Wednesday, 13 November 2019

Going Nowhere Slowly

We're a third of the way through the league season and Arsenal are off to their worst start since 2014-15, when we also had 17 points after 12 games. However, on that occasion we had a goal difference of +5, rather than -1, and finished the season in third place (with a goal difference of +35) after winning 28 and 30 points in the second and final thirds. It's not impossible, but the goal tally suggests we'll struggle to repeat that kind of improvement this season, which in turn means we're looking at finishing outside the top four and must once more put all our Champions League eggs in the basket that is the Europa League. Though we're almost certain to qualify for the knockout rounds, there's a good chance we'll eventually have to face either Unai Emery's old club Sevilla or Manchester United on one of their better days in a tie that will probably be decided by a calamitous own-goal. As you can see, I'm not particularly optimistic at the moment.

2018-19 was a transitional season, but the signs of evolution or progress were difficult to discern. We got off to a gallop, though the first third of the season clearly owed something to good fortune and perhaps a "new broom" bounce, but though the final third wasn't terrible when viewed over 13 games, the falling-off in the last 7 games (7 points from a possible 21), which condemned us to fifth in the table, was very disappointing and obviously not helped by the nightmare that was the Europa League final in Baku. The (apparently) good business conducted in the summer led to renewed optimism at the start of this season, but the results and performances have quickly undermined any lingering hopes for a top four finish, let alone a title challenge. For most fans, the frustration is that there is no better sense after 50 games as to what Emery's strategy is, and growing disquiet at signs that the team are as confused as we are.

Positive statements by popular players such as Hector Bellerin notwithstanding, the reports of doubts by the likes of Aubameyang and Torreira, as well as the obvious disaffection of Xhaka, suggest that while Emery hasn't lost the dressing-room he is on the way to doing so. Subsequent events, most obviously the withdrawal of the captaincy, make it likely that there will be a parting of the ways with the Swiss international, and I think most fans would welcome this, on purely square peg grounds, even if they regret the barracking he received from a minority. Xhaka pretty much burned his boats by his unwillingness to properly apologise for his reaction to the crowd's jeers, but I also get the sense that he may have thought his future at the club was in jeopardy anyway. In other words, he probably has little confidence that Emery will turn things around and thus anticipated becoming a fall-guy once the manager went.

What we've experienced under Emery is no discernible improvement in the team's performance and some sign that it has lost its sense of identity as the manager has preferred to tailor his tactics to countering the opposition rather than imposing a style. Say what you want about the gradual decline under Wenger, Arsenal were never anything other than recognisably Arsenal during his tenure. For many critics that was the problem - an over-investment in possession, an under-investment in defending, a lack of a plan B - but at least it was an identity, with all its charms and flaws. Emery's chopping and changing in formations and personnel (his heavy rotation was notorious at Valencia) looks incoherent and his insistence on the need for flexibility and tactical awareness will continue to fall on deaf ears if the results are no better than they were under late-period Arsene. Most damagingly, Emery has taken to dwelling on the team's mentality, which suggests (as it increasingly did with Wenger) an unwillingness to address the suitability of the tactics.

The persistence of failings familiar from the late-Wenger years - poor away performances, dropped points at home against mid-table teams, comical defensive lapses - has led some fans to assume that the problems are systemic, ultimately reflecting a conservative, unambitious owner and a club hierarchy more concerned with PR than points. But the amount of change off the field, notably the departures of Gazidis and Mislintat and the rise to dominance of Sanllehi and now Edu, suggests that if anything the club has experienced a rapid regime change whose aim is clearly transformative. Precisely what that aim is remains unclear, but the summer purchases and the willingness to promote youth (if only in the cups) do suggest a desire for a more vibrant, attacking focus. The problem remains a lack of creativity in midfield, which encourages opponents to press high and leaves our forwards frustrated. You can win a cup with a sub-par midfield and a bit of luck, but you're unlikely to get far in a league campaign that lasts 38 games.

The enigma that is Mesut Ozil continues to divide fans, with some now loudly singing his name purely as an implied criticism of Emery (who seems to have first frozen him out and then changed his mind) while others hope that the German will take up an MSL offer in January, leave on good terms and free up some wages for a fresh acquisition. My own guess is that the hokey-cokey means the US move is off in January and that he won't leave before the summer. His reintegration into the team depends on establishing a proper midfield platform to allow him to roam as a number 10. The role is out of fashion, but Arsenal could profit by swimming against the tide given that he remains world class in that position. That would mean playing a back four, with Torreira allowed to play in his best position in front of the defence and Guendouzi paired with a more robust player than Ceballos (who should really be a backup for Ozil) in the middle of the park. It's a regressive move in many ways, more 4-4-2 than Emery's preferred 4-3-3, but it might be enough to provide the stability for a decent run over the remaining two-thirds of the season pending a major rethink in the summer.

A four in midfield would mean a front two permed from Aubameyang, Lacazette and Pepe (with Martinelli in reserve). For all their personal chemistry, I think the first two would be the least effective partnership as they both need to play centrally. Pepe brings something different. In defence, both Luiz and Sokratis are ultimately stopgaps, but the fans' hopes for Holding and Tierney should be tempered with the recognition that they'll need a while to bed in, while William Saliba remains but a distant promise for next season and Mavropanos barely a rumour. Without making him sound an after-thought, Bernd Leno has been impressive despite the goals against. He has often kept Arsenal in games with smart saves and has made few unforced errors, and his command of the area and ability to deal with crosses seems to have improved. Conceding too many goals has been a problem for a few seasons now, and this season we seem to be drying-up in scoring them as well, but goal-keeping isn't the issue.

If there is an over-riding criticism that can be made of Emery's Arsenal, which also applies to the last two seasons under Wenger, it is that the team is playing too slowly. The build-ups from the back are cautious, without being particularly secure, while the distribution from deep midfield has been efficient but too predictable. Granit Xhaka has become the focus of the "boo-boys" precisely because his slowness frustrates the fans, who then get even more irritated when he commits a silly foul after being caught on the ball. The addition of David Luiz has provided another route to get the ball forward, but not one that reliably turns the opposition. The fact that he is so prominent in Arsenal's distribution reflects poorly on the midfield. The team needs an injection of pace and creativity, which for me means properly utilising both Ozil and Pepe and also gambling on an extra player who can attack the box when playing teams that defend deep. Is that something that Emery could embrace? His history in management suggests pragmatism but also caution, and I suspect that it is the latter that will ultimately cost him.


  1. Herbie Kills Children13 November 2019 at 19:59

    Is it me or is Aubameyang not all he is cracked up to be? Torreira just isn't a top four standard player.

    I genuinely think Sokratis has something about him but because he isn't British he is derided.

    I mean is there a worse crosser of the ball in top level football than Chambers, he has been diabolical at wing back and he and Holding at centre half, do me a favour!

  2. I think Aubameyang's stats speak for themselves. He's top drawer. That he's scored at all this season, given the generally poor service, is an achievement. Torreira hasn't been given a run in the position he was bought for: he's a breaker-up of attacks and smart distributor, a number 4 not a number 8. Sokratis is fine, and probably Arsenal's least derided centre-back at the moment. Chambers is not a wing-back, though he can do a job in central midfield (as he showed on loan at Fulham).

  3. Herbie Kills Children17 November 2019 at 19:36

    Sokratis gets slagged off by the media every time I se Arsenal play!