at the club, his last two seasons saw Arsenal finish 5th and 6th respectively. Thursday Night Football was no longer Spursday Night Football and we slumped into the Europa League.
Qualification for next season’s Champions League is a must for Emery. That means either winning the Europa League or finishing in the top four this season, but were both realistic targets at the start of this term?
Recent weeks seemed to deliver a blow to both of those prospects, however. We missed a golden opportunity to take all three points in the North London Derby when
United leapfrogged us into 4th by beating Southampton, adding a little pressure as we headed to France for last Thursday’s Europa League tie with Rennes.
Despite being overwhelming favourites at 4/6 ahead of kick-off to get past the French side and, at the time, were 2/1 favourites to win the tournament behind Chelsea, we succumbed to a 3-1 defeat in France. It was a performance that again highlighted the defensive frailties, as Sokratis was sent-off and Nacho Monreal turned the ball into his own net.
The result puts Arsenal as betting outsiders to progress to the Europa League quarter-finals, and are best-priced at 23/20 with Bet Victor and there are a number of free bets for sports betting and enhanced odds to take advantage of too. Bookmakers like William Hill and Ladbrokes regularly promote these types of offers, and you could see Arsenal’s odds to progress boosted from 23/20 to as much as 4/1!
With Manchester City and Liverpool challenging for the title, Arsenal are in contention with Chelsea, Spurs and Man United for the other two Champions League places, meaning that the visit of United to the Emirates on Sunday was potentially pivotal.
The top-four pendulum back in our favour, impressing in beating United 2-0 whilst Chelsea
There remains a long way to go however and there will surely be more twist and turns to come. One thing for certain is that regardless of whether Emery does bring Champions League football back to the Emirates this season, investments need to be made in the summer, particularly in Arsenal’s back line.
As Liverpool have displayed since the signing of Virgil Van Dijk, one solid addition at centre-back can make all the difference. Arsenal thought they had that with the signing of Sokratis last summer, but continue to held back by their ability to leak goals from defensive errors and the Greek is often complicit.
With Monreal and Laurent Koscielny coming to the end of their careers, Rob Holding not yet delivering on his potential and Shkodran Mustafi woefully inconsistent and error-prone at centre-back, you could argue the entire back-four needs complete overhaul.
Sead Kolasinac, while looking promising in an attacking sense at many times in his Arsenal career, at this stage looks very limited to bombing forward and looks defensively unaware, especially from a positional sense.
Recruitment will be needed elsewhere too – Aaron Ramsey is set to leave the club in the summer and will need to be replaced – but Arsenal’s defence is their Achilles Heel and needs special attention.
At the top end of the pitch, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexander Lacazette have often delivered.
They are strikers that should be playing Champions League football. How frustrated they must feel when Arsenal’s leaky defence continues to hold them back.