There is something refreshingly resilient about this Arsenal side.
After years of cowering against clubs the north London lot were supposed to compete against, Arsenal displayed an unfamiliar vigor versus Liverpool on Saturday at the Emirates Stadium.
Alexandre Lacazette’s jaw-dropping equalizer snatched a deserved point for the hosts, giving the Gunners more points from a losing position than any other club in the Premier League this season. Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal would never.
Defensively organized and increasingly adept at playing the ball from the back as per Unai Emery’s instruction, nowhere is the manager’s influence more evident than in the bounce-back of four players whose pedigrees were all questioned last season under Wenger.
With Saturday’s frenetic draw the latest example of Arsenal’s growth under the impassioned Spanish tactician, here’s a look at four players reborn courtesy of the gaffer’s tutelage:
Nigerian international Iwobi was far from a fan favorite last season despite having many of the prerequisites for unadulterated local love. An academy product with a decidedly London panache, Iwobi was largely maligned for a dire campaign that saw the 22-year-old register three goals in 26 league appearances. Those who fancy criticizing the displays of shoulder-slumpers like Leroy Sane and Mesut Ozil had a field day with the versatile attacker, and as quickly as Iwobi became a hope for the future, he was the subject of loan speculation.
Under Emery, Iwobi is a changed player.
“The confidence is giving them the possibility to do the things well and also, when they make a mistake, it makes them want to do better on the next attempt,” the manager told Arsenal.com. “I think for (Alex) and for our other players, we need to work on things every day.”
Iwobi echoed the manager’s sentiments post-match, telling the Guardian, “You can see we’re putting in an extra shift and extra work. We’re putting in the extra work in training and not just on the pitch.”
On Sunday, Iwobi came on in the 68th minute for Henrikh Mkhitaryan, and almost immediately, the winger ran at Liverpool right-back Trent Alexander-Arnold with zeal. It changed the match, gave Arsenal a wide outlet, and Iwobi’s deft through ball to Lacazette led to the Frenchman’s equalizer. Pair that with stunning performances in the Europa League against Qarabag and Vorskla, and a slew of well-rounded showings domestically, and suddenly Iwobi merits a spot in the starting XI.
When central defender Holding burst onto the Arsenal scene following a shrewd move from Bolton, fans were quick to anoint him the remedy to the club’s issues at the back. Because of injuries, Holding played the full 90 minutes in the FA Cup final victory over Chelsea and again in the Community Shield months later.
That would prove to be an unfair flirtation with becoming a backline staple, as Holding went on to play in just a dozen league affairs. But this season, the 23-year-old Englishman has been dependable under Emery, appearing in nine matches in all competitions.
Against Liverpool’s feared front-three, Holding was paired with mistake-prone Shkodran Mustafi and held his own, coupling four successful tackles with three aerial duels and a stellar 91 percent passing rate. Part of Holding’s improvements can be measured by statistics, some by an improved composure on the ball in a system that requires two-footed center-back play. His now-laughable £2-million transfer fee and May 2018 contract extension suddenly seem prescient.
Bellerin’s career arc has been strangely volatile for a player still shy of his 24th birthday. From a shock first-team call-up courtesy of injuries to Mathieu Debuchy and Calum Chambers, to being Arsenal’s sole honoree in the 2015-16 PFA Team of the Year, to the popular target of derision; the right back’s performances varied under Wenger.
Once considered the Premier League’s quickest player, successive ankle concerns and a concussion stemming from a Marcos Alonso flying elbow appeared to set the Spaniard back. In Wenger’s last two seasons, Bellerin became a liability, who paired flat-footed reactions with forward runs that exploited his defensive partners. Bellerin also carved a reputation as a willing contributor to attacks who lacked a final ball, and as reports began to swirl of Barcelona’s desire to return the Spanish youth international to Catalonia, Arsenal fans willingly prepared for life without the full-back.
This season, Bellerin has been one of Arsenal’s most dependable parts, featuring in all 11 of the Gunners’ league fixtures. For a player who made a habit of finding himself out of position, his adherence to Emery’s demands for defensive shape is synonymous with a side that appears far more organized this season.
Will the real Xhaka please stand up? A frequent – and deserved – object for criticism, the Swiss international midfielder was arguably Arsenal’s worst first-team regular last season. Xhaka appeared in all 38 of the club’s league outings, constantly looked lost and unaware of his role, and was as liable to haphazardly pick up a caution for a daft tackle as he was to not show some chutzpah when required.
Paired with Sampdoria signing Lucas Torreira, Xhaka, 26, has been a revelation as part of a two-man midfield in Emery’s 4-2-3-1. At the half against Liverpool, Xhaka led all players in passes (47), touches (59), tackles (5), and recoveries, as he and Torreira took turns pinching the Reds’ midfield efforts. In the end, Xhaka completed 87 percent of 97 passes and had a shade more than 10 percent of the ball. Pair that with stunning free-kick goals against Crystal Palace and Newcastle, the latter which played a part in a Man of the Match performance, and suddenly, Xhaka’s name in the starting XI is no longer met with grief and guffaws.
Because of a slew of full-back ailments, Xhaka also chipped in at left-back against Palace and Sporting CP, something that has apparently boosted his once-lacking defensive instincts. Following years of disappointment, the excitement at the Emirates following Emery’s appointment is palatable, and if the gaffer can regularly get these performances from Xhaka, the hysteria is deserved.