This time last year, had Arsenal lost a Europa League first leg away to Belarusian side BATE Borisov and then to Ligue 1’s eighth-placed Stade Rennais, the wolves would have been out, intent on drawing the last remaining blood from Arsene Wenger’s managerial reign.
But fast forward 12 months, and the Gunners bounced back from the BATE defeat to register three consecutive victories (including a second-leg comeback) and just as football tips from 1000s of expert footy tipsters suggested an impressive draw away at bitter rivals Tottenham. Then, when the north London side slipped up again against Rennes, they produced one of their most resilient displays of the season to claim a huge Champions League hopes boosting, 2-0 win over high-flying Manchester United.
The difference? The transformation Unai Emery has had on the Arsenal team, and by extension the Arsenal fans.
For a long time in the final chapter of Wenger’s tenure, the Emirates Stadium had become a toxic environment, teetering on the precipice of a fully blown-out riot of epic proportions. You were either ‘Wenger In’ or ‘Wenger Out’, and such was the divisive opinion on the Gunners’ greatest ever manager, that fans took to fighting amongst themselves in the crowd.
What Unai Emery has achieved in his limited time at the club has arguably been nothing short of remarkable. On commentary duty for the Arsenal game against United on Sunday, Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville quite rightly claimed that the game was played out to one of the best atmospheres of the season at the Emirates; the other being in the enthralling 4-2 triumph over Spurs.
TOP 4️⃣ RUN-IN
Manchester United, Arsenal, Tottenham and Chelsea are all vying for third and fourth place in the Premier League, but who has the best run-in?
The Sky Sports pundits discuss: https://t.co/Iiee5pyNnz pic.twitter.com/ykQkuKj2jr
— Sky Sports Premier League (@SkySportsPL) 11 March 2019
At home, the Gunners have always been a formidable opponent, and even in Wenger’s final years in charge they stepped up their game for the big occasions at the Emirates; a 3-0 win over Chelsea in September 2016, a 2-0 win over United the following May, or even the 2-0 victory over Spurs in his final season last year.
What Emery has done, and what Arsenal fans have taken to, is the intensity of their big-game performances. The relentless pressing, putting bodies on the line to protect the goal, chasing down lost causes.
£46.5m Alexandre Lacazette has been the absolute epitome of Emery’s rejuvenated Arsenal. Under Wenger last year, the Frenchman was predominantly a penalty box predator, leading the line in and around the opposition’s area.
To put Unai Emery’s performance into some perspective, as he has been lambasted by some fans this season:
Arsenal are currently on course for 76 league points.
They have reached that total once in the last decade.
— Daniel Storey (@danielstorey85) 10 March 2019
This season, the 27-year-old has bought into the hard work and off-the-ball demands of his new Spanish boss, hustling and harrying both centre-backs and defensive midfielders alike.
If indeed Lacazette has been the epitome of Emery’s Arsenal, then he provided a perfect snapshot of it mid-way through the second half against the Red Devils.
Despite laying off the assist to Granit Xhaka’s long-range opener, and then winning the penalty for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s game-sealing goal, the former Lyon forward’s biggest roar of approval came when he chased back on a threatening United counter attack and stepped in to win the ball back.
Alexandre Lacazette appreciation tweet;
His technical ability, movement off the ball and relentless pressing does not go unnoticed. Plays with immense passion and always puts the team first. Hopefully he can continue playing well and finish the season strong. pic.twitter.com/o76HvonY9Z
— #14 (@AFCTempo) 8 February 2019
The tackle in itself drew huge cheers from the Emirates faithful, and earned an animated response from his manager on the touchline. In seeing out the game against Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side, Arsenal have picked up twelve points from their ten games against the ‘big six’ in the Premier League – double the amount they had won last season.
All in all, the Gunners have amassed 60 points this season from their 30 games, 12 points more than what they had at the same stage of the season under Arsene Wenger.
Even with a potential elimination from the Europa League on the horizon on Thursday, fans have seen enough promising performances to know that their club are on the right trajectory under Emery.
So when the end of the season comes, and the picture of whether they have Champions League football to play next year comes clear, Emery will have already arguably achieved his single biggest victory. Not against Tottenham back in December, or against Cherlsea in January, nor even against Manchester United in March.
But winning over the fans at the Emirates, who just seem to be getting on board the Emery train.