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:

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/

Arsenal’s Jekyll and Hyde Routine Continues

I’m all kinds of speechless. If it were not for the club’s record signing producing two moments of absolute perfection, this would’ve taken a very different direction. Many things need to be said about the rest of the game but I’m delighted that there’s now no room for doubt that Pépé is off the mark. His performances have been steadily growing in recent weeks – he was hard done by to have been replaced against Sheffield – and now he’s well and truly announced himself. Emery’s reaction when Pépé swept that ball home in the 92nd minute was quite a sight. I don’t know the Spanish for “thank fuck for that” but that’s what sprang to mind when I saw the look on his face.

Last night’s performance served as another entry in the Jekyll and Hyde routine we’ve adopted this season. Usually this competition has been a cathartic experience – an escape from the kind of dross we’re often subjected to in the league – but besides an actual fist pump and shouting “YES” for Pépé’s second, I was quiet all night, besides the odd eye-roll and stifled bit of nondescript abuse under my breath.

Anyway, I had to get that out of the way before moving onto the actual game. Such a bizarre night. According to @Orbinho, it was the first time since records began in 1992 in the League (and 2006 in other competitions) that we’d scored two free kicks in a game and he shares the accolade with Herr Ronaldo, Suárez, Bale and Neymar for achieving it in a Europa League or Champions League game. No pressure.

Keen to belay the criticism following the abject reception of yet another muddled midfield against Sheffield, Emery’s trust in Project Youth was a welcome sight (and perhaps a cry for help) heading into the game last night. Any hope was quickly dashed in the 8th minute when Vitória made their way into our box with relative ease for the 3rd time. Given the changes, it really does suggest that our problems are more systematic than down to the individual. As ever, the overriding question is: why does Emery’s Arsenal invite so much pressure? Whether by design or otherwise, it’s an unerring feature of the team. It was an interesting setting given the amount of changes Emery made; with the exception of Joe Willock, the starting lineup was changed completely. What did not change, was our capacity to make unforced errors, constantly invite said pressure and offer very little in way of attack.

Rather interestingly, it was both Tierney and Bellerin – often lauded as our eventual saviours to all our problems – who were both brilliantly deceived by Adams’ deft Cruyff turn. A well-taken goal but I couldn’t help but laugh at the irony. For those in doubt – our problems really do run deeper than us simply not having our first choice fullbacks fit. Who would’ve have guessed?

Willock was lucky to not be responsible for Vitória extending their lead after a careless pass, but where he was lucky, Maitland-Niles’ was not. Both were subsequently replaced at halftime for their similarly young, ever so slightly more experienced counterparts. In fairness to Maitland-Niles, such an absence from (by his own admission) his preferred position would have played a part in some of his naivety but the finish from Duarte afforded him no such sympathy. I do feel he has a future with us in the midfield; his composure, work rate and defensive ability is still plain to see. His opportunities may be limited for the time being, though.

For a team of Vitória’s calibre, a team that had not scored in their last two games, to find it so easy to attack last year’s finalists was nothing short of astounding. 37% of possession at half time with 3 shots out of 10 on target to our 8 and 1. A story we’ve heard before. We were lucky to only concede twice.

More of the same came after the break in spite of the changes to our midfield, it seems to be a recurring feature of this team that personnel changes (with the exception of one or two gems) have little effect on the kind of chances we create. It only took 25 minutes for a scattered symphony to cry out “We’ve got Özil, Mesut Özil…” to ring around the ground. Just the two deaf ears it fell on.

Amidst the doom and gloom, there was plenty of promise shown by both Martinelli and Emile Smith-Rowe. The latter made a great return to the team and on another day, once he’s back in full swing, he perhaps may have had a brace after squandering two great chances. The Brazillian had no such issues though, and with his first real sniff of goal had already added another to his Arsenal account. Having led from the front, with even more tenacity than Alexandre Lacazette who is often playing like a bat out of hell, I was glad to see his efforts rewarded. He’s still raw and lacking in composure at times but the boy definitely knows where the goal is. Whether he can make the leap into translating these kinds of performances into League goals will be the next challenge.

Bellerín was quoted after the game as saying “sometimes you need individual magic” – the worry is this seems to be our preferred method of attack under Emery. It’s no surprise given the array of talent he has at his disposal but I’m still baffled every time we play at the sheer lack of playstyle going forward. It’s truly alien to me, both as as Arsenal fan and a football fan. Vitória recently lost to a semi-professional team in a domestic cup, have lost every game of the group stages thus far and still.. somehow.. managed to play us off the park – our own park – for large parts of the game. Every time they went forward, they played with purpose, cohesion, pace and on another day, they could have had 4 or 5. I really don’t like the feeling of “getting away with it” that more than a few of Emery’s victories come attached with.

This result was another damning continuation in this side’s struggle to create meaningful chances. Pépé’s introduction was a welcome change and we saw more of the quality he brings to this team besides his goals, as we came close with several of his deliveries from set pieces and the wing. I still can’t help but wonder what the man could do in a better system, though. He has such an arsenal of trickery at his disposal and yet we rarely see him able to make use of this in the final third where he flourished for Lille last season. With any luck, this will at least give him some real confidence to take forward against Crystal Palace. Until then…