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.


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.

Carabao Carnage

I’m going to start by getting straight to the bad. It was a strange and frenzied night but given all that happened, I’d rather just get (most of) this out of the way now:

  • Martinez. I’m surprised to be mentioning him because he’s impressed lately and otherwise been solid when given chances. There will be one or two goals from tonight that he’ll be disappointed with. He was also the difference when it came to the shootout.
  • We’ve now blown THREE (3!) 2-goal leads in TWO (2!) games. Food for thought.
  • We conceded 5 goals
  • We conceded yet another penalty
  • Two of Liverpool’s goals came shortly after ours (7 mins between our 3rd/their second and 4 mins between our 4th/their 3rd)

We’ve seen some of these before so I don’t need to remind you how painful it is to see them come back time and again. Not wanting to blow my own trumpet, but as I’ve said in recent times, our problems run much deeper than just one man.

Things started well. I liked our starting lineup, it had a healthy balance of youth and experience and I was keen to see how our midfield would fare with Mesut Özil back in the side. The same could be said for Liverpool.

I’ll admit – I feared the worst when the inevitable happened. Not even inevitable in the sense that he does it often, just inevitable that out of all of our players who could’ve scored an own goal tonight, it had to be him. With everything the club is going through at the moment, it just had to be an own goal from our next favourite scapegoat – it really did have all the makings of an early Halloween. It could just have easily been Holding in that position; it was the sort of ball that Mustafi knows he has to get to first and you’ll see own goals like that week in, week out in every corner of the world. It just so happened to be in the north-west of England this time.

What followed was not part of the script. Not letting their heads drop, we responded in the best way possible with a quick reply. Özil’s involvement in our build-up was noticeable and dearly missed. It was even nice just to see us string more than 2 passes together in the final third. An unlikely source but Torreira is developing a knack for scoring at Anfield. Maybe it’s a Uruguayan thing…

Another South American was lying in wait for a poacher’s finish of his own. People are sometimes quick to throw around terms like “tap-in merchant” but if it was easy, everyone would be doing it and Martinelli is proving time and again his ability to be in just the right place. After some good work on the by-line by Maitland-Niles, the ball fell kindly and he made no mistake with the finish, just as he did at the end of the night with his emphatic penalty. It was a shame he didn’t manage to grab his hat-trick – he had a sniff here and there but his contributions were again for all to see – on and off the ball.

His second in 10 minutes came from some fine work in capitalising on some lax Liverpool passing at the back; a deft touch/interception/pass/whateveryoucallthat from Özil found Saka racing down the left and Martinelli was already primed and ready. The quality of the pass was matched by the finish and it was another refreshing example that some of these players can actually play with real pace and quality. Concerns about Özil’s ability to hit the ground running after such an absence were nonexistent come half time, which raises some questions as to Emery’s decision-making when it comes to selecting his squads. It seems hard to believe at this point that any alleged lack of effort in training from Özil has had an effect on his ability to change games and create the kinds of chances he did this evening. Regardless of the standard of the opposition he was facing – perhaps not as grizzled and experienced as your average Premier League game, his contributions were apparent.

In a night of inevitabilities, we conceded a penalty just after scoring. I think it’s a harsh one – the contact is virtually non-existent and Elliot has simulated the rest but from the referees point of view, it’s easily given – not that VAR would’ve overturned it if it was available. I can let it slide given the benefit of a possible offside with out first goal, a classic throwback to the pre-VAR days when both sides were hampered by poor officiating, eh?

Another gift from Liverpool came about from an unlikely source in the usually steadfast James Milner but there was still work to do. Mainland-Niles’ athleticism made sure he was first the ball, and as it fell to Herr Mesut, you thought the chance had squirmed away. As ever, his unwavering finesse shone through and the elaborate one-two was finished off by our resident Bird Catcher.

Like clockwork, the inevitable happened yet again. Taking nothing away from the strike – it was a ferocious effort from Oxlade-Chamberlain and there were plenty of bodies in and around the box – Martinez could perhaps have done better. Moments later with scarcely time to relive his mistake, Liverpool were level again. Martinez should definitely have done better in this instance and his turf-beating reaction suggested as much but the speed at which Origi turned and shot seemed to have left the Argentinian wrong-footed. Still, pegged back to 4-4.

Having too much of a nice thing was apparently on Emery’s mind, as Özil was taken off just after the hour. Perhaps a closer like-for-like swap of Gendouzi for the recently booked Willock may have been more prudent but I’m beyond the point of caring to try and rationalise the inner machinations of Emery’s mind. In spite of my confusion at the time, the tie was the perfect setting for someone of Guendouzi’s relentless energy. I was soon eating my words when Joe Willock curled in.. what can only be described as an absolute blooter. Another nod to his ability to deliver end product in the final third where so many of our youth players have come up short in the past. After a dip in form of late, it was important for him to get a goal to ward off some of the mounting pressure. Regardless of what is going on at the club, some of these youngsters really are ones to watch for the future and I can’t help but feel they’ve been hung out to dry at times.

The game slowed. We time-wasted a bit and you wondered if we might just eke it out. Wishful thinking. And then.. by the shin of Divock Origi, it was dragged into one of the English’s favourite pastimes – a penalty shootout. And that’s all I’ll say about that.

The EFL Cup. Is it a trophy I particularly care about? No. Am I more inclined to say this after we’ve just been knocked out? Maybe. Do most Arsenal fans care about it? Not really. Do we still have problems? Yes. Did I love seeing our youth and Ozil put 5 past Liverpool – at Anfield? Abso-fuckin-lutely. When it all boils down to it though, it was a story we’ve heard before.

In the end, the result didn’t even matter for me. It would’ve been nice to see a bit more from these youngsters on a regular basis but there’s always the Europa League group stages for that.

The real takeaway from tonight was that I’d almost forgotten what it was like to create chances, score goals. The good stuff. It might not even spill over into some brighter League performances, but for now at least, I’m a reasonably happy fan again, even staring down the barrel of defeat. I’ll take that over a sackless, unimaginative and tepid performance any day of the week.

More of the same and no surprise

I’ve been on the cusp of sharing my thoughts in a setting like this for some time but as things stand, even amidst the most dismal years under Wenger, I would go as far as saying that things have never been this bleak and beige. For all of the trials and tribulations some of Wenger’s tenure exposed us to, I always empathised with the man. He was stubborn but brilliant. He never sacrificed his principles and however ineffective his methods were at times, his intention was always plain to see.

It’s at this point I find myself at a quandary with Emery’s Arsenal as I see no principles besides an obstinate insistence we play out from the back and shoulder no responsibility onto our players if they have a bad game. Where last season, we found the majority of our chances came (save from more than a few moments of individual brilliance from the likes of Aubameyang and Lacazette) down the wings, by overlapping fullbacks on the wings and sending balls of varying degrees of quality into the box. Without such clinical strikers, I can’t help but feel even this somewhat redeeming aspect of Emery’s Arsenal would also be exposed.

This season bears all the hallmarks of a regression. At no point have our performances in the League ever given me the impression that there was disharmony between the results and what happened on the pitch. Whereas last season’s unbeaten run only had some questioning if we were over-performing or if this was more of what we could expect from Emery’s Arsenal, there can be no question as to what is now the norm.

We’ve trundled along from one fixture to the next this season and with the exception of some Cup routs against lesser opposition, there was been a dearth of creativity in virtually every game. In the wake of Monday night’s defeat at the hands of newly promoted Sheffield United, I couldn’t help but notice the similarities to the performance and aftermath of our muddled and frankly painful draw away to Watford. Not because we played similarly but because of the sentiments we were subjected to after the game from the likes of Xhaka and Emery.

The former has been a popular figure to place blame on and while his performances do not always warrant the level of criticism he receives, some of the words that have come from our captain this season are certainly cause for concern. That being said, he was quick to lambast the idea that it was out of their control; “we have to stop speaking about mental [issues] and bullshit like this”. Words I can at least get behind.

The real question is whether this defeat will be the start of a more serious introspection into what lies ahead for Emery and Arsenal this season and whether he will still be at the helm by the end of it. I can’t help but wonder if the trio of Edu, Raul and Vinai would consider a mid-season change of manager (or head coach as they’re so often called these days..) but I do feel time is running out for Unai. We have a kind(er) run of fixtures in the next 10 League games – the question is whether we’ll be subjected to more of the same

  1. Thanks for the kind words, I try and be consistent so I’m glad you’re happy to do the same

  2. Another great piece, i’m starting to make this a regular stop after games!