Evaluating Unai Emery's Start at Arsenal

Evaluating Unai Emery's Start at Arsenal

When Arsene Wenger stepped down at the end of last season he was leaving a gigantic hole for his successor to fill. Arsenal chose Unai Emery to fill that hole.

His first six months have had some highlights, such as the 22 game unbeaten run, and some low-lights, such as the 5-1 beat down at the hands of Liverpool. More than halfway through the season the honeymoon period is over, so it is time to start evaluating the work Emery has done.

Through 22 matches Emery’s Arsenal sit fifth with 41 points with a goal difference of +14. In their other competitions they are into the knockout rounds of the Europa League, were knocked out of the League Cup in the quarterfinals and are through to the fourth round of the FA Cup.

Emery’s objective is to get Arsenal back into the Champions League, so the League and FA Cup can be put to the side. The group stage of the Europa League was little more than a cakewalk, so the main competition to evaluate up to this point is the Premier League.

Arsenal’s 41 points gives them 1.86 points per game. If they continue this pace, they’ll get 71 points. That would be an 8 point increase on last season. If Emery gets somewhere between 70-75 points, is using his resources well and has the team playing noticeably better than last season, it can be considered a passable first season, even if he does not get them into the Champions League. However, there are some real questions when it comes to how he has used his resources and if the team is better.

The most basic way to evaluate performances is to look at the shot numbers. Last season, Arsenal took 15.6 shots per game and conceded 11.1, having a shot differential of 4.5 shots, according to Whoscored.com. Under Emery, not only have those numbers not improved, they’ve actually both gotten worse. This season, Arsenal have taken 12.5 shots per game and conceded 12.3, a shot differential of 0.2.

Those are some pretty rough numbers, but shots numbers aren’t everything. Maybe they are restricting opponents to low percentage shots and only taking high percentage shots on the counter-attack? A way to evaluate that hypothesis is to look at their expected goals, a metric that evaluates the probability of each shot in a match-turning into a goal.

Sadly for Emery and Arsenal, the numbers do not seem to give that theory any credence. Arsenal registered 1.9 expected goals per game last season while conceding 1.28, according to Understat.com. This season, they have created 1.61 expected goals per game and conceded 1.39.

The biggest indictment of Emery’s resource management is his use of Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Ozil. Ramsey was a difficult situation for Emery to deal with and the decision to let him walk on a free transfer does not seem to be his fault. But willingly not using him, despite the fact that he is one of Arsenal’s better players is an issue.

The bigger issue is Ozil. Emery has struggled to get along with Ozil and has stopped playing him completely in the last month. Last weekend against West Ham he didn’t even put the German on the bench, much less start him. Those kinds of big decisions can only be justified by results on the pitch. Based on the recent run of results and the mediocre underlying numbers all season, Emery has not produced them.

Emery’s first season has been pretty underwhelming so far. It would be one thing if he was producing football of similar quality, but Arsenal seem to be even worse than last season. All is forgiven if he wins the Europa League or gets the Gunners into the top four. Anything short of that and he should face some real scrutiny. If results continue to go badly and performances don’t improve, Arsenal may want to move on from Emery at the end of the season.