Splitting Heirs: Comparing Mikel Arteta to Unai Emery at Arsenal
Soccer

Splitting Heirs: Comparing Mikel Arteta to Unai Emery at Arsenal

Arsène Wenger was always going to be a hard act to follow at Arsenal. @Orbinho takes a look at how his two successors have fared in this daunting task.


Last week’s Europa League results leave Arsenal fans with the tantalising yet fearful prospect of running into their old charge, Unai Emery. Should both Arsenal and Villarreal get past their respective quarter-final opponents, then Emery’s men will stand in the way of the Gunners ambitions of reaching the final and a shot at a back door route into next season’s UEFA Champions League.

It’s also a nice coincidence that Sunday’s game against Sheffield United was Mikel Arteta’s 51st Premier League game in charge of the Gunners, the exact number that Emery oversaw in north London. Now seems like the perfect time to assess how the two heirs to Arsène Wenger compare and whether Arteta has made any progress.

The easiest barometer of success is to compare how many points each manager earned in their respective tenures. Wenger tallied 88 points in his final 51 matches, which was a total matched exactly by Emery in his 51-game spell in charge. The Frenchman won two more games, but six additional draws and four fewer defeats saw an identical haul. Arteta has earned fewer – just 78 with only 22 victories.

Onto goals: Slightly less important than points but still indicative of winning football. Wenger’s squad managed 97 in his last 51 matches. Emery’s Gunners fell shy of that total with 91, while attacking strength has not been the forte of Arteta’s Arsenal vintage. The former captain has seen his side score just 75 in the 51 league games under his guidance.

They’ve struggled in particular at home, failing to score in seven of their 15 Premier League games at the Emirates this season. That’s three more home matches without a goal than they’d had in the four previous campaigns combined.

Arteta’s team has a marginally lower conversion rate, which may be partly due to misfortune. Emery’s team scored nearly three times as many goals from long range, while Arteta’s sides have hit the woodwork more than twice as often as the current Villarreal boss’ Gunners.

Emery v Arteta in PL - attacking compariosn

But expected goals, not posts, are our measure of attacking quality. You’d expect a team that produced 11.4 more expected goals over the same number of matches to score more, so it’s hard to call Arteta’s side unfortunate.

In general play, there is some similarity between what both managers have seen from their teams in terms of passing accuracy and also average passes per sequence. But Arteta’s team have struggled to maintain as much possession.

Emery v Arteta in PL - style of play comparison

Regular Arsenal watchers won’t be surprised by the fact that Arsenal’s build up is far more measured now than under Emery, given the occasional repetitive sideways passing sequences around the back four and holding midfield players that seem to pervade Arteta’s current approach. That decrease in speed of attack can clearly be seen in the below graphic and is similar to Manchester City where Arteta cut his coaching teeth.

Premier League playing styles_Arsenal

Where there seems a clear improvement in the Arteta era is in defence. The Gunners had conceded an average of 50 goals per season over the three campaigns prior to 2020-21, one under Wenger (51), one under Emery (51) and one under a combination of three bosses (48) including caretaker Freddie Ljungberg. When comparing Emery’s edition against the current boss, there has been a marked improvement. The Gunners have allowed 100 fewer shots, 46 fewer on target and that has helped them concede 14 goals fewer.

Emery v Arteta in PL - defence comparison

Recently the Gunners have gone 14 matches in all competitions without a clean sheet as their defensive resolve has been eroded before keeping a clean sheet against Sheffield United at the weekend. That shutout means Arteta can now boast 16 clean sheets to just 10 under Emery. That said, the improvement in their expected goals against is much less than in their actual goals conceded, and the Gunners might consider themselves fortunate to have conceded 12 fewer than the average team might have when facing the shots they have.

However, as you can see from the table below, the Gunners have improved their rate per game significantly this season compared to last season under Arteta. Arsenal fans have cause for optimism that the team is now based on a more solid defensive platform after a settling in period in 2019-20:

SeasonExpected Goals AgainstGames PlayedxGA per Game
2019-2031.2201.56
2020-2136.9311.19

Arsenal’s discipline seems to have been regularly in question for as long as I’ve been alive (a long time). From brawls at Old Trafford to defensive mishaps, the Gunners seem to be the masters of their own downfall too often. Under Emery, it was defensive errors and giving away penalties that often proved their undoing, but both of those metrics have improved under Arteta, if not completely eradicated. The Gunners have halved the number of errors under Arteta, and this season no team has conceded fewer penalties in the Premier League.

Never far from defensive calamities, the self-destruct button of choice under the current gaffer has been the red card.

Emery v Arteta in PL - discipline comparison

And those dismissals have proved difficult to overcome. Unlike the Wenger early-era teams who would brush off a red card and still have enough under the bonnet to churn out a win, the current crop have been unable to improve their situation in any of the eight games where they have had a player dismissed. They’ve dropped six points after those reds and have only been able to hold out for the draw on four occasions.

Arteta's Arsenal After Red Cards

What’s clear is that Arteta’s communication skills, his ability to connect with the fans and the fact that he won an FA Cup trophy means that he has had some credit in the bank. Emery, in contrast struggled to connect with the fans and his ignominious 4-1 defeat against Chelsea in the 2019 Europa League final did little to endear him to the fans. Patience grew thin once league results deteriorated with no afterglow of success to fall back on.

If they do reach the Europa League final, Arteta may have to overcome Emery’s new club, Villarreal, who are well placed to reach the semi-final. If they get there, they’ll have to potentially beat Manchester United. Arteta has yet to see his Arsenal side concede a goal against Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side in three meetings (two wins) and, for whatever it’s worth, also seems to enjoy playing teams called United. In 16 meetings with teams with that particular name, Arteta has 12 wins and no defeats!

Qualifying for the Champions League by winning another trophy this May, should it come, may see Arsenal fans keep their faith in Arteta, but Premier League results will still surely have to improve next season if he’s to avoid the same fate as his compatriot.


Design by Matt Sisneros.