We’re going to get down into the dirty details but I first wanted to just say that I’ve made a conscious effort to write this differently than usual today. Normally when I write an article, I’ll have a few pre-match thoughts jotted down, then I’ll make notes during the match and then write the majority after the game and “shape the narrative” from there. I didn’t want to do that today because of what’s at stake – I wanted to avoid making a knee-jerk assessment and instead be as objective as possible with a clear mind, to really see the wood for the trees. I’m still going to share what I felt before the game because I think it’s important to compare expectations to results, but there we go.
Judgement day for Unai. Even in the darkest depths of Arsène’s tenure, I can’t ever recall a game where part of me hoped for a loss. I’m sure this will divide opinion – “how can you call yourself a fan if you want your team to lose?” – that kind of thing. I just don’t think we can afford to be so short-sighted at this stage.
Cast your minds back to the start of the season – the vast majority were filled with optimism, we did some great business in the transfer window, we were gleefully rubbing our hands at the problems around us (Chelsea’s transfer ban, Sp*rs’ lack of signings, Raul’s apparent subterfuge going from Fraser and Zaha to one of Europe’s most sought-after prospects). This was the kind of opening the club needed to achieve what it failed to do last season and really press on.
Why Bellerín was starting and Tierney wasn’t is a question only Emery will know the answer to. It’s been plain to see that our Cockney Spaniard has been a few weeks behind Tierney since coming back from injury, and yet the latter was again sidelined – this isn’t even considering the fact that he’s been one of our most consistent performers since joining us. Pépé will also have felt hard done by but someone had to be sacrificed to accommodate the 3-5-2.
After a nervy start, the usual hallmarks followed; unforced errors, Leno almost being charged down by the likes of Vardy, huge gaps in the middle of the park and too many chances for comfort afforded to Leicester. There were some glimpses of promise, with the team actually managing to thread more than two passes together in the opposition half on several occasions but Schmeichel was never seriously challenged.
The real eye-opener was the ease at which Leicester’s centre-backs and deep-lying midfielders could waltz into our half unchecked. I don’t know if it was a circumstance of them playing a higher line (which was successfully deployed in stopping Aubameyang’s disallowed goal) but time and again, they were able to come into our half with little to no pressure. The lack of organised press continues to cause us problems that just shouldn’t exist in a “Big 6 or thereabouts” Premier League team.
There was daylight between the two sides in their performances and the result, and now there is daylight between the two in the league standings – 9 points off the top four and it’s only November. The implications for the prospects of our season are damning. There’s no doubt Leicester are a team in form; they had the better chances in the first half and that was before Jamie Vardy had even had a sniff of goal. He loves scoring against us and that’s even when he’s not in red-hot form, so the manner in which Leicester took the lead was as textbook as it gets. For all the fight we’d shown in the second half, it was eviscerated in an instant and compounded moments later when Maddison dealt the final blow to Arsenal’s day and quite possibly Emery’s tenure. Credit where credit’s due and it pains me to say, but the two Leicester goals had all the hallmarks of classic Arsenal goals. Clinical finishing off the back of some slick one-touch football.
Where I tried to refrain from knee-jerk hysteria, the same cannot he said for Emery’s substitutions – another entry in the book of in-game mismanagement. For all of the renewed fight the team had shown in the second half, the game becoming stretched hardly suited us any more than it did them and you felt the game was poised for a change. Instead, Emery felt the best time to introduce Pépé and Willock was after the damage had been done.
It points to quite an interesting contrast between the two managers – the difference between being proactive and reactive. Leicester’s two substitutions preceded their two goals by 8 minutes and 1 minute respectively; I’m not saying there’s necessarily any causality between the changes and Leicester going ahead but football (especially big games) is often determined by the fine margins and having an edge can be what it takes. Just like Lacazette missing from 6 yards where Vardy did not.
Emery’s reactionary form of management has long been touted: his supposedly meticulous attention to the opposition each week, carefully tinkering and tailoring his team accordingly. It’s not the first time he’s made panicked substitutions when the horse has already bolted. For all of Wenger’s disdain for in-game pragmatism – making his routine substitutions just after the hour mark if things weren’t going to plan – he would only resort to desperation if we really needed a goal. Throwing on 5 forwards and hemming the opposition in for the last 20 minutes type-thing – we saw it time and again. Yesterday, our last shot of the game came in the 53rd minute.
The thing I’m still really grappling with is what good is a defensive setup if not only do we still concede too many goals and chances, but we also have a complete inability to score any?! From where I’m standing, we were lucky to only lose 2-0. On another day, Maddison’s free kick may dip under the bar, Vardy makes contact on the first half chance, Ndidi doesn’t hit the bar from point blank range. By comparison, for the second game in a row, we scrounged a single shot on target. We’re just so painfully, painfully dull and ineffective.
The harsh reality is that Arsenal are now as close to 19th place as they are to Leicester and Chelsea, who at this point appear to be the teams most likely to secure the remaining two qualification spots (in terms of both league standings and performances/management).
Despite this, reports this morning from David Ornstein suggest that (more or less) Emery is safe:
As we know, what’s disclosed publicly and what’s going on behind the scenes are two very different things. The likes of Raul and Edu were lucky enough to watch the game in person yesterday and if Unai remains, there can be no question where the buck really stops. For all of their acumen shown in “beating the transfer market”, this decision is the true insight into their ability to get us back on track. They really have lost the plot if they’re unequivocally giving him to the summer, though. To my understanding, Emery’s contract stipulates a 2 + 1 scenario, whereby if we secure Champion’s League football, he’ll be rewarded with another season but if not, we part ways. It seems inconceivable to think they’re happy to allow Unai to see out the terms of his contract whether he qualify for the Champion’s League or not though – it’s early November and we can see clear as day how far this team under Emery is from the others fighting for the top four.
It’s going to be a telling few days and weeks. Some have wondered whether the international break was the perfect opportunity for a clean break. If that’s not to be, we host Southampton and anything short of a resounding victory will be an abject failure.
Credit: for several informative stats used in today’s piece and his tireless work in bringing damning evidence to our troubled times – @Orbinho