Arteta’s First Steps

Mikel Arteta is no stranger to the customary barrage of matches in and around Christmas and New Year in the Premier League. In comparison to his time at City, this barebones squad will be causing him some selection headache just deliberating over one game, let alone the 3 games in 7 days looming over us. The fact that two of these games are against teams we may or may not be competing with for a top four spot at the end of the season further complicates the problem.

Realistically, that’s obviously nuts to even think about – well beyond the realms of what we should be expecting Arteta to achieve – but stranger things have happened so I’m staying delusional until it’s mathematically impossible. After starting the season so strongly and looking just as likely as Leicester to occupy 3rd and 4th, Chelsea have begun to show signs of wear and weakness. That doesn’t make me any less nervous, especially as it’s the first game of the season I’ll be attending. After a small run of form, United have returned to what we’ve come to expect with Ole after succumbing to a 2-0 loss to Watford – even more hilarious given the fact that prior to the game, Watford had scored 9 goals in 17 matches. Some hope at least.

The first port of call for Arteta will be today’s jaunt along the south coast to Bournemouth, though. In similarly troubling form, the Cherries have lost 6 out of their last 7 in comparison to our 1 win in 13 games across all competitions. Excluding our win against West Ham which ended our winless drought, our last win before that – back in early October – was against Bournemouth.

Despite their injury troubles, we will be similarly handicapped by virtue of Calum Chambers’ suspension, leaving us with the prospect of a backline I’d said I never wanted to see again in Luiz and Sokratis. In fairness to the former, he wasn’t completely useless against Everton and despite their flaccidity in front of goal, some credit has to be given when our defence gets it right(ish) for a change.

I can’t remember a playing seemingly capitulating quite as fast as Sokratis in some time. Last season, I thought he was a shrewd signing after some early teething problems when tasked with playing out from the back. Never one for the long term but seemed to have all the hallmarks of a good defender to ease some of our up-and-comers into the starting line-up, all the while sprinkling gems of insight into their still-developing little minds, like a surlier, less giant but somehow more theatrical version of Per. The transformation he’s undergone this season suggest that the only theatrics he’s actually capable of are pretending to be a Premier League-level defender.

While not alone in this camp, his tendency to not react quickly enough to second balls or imminent danger have hurt us this season. 31 is far from “old” in this day and age, as Koscielny demonstrated last season after coming back from injury and still being our best defender, but I do wonder as to why he’s so often been off the pace this season. Besides a cursory look at Sokratis’ performance data this season as opposed to last, I’ve neglected to try and string together any meaningful evidence of why he’s struggled because the whole team has struggled. It may be conjecture but Sokratis has still managed to stand out from the bad bunch this season but it’s too early to say whether it’s form or feature. It won’t be long to find out at least as Arteta is likely to have his hand forced in reverting to the ageing partnership with Luiz.

Whether Arteta will be given some room for his own recommendations in the transfer window remains to be seen but I’d hope that the defence will be his priority. There have been plenty of rumours about possible comings and goings but as we saw in the summer, Raul and Co. do like a bit of “smoke and mirrors” so I won’t waste any time entertaining some of these possibilities.

As it stands, he’s going to be forced into another shoehorned defence with Kolasinac still injured. Bellerín’s possible return may see Ainsley Maitland-Niles switch to his even-less-preferred position at left back if Arteta doesn’t share Freddie’s faith in Saka there. Given his misfortune of late, I’d rather Bellerín wasn’t rushed back though; this is an important period for him and I can’t help but feel like we’ve been burned before in pushing a player too early.

After the absolute foundations were laid against Everton, which saw a renewed sense of urgency and solidarity, I’m expecting more of the same against Bournemouth – as a bare minimum. If we regress today, we risk facing a period of it getting worse before it gets better and if we’re to stand any chance against Chelsea and United, we need something to build on. Given our favourable head-to-head record against Bournemouth, they’re a convenient stepping stone for Arteta to achieve this.

It’s been refreshing to hear and see some of the no-nonsense drills he’s been putting the players through. Instructing Xhaka how to receive and play the ball based on X or Y type of pass, forbidding Lacazette (and the rest) from doing any kind of trickery and just getting the basics down. It’s something that I’ve felt has been missing, the old adage of “walking before you can run” ringing truer than ever. Contrary to Emery, who never really convinced me of his desire to play with flair, I’m inclined to believe Arteta when he comes out so early with things like this:

“My philosophy will be clear – I want the football to be expressive, entertaining. I cannot have a concept of football where everything is based on the opposition.”

Mikel Arteta

Also, even more crucially, saying things like this will go a long way in regaining the trust from the fans. If there’s one thing I can’t tolerate watching from the stands or at home, it’s getting the feeling that the players don’t care or aren’t giving their absolute all.


“I don’t want people hiding. I want people taking responsibility for the job. Anybody that doesn’t buy into this is not good enough for this environment or culture.”

Mikel Arteta

It’s not going to happen overnight and some of these players will need to be moved on in the coming weeks, never mind at the end of the season. Although I have my concerns as to how Arteta will be received if things don’t go to plan in these first few games, with the predictable criticisms about his lack of experience and such, I appreciate the trust he’s been given.

We need a rebuild in both body and spirit and having someone with a clean slate may just be the solution.

Project Youth Meets Project Freddie

The elephant in the room has finally been acknowledged and Unai Emery has been euthanised.

The decision feels like a bit of a smack in the face so soon after the grievances of the entire Arsenal fanbase were labelled as “noise” and is perhaps a bit embarrassing that said powers took so long to come to their decision. I’m not suggesting for a second that they should be indulging the fans’ every beck and call but this was a very easy and obvious decision to make and it raises questions going forward. At the very least, there is absolutely no margin for error, nor are there excuses in selecting Emery’s successor. Ultimately, Unai was a hellspawn of Ivan Gazidis so the prospect of a completely fresh start, on their own terms, should be enticing.

While the final nails in his coffin had been in place quite a few weeks ago, the powers that be and their prevaricating have now left us in a position where Freddie has had 3 days to prepare rather than an international break. I’m sure he’s over the moon with that. Freddie is no fool though, and I’m sure has conjured up plenty of alternative ideas in his time spent powerlessly trapped on the sidelines.

Unai Emery

I can’t go further without acknowledging what Emery has done for the club. At the very least, he demonstrated why change was needed in the first place, as we showed marked improvements in matches with the rest of the “Big 6”. The biggest conundrum is why he was able to improve us here but take such massive strides backwards against the remaining 14 teams.

In the past few weeks as the end drew closer, I postulated as to what Emery’s legacy would be in his tumultuous 18-month stint at the club. The capitulation in Baku and abject failure in throwing away a place in the “Top Four” last season will perhaps be remembered longest, rather than the spate of worrying statistics we’ve been subjected to this season. Ultimately, winless in all competitions for 7 games proved to be his undoing, a feat not seen since 1992. Given the standard of opposition we’ve faced lately, there really is nowhere to hide when it’s laid out like that.

The breakdown of relationships with several key individuals will also be pointed to as defining tenets of his time here. Aaron Ramsey was the first to raise alarm bells, made all the more perturbing by Emery’s obvious dependency on him to get results last season.

Laurent Koscielny was the next to make way, and although initially castigated in the press with sensationalist reports about our captain “going on strike”, I feel that was the last card he could play. A loyal servant for nearly a decade who played through pain for years without complaint finally cracked. The crushing disappointment of Koscielny’s missed World Cup also took their toll, by his own admission. He wasn’t treated with the kind of respect he deserved and his departure spilled over into this season as Emery seemingly begrudgingly made Granit Xhaka captain once the season was already well underway.

It was the breakdown of this relationship and the explosive, public nature of it that really felt like the beginning of the end for Emery. As much as many would have liked this to be the convenient answer to our problems, Xhaka’s absence failing to turn around performances pointed to a Medusa-complex and the slump gained momentum.

Emery’s handling of Mesut Özil also did him no favours. No one knows whose toes the German stepped on but suggestions that he wasn’t applying himself in training were clearly unfounded and the dearth of creativity that began to define Emery’s Arsenal owed much to this relationship. Time will tell just how much of a mistake this was.


That’s not to say it was all doom and gloom, though.

My personal highlight of his time here, as I’m sure many will also agree, was the traditional yearly home demolition of Spurs. It wasn’t just the result, or the efficacy of his substitutions, or even the manner in which we tore them apart. For me, it was the first time I really felt a sense of hope and good things to come again as an Arsenal fan. It turned out to be a bit of a pipe dream but hey ho, that’s football. At the very least, I’ll miss Emery’s maniacal mannerisms, flagrant disregard for the bounds of his technical area and exuberant celebrations.

Whatever his reasoning, his proclivity for giving opportunities to youth players was also commendable. We’ve got a really great crop of players at the moment and although raw, the baptism of fire they’ve been thrust into in these 18 months will be a good part of their development. The question now is whether they can press on under a man many of whom seem to really look up to. The foundations are there and as far as I’m concerned, this season is another write-off already. I’d like to see them play without fear and go hell for leather. We certainly need some good, cathartic payback against the smaller opposition who Emery was so reluctant to dispose of.

Aside from that, I really do struggle to harbour any kind of positive sentimentality to his time here. We’ve been incredibly boring to watch for over a year, we’ve invited pressure like there’s no tomorrow – regardless of who we’re playing – we’ve been infuriatingly error-prone and we’ve squandered an array of attacking talent at our disposal. I suspect Nicolas Pépé will be the most relieved. Over to you, Freddie.


Freddie

So, the Premier League now has Ole Gunnar Solskjær, Frank Lampard and Freddie Ljungberg managing United, Chelsea and Arsenal. Born ‘93 and becoming embedded in football in the 2000s, it really is a bizarre time we’re in. You might’ve tipped one of them to go into management but for them to have aligned to where they find themselves now really is something.

By all accounts, Freddie has been quietly going about his business in the right manner, slowly working his way through the ranks and not cutting corners. I’m not too well read on the nuances of his on-field successes in the youth leagues but the consensus seems to be that he’s well respected among the youth setup and several that now find themselves in the first team.

Wenger always spoke highly of Freddie, an intelligent player on and off the field, with an uncanny ability to pop up in the box at the right time. We could do with him imparting a bit of that wisdom to the current crop. It’s also been reported that Per Mertesacker will be “supporting” Ljungberg in the dugout tomorrow, perhaps the start of an unlikely but blossoming relationship. That’d be something.

He might not have got the kind of preparation he wanted but Norwich shouldn’t prove too stern a test and the squad should be relishing the opportunity to play with the shackles off. I’m intrigued to see how we setup and approach the game, the players have nowhere to hide now either. As much as I’ve been critical of Emery, there have been plenty of players who have been well below their potential this season. I hope at the very least Freddie is ruthless enough to drop people that deserve to be dropped. He’s a fighter and a winner and I’m sure he won’t let that kind of behaviour fly.

Down the line, I don’t know what he could do to secure the job full-time. It would be quite an achievement to secure top four from where we find ourselves now but is rewarding him with a contract at the end of it the right decision for the long term?

Freddie has that highly-coveted “Arsenal DNA” and I certainly wouldn’t be against rewarding him for a successful season (all things considered). Finding our “Mr. Right” was never going to happen at the first try and maybe it’s where we least expect it. All I can say is, I’m excited about football again.

Trouble in North London

I don’t think too many people would’ve predicted Mauricio Pochettino to be survived by the likes of Solskjaer and Emery, nor did I think he would be immediately replaced by Jose Mourinho at 7AM this morning. As woeful as the trio have been in the past year, it’s Poch who is perhaps least deserving of the boot and yet here we are. Emery and Poch’s respective records since the start of last season are as bad as each other, and yet one remains.


I normally couldn’t give a toss what happens at that tinpot club we call our rivals. Actually, rivals is a tad too strong because it implies competition but I have to give them some credit. They might’ve made some ground up in recent times but as this era (yes, people have actually used “era” to describe Pochettino’s tenure at the club) comes to a close, their silverware to show for it is non-existent and that’s what it all boils down to in the history books. Instead, my purview in this case really relates to the timing and nature of Pochettino’s departure.

It’s particularly poignant given our own managerial predicament and if there was any slither of doubt as to the gravity of the task at hand for Emery, the writing is absolutely on the wall now. It’s also bound to raise questions in the upper echelons of Arsenal HQ as Raul and Edu hurriedly make sense of the wheelings and dealings going on at the toilet bowl. Chief among them is the knock-on effect on our own hysterical fanbase; as if support for Unai wasn’t already at an all-time low, there is little room for patience from even the most devout believers in his ability. Poch’s dismissal will only serve to fan our own flames of discontent as our collective refusal to settle for mediocrity deepens.

Call me hyperbolic but a clear message has been sent. It’s a sign of intent from Daniel Levy and it also raises questions about our own ambitions. If Spurs are prepared to sack their golden boy, 5 months after leading them to an unprecedented Champions League final (which they bottled), amidst a sodding Amazon documentary, after he’s built a team with a defined playstyle and really put them on the map, what does it say about us? Yes, their form has been woeful. Even worse than ours (somehow) and there seems to be real discourse amongst several players whom Spurs depend on. That being said, their 14th place League standing is considerably more embarrassing from a red and white perspective because 3 points separates 6th and 14th.

Saving his clear penchant for infusing general shithousery/thuggery and diving into the Spurs repertoire, there have been plenty of commendable contributions made by the Argentinian. The relentless press, intensity and fluid counter-attacking football garnered plenty of praise and points on the board and it’s no coincidence their free-fall form table has coincided with the dissaption of this tenet. Ultimately, Poch failed in never being able to shake the club’s unwavering problems with mentality.

I don’t know how much damage Leicester’s title-winning season did (coming third in a two-horse race… couldn’t resist), or how much the disappointment missing out on the Champions League has caused this season’s demise, but they felt the need for change and took action. Our fateful night in Paris in 2006 is still my lowest moment as a fan but they won’t get any sympathy from me.

At the very least, seeing that man, at that club has absolutely galvanised my hatred and with any luck, Mourinho will carry on where he left off with United. Ironically, his points per game ratio at United (1.89) was exactly the same as Poch’s. In some ways, I’m a bit sad because I can’t fully enjoy this pantomime timeline we find ourselves in because we’re waist-deep in shit ourselves.

At this point, I struggle to even play Devil’s advocate in defence of Emery. I don’t really buy that we’re still in a transitionary period, as we’ve seen the likes of Leicester have clear improvements in a shorter space of time. I don’t buy that players underperforming is the cause of our malaise (which can perhaps be said of Poch’s downfall), though the form of some players hasn’t helped matters. I don’t think we’ve been particularly unlucky or hard done by, whether that be injuries or down to officiating/VAR. Looking further afield, Emery’s strongest case for his appointment was his Europa League track record and we all know how that played out. You can argue it’s a lot to expect in his first season to win a minor European trophy but that was one avenue the board saw a “quick fix” for getting back into the Champions League, and the gamble didn’t pay off.

The panic against Watford. The disappointment at Sheffield was damning. It got worse against Palace and Wolves. The predictability of the loss to Leicester. The pathetic and spineless performance against Vitória. The warning signs are there and I felt any number of these and more could have been the death knell but in some ways, Spurs have perhaps done us a favour because there’s nowhere to hide for anyone at Arsenal now.

Unai Emery & The Case of The Ticking Clock

Before you get the wrong idea, this isn’t a prologue to some wacky, dystopian crime-caper involving our head coach – as much as I’m convinced Emery could play quite a convincing double agent of sorts. The slicked-back, jet-black hair, the maniacal expressions and grimacing, the pointed shoes… don’t tell me he doesn’t fit the bill.

Amidst this stupid rigmarole, I suddenly remembered this piece of comedy gold, which is a review of Steve Bruce’s very own crime-caper – the man writing claims to be the only living person to have read the trilogy and it had me in tears reading through his experiences with them.

For now though, there are bigger fish to fry.


The Captaincy

Even after the dust has settled from Sunday’s ugly affair, Granit Xhaka has understandably remained the villain. Much has been said about how he could and should have handled himself but I don’t think there’ll be a consensus on the matter anytime soon. Reports this morning suggest that he will not be travelling for the Liverpool game, nor will Aubameyang, Chambers or Luiz but there’s still no word on individual consequences – if any.

Emery needs to make a decision and given his proclivity to beat around the bush re: captains, I’m not convinced we’re going to get a satisfactory outcome anytime soon. Following Koscielny’s abrupt departure, Emery still had ample opportunity to get the captaincy done and dusted before the season started. The reality was Xhaka was named captain on 27th September following a spate of disappointing performances from the team and himself. Questions were raised about whether the captaincy was better suited to someone like Aubameyang, given his ability to lead by example and the general consensus from the squad and professionals that have worked with him about his work ethic and importance behind the scenes. I don’t doubt that Xhaka is also held in high regard by his peers and his work ethic is also commendable but where the two differ is in their performances.

Granit Xhaka’s outburst is arguably as damning of his own shortcomings as Unai Emery’s at Arsenal. Where Xhaka is so often criticised – his lack of awareness, tendency to make unnecessary and rash fouls, fettered mobility – I see as much culpability on the man who deems it fit to build a team around him. I don’t think anyone has even been under the illusion that Xhaka is a man fitting of the same treatment the likes of Thierry Henry, Cesc Fabregas and even Aaron Ramsey have been afforded and yet here we are. The lack of accountability is a recurring feature of Emery’s Arsenal, something which was even alluded to shortly after his announcement:

The Outlook

I won’t delve into the intracacies of Sunday’s performance again but it’s another damning episode in this malaise series that is our season.

The period of supposedly winnable games has taken a predictably unconvincing course:

DATE FIXTURERESULT
6/10Bournemouth (H)1-0 (W)
21/10Sheffield United (A)1-0 (L)
27/10Crystal Palace (H)2-2
2/11Wolverhampton Wanderers (H)
9/11Leicester City (A)
23/11Southampton (H)
1/12Norwich City (A)
5/12Brighton & Hove Albion (H)
9/12West Ham United (A)
15/12Manchester City (H)

Until we host Manchester City on 15th December, a much clearer picture into the fate of our season is likely to emerge. 4 points out of a possible 9 already point to a struggle, with arguably the easier fixtures already out of the way. In this time, our supposed rivals have either regained lost ground or strengthened their positions, casting doubt on our suitability for securing a top four spot. The kind of cocksuredness that was so prevalent after our summer spending has fizzled out and we’re still in October. The next three fixtures will be our most telling of this season thus far; Wolves will provide a stern test and seem to have an uncanny knack for bettering the supposedly “Big” Six, Leicester are in fine form and Jamie Vardy seems to really enjoy scoring against us (I’m so glad Rooney and Drogba have found a natural successor…), and given how dire Southampton have been, anything short of a resoundingly ordinary win here will be an abject failure.

The Manager

I do feel time is running out for our Head Coach. The somewhat misdirected venom from the Arsenal faithful was always a circumstance of the club’s situation than any one man. Although Xhaka might encapsulate plenty of the issues facing the club, the buck does not stop there.

While the Europa League and EFL Cup have served as cathartic getaways from the purgatory of the Premier League, the biggest indicator of light at the end of the tunnel has always been how we’ve played, as far as I’m concerned. I’ve rarely been inclined to believe that Unai Emery was the right manager to take Arsenal forward in the long term; he’s far too timid and still doesn’t seem to fully grasp that we’re a ‘big team’ – but I was on board with the idea that he was a roundabout way back into contention. Proven Europa League success, a ‘good enough’ approach in domestic leagues and that was about all she wrote. After a barren first season and a lacklustre regression into his second, I can’t help but wonder what Edu, Vinai and Raul are thinking at this point. There’s much we still don’t know about the extent of their ambition, and more importantly their willingness to be robust when it matters. How much rope Emery is being afforded is the real question, but as this is unchartered territory for the club, we can only guess just how seriously they’re looking at his tenure. ‘Crisis’ is a term bandied around a bit too zealously in football and while it’s a bit too premature for that kind of talk, you do get that underlying feeling that we’re only a few more disappointments short of it boiling over.

At the very least, I’d like to see some wholesale change to the way we set up. Perhaps the fallout from Sunday will be the catalyst for change as Emery feels the pressure. Judging by the litany of facial expresssions the man goes through every game, it’s safe to say he is feeling it. Time will tell.

Until tomorrow.


Photo credit: https://thesetpieces.com/features/sweeper-steve-bruce-review/