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.

Apathetic Arsenal

Preview

Even in the darkest years of Wenger, a disappointing loss, or run of fixtures would never spill over into the next fixture. I would always have some slither of hope; on some occasions there was an air of inevitability to results, (the struggles against other big teams, European knockout stages, to name a few) but on their day, they could still pull it out of the bag. They say it’s the hope that kills you and that was a perfect summation towards the end of Le Prof’s tenure.

That feeling has genuinely vanished at this point. Not only has Saturday’s performance and result left a halitosis-equivalent aftertaste, I don’t feel at all rejuvenated ahead of tonight’s game. It feels like another ordeal we have to sit through and endure. As if the spark of European football wasn’t already watered down enough as we languish away in the Europa League, I don’t see any real positive outcome. A win would perhaps paper over the cracks and buy Emery another week in the eyes of the board, which means we have to sit through another league game. A draw or a loss means nothing in the context of our Europa League progression and it seems unlikely that the board would see a pointless cup fixture as the final straw.

We don’t know what’s been said this week behind closed doors, but David Ornstein’s revelation and choice of words might be the start of a changing tide; we can only hope “as things stand” really is as precarious as it sounds.


I don’t particularly care for Emery’s tone ahead of tonight’s game either; his plea for unity is likely falling on deaf ears at this point:

“My wish is tomorrow that the supporters and every supporter helps the team because we need them.”

Unai Emery, self-eulogy

By all accounts, our support has been patient and commendable this season. The overwhelming consensus at the start of the season was one of optimism in lieu of our active transfer dealings and the expectation that we would really crack on under Emery after a patchy (putting it kindly) first season. The away support has been flawlessly incorrigible as ever and although we have seen a breakdown at home in recent weeks, this is a symptom of our form rather than a cause and Emery would do well to appreciate the difference. As it stands, he will only alienate them further with nonsensical statements like this. Fans are fickle and reactionary; they don’t set the tone, they just respond to it. I know from experience at the Emirates that we’re a nervous bunch but the absolute best remedy is to get their act together on the pitch and the rest will follow. At the end of the day, fans pay good money to be entertained and hauling yourself to a midweek game after work, bracing the weather and unpredictable public transport, only to sit through more of the same dross won’t earn you any favours.


The Match

Exodus is a strong word (and I’m not talking about the entire Frankfurt contingent being absent) but there was a staggering number of fans missing. It’s the sort of turnout you get at reserve games.


Pushing David Luiz into a more advanced role felt like Emery playing one of his last, desperate hands as manager. Luiz struggled in the early stages and despite the knock he received, was still careless in possession on more than one occasion prior. If only Emery had an established, fit, holding midfielder at his disposal who could’ve deputised…

The injury eventually caused him to make way for Guendouzi but it was hardly a like for like swap. I was interested to see how we’d play with the David Luiz experiment but it wasn’t to be and we were subjected to the usual high-octane performance we’ve come to expect from the teenager.

Frankfurt have also been poor domestically and the manner in which they defended set pieces pointed to a team there for the taking but with the exception of the odd half-chance from set pieces, we still struggled to create meaningful chances. The Arsenal front three had Frankfurt’s back-line dead to rights for pace but the lack of creativity behind made them suffer, as tidy and adventurous as Joe Willock was in possession. For all of his qualities, he doesn’t quite fit the bill (yet) for such a position, despite Emery’s insistence on playing him there.

That being said, the best chances came from Saka and himself and although they’ve still got that rawness, there’s so much to like about them and they play with the kind of confidence you see in comfortably established players. The former’s contribution for the opener was crucial (if a little fortunate in missing the ball for Aubameyang), following some good wingplay from Martinelli. The first half was a bit of a non-entity but I’ll always enjoy a goal.


After a bright start, we assigned our first “opposition goal quota” of the evening to Kamada. It was a good turn and better finish but as is so often the case, we give the opposition all of the time in the world and that is what you get.

Naturally, we conceded again only 9 minutes later in similar fashion. I joke about having a quota, but there’s a reason we average almost 2 goals conceded a game this season. Kamada has already shown his quality so why everyone was asleep for the second ball is beyond me. If there’s one thing this team thrives on, it’s capitulation; perhaps a worrying byproduct of Baku.

Is that down to individuals not doing their job? Is it by design that no one can see the danger? It really is absolute schoolboy stuff and Martinez was understandably livid.

For all of the faults of this team, there’s a kindness to them that’s commendable – we have an uncanny ability to make bad teams look good. After going ahead, Frankfurt suddenly remembered how to play football and became a lot more organised at the back. You can point to injuries limiting Emery’s ability to change the game as he’d like but we’ve seen it all before. More to the point, he wouldn’t need to change anything if the situation wasn’t so dire in the first place. Such was our kindness, we offered little in the way of a fight to try and get something from the game but it’s hardly surprising that our confidence is at rock-bottom. The most fight I saw was Xhaka’s incredulous reaction at being penalised for a nothing-challenge, his grounds for dissent running deeper than just that moment.

For all of that fight, it didn’t stop Xhaka from fraternising after the game, seemingly unfazed by another disasterclass. At this point, it seems that he’s completely checked out. It made for stark contrast to Tierney and Chambers as they walked off the pitch, visibly frustrated as they seemed to hash out their issues.


Just as I was at the start of the night, I go into the next game feeling empty. I have no confidence that the right decision will be made, because it should’ve been made already. Likewise, I have no confidence that we’ll put in a good performance at the weekend. If I’m feeling like that, I dread to think what the players must be going through.

We can only wait and see what happens but I’m not going to lose sleep trying to second-guess the minds of the powers that be in North London. They’d do well to take note of Martin Keown’s impassioned and borderline venomous post-match tirade. Everyone really is at their wit’s end.


Arsenal vs. Southampton: Please, just make it stop.


Let bygones be bygones…

Prior to the match today, I wanted to take a step back and ignore the noise around the club and its predicament and look at the fixture objectively. 6th-placed Arsenal hosting 19th-placed Southampton. An international break following a period of disappointing results, I was expecting renewed vigour, a fresh outlook and a hungry squad eager to make amends. A fresh outlook is quite an open-ended concept, but at the very least, I wanted to see the shackles taken off. This side has bounds of technical ability and we’ve seen glimpses of what they can do over the course of the season and beyond, whether by design or by the individual ability. Change is what the club needed to have any renewed sense of hope, and that could only be inspired by the performance we saw today. This was the perfect opportunity for a clean slate and any question marks over confidence, mentality or otherwise should have been addressed and disposed of over the course of this break.


The start was bleak. Caught in possession in our own half and conceding a shot on goal inside 27 seconds. Against any club, that’s not great but this is Southampton. It got bleaker in the 8th minute.

The manner of their goal was unfamiliar in the sense that you don’t see teams getting caught out by quick-thinking plays like this too often (and even the likes of Barcelona can succumb to ingenuity as we saw against Liverpool in last year’s Champions League semi final), and yet it had all the hallmarks of what we’ve come to expect. Bellerín’s call for unity prior to the game doesn’t help us one iota when he himself and the rest of the back-line are caught sleeping and Southampton took full advantage. The incredulous reactions across the defence brought no respite, nor did VAR in penalising Southampton for the ball being in motion as the free kick was taken. We can’t expect VAR or officiating in general to ever bail us out so I don’t really have any complaints and we wouldn’t even be mentioning this if the team was switched on.

Lacazette’s timely response kept the rabid crowd at bay; I’m sure that “unity” would have completely gone out the window if we’d gone into half time trailing. Any hope that the goal would reignite some belief was misplaced, as the side meandered into halftime in typical fashion.

4 months into the season and Emery’s constant system-tinkering, yet to nail down any in particular, seems to leave this team beyond confused. Chambers inexplicably had more touches than our front three – combined.

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I can also safely say that switching to 3 at the back with 2 wingbacks has left us no more secure at the back. More to the point, the game was another pertinent example of games where Emery refuses to go hell for leather against teams ripe for the taking. It’s a good job those pairs of holding midfielders and wingbacks kept the voracious onslaught from Southampton at bay; we managed to limit them to just the two goals away from home. Highly commendable.

Chambers was then the one to make way for Pépé at half time; better late than never I suppose but I would love to hear Emery’s rationale for the Ivorian’s omission from the starting lineup. Through on goal, our record signing opted to pass instead of going for goal himself and the move amounted to nothing. You could argue he felt Özil was better suited to score, and in some occasions, it’s even commendable to be selfless (as Özil so often is in those situations). In reality, I think the wasted chance was a circumstance of a player down on confidence, frustrated at his lack of opportunities.

~ Cue personal anecdote ahead ~


Small relevant segue – speaking from experience as a player myself in my younger years, I absolutely hated being benched. In a period of nepotism shown by the manager (his son, who would regularly throw tantrums and cry, was captain – that kind of nepotism), I was sometimes benched because one player’s dad helped out in training. His son was weak on the ball, would literally duck out of headers and – not wanting to blow my own trumpet – it was our star player that suffered. Our only county level player was our lone centre-forward and I was not only the player top of assists from the right wing, but the top contributor for him and he was always frustrated by own his admission when I wasn’t playing. I was deeply competitive and hated the circumstances whenever I was left out and you can bet your bottom dollar that any professional will feel even worse than I did whenever they’re left out (unless perhaps you’re Gareth Bale).


Anyway, it was a real shame when his audacious effort came back off the bar because he really looks down in the dumps, but it wasn’t to be. Tierney did well to find him but it wasn’t an easy chance to convert.

Pépé’s treatment is really another entry into Emery’s book of “Man-Management Misgivings”, from Xhaka’s captaincy debacle, Ozil’s lengthy absence, the misuse of Torreira for much of the season, to throwing Nelson and Willock into the lion’s den in hope for salvation like the Watford game, or like Willock and Martinelli today. I’m still scratching my head as to why he didn’t feature against Sheffield, a game we were trailing, after he’d just scored two direct free-kicks only days before. I feel like I’m beating a dead horse at times, but I just can’t seem to ignore so many of these glaring oversights.

Thankfully, with any luck, that’ll be the last chapter in his sorry little book of mediocrity. At this point, it’s genuinely unfathomable if he remains. The Chuckle Brothers* (I’m referring to Raul and Edu as this until Emery’s sacked from this point onward) made a mistake in not pulling the trigger before the international break. The only response they should tolerate from this match is a resounding victory. This isn’t hyperbolic, this is what the club, its fans and it’s ambitions should demand. I’m not expecting that week in, week out. I’m not spoiled or entitled, but that is the response you expect after a period of disappointment and a two week window to reflect and take the necessary measures to ensure it happens.

I barely reacted to the equaliser. I didn’t even think it was possible to be apathetic to a 95th minute equaliser but they’ve managed to turn me into a blank slate. The players’ reactions said as much, almost annoyed that their reckless desire to not lose might’ve delayed the elephant in the room.

Words truly escape me and I feel like that’s all I can say in closing. I guess we just have to wait and see.


* N.B. The Chuckle Brothers (featured picture) were a much-loved children’s comedy duo from the UK, who were incredibly goofy and calamitous.

~ Picture Credit: https://www.bbc.co.uk/music/artists/ee21170f-b74c-4ae8-9722-e255d6eb8422

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.

Judgement Day for Unai (?)

Foreword

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.

The Match

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.

Aftermath

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

Arsenal 1-1 Wolves: S.S.D.D.

The Overview

I’m not sure what expectations I had going into this – even after seeing the starting lineup – but come the final whistle, I’ve still come away feeling like this hasn’t come close to whatever slither of hope I did have.

It’s just a story we’ve heard before. Again, and again and again. Same shit, different day. I hate resorting to the same tired platitudes but that is where we stand. If there was any doubt where the buck stops prior to today’s game, that thought has now well and truly run its course. The only real difference is unlike our past disappointments, I suspect this one will be looked back on as the fuse to Emery’s dismissal. There have been plenty of other games this season where extenuating circumstances, benefit of the doubt, VAR and a whole range of other excuses have been chalked up as excuses for us coming up short. In fact, in the interests of clarity, I’ve taken the liberty of listing some:

  • New signings settling in: Pépé getting aclimatised to a new league, David Luiz finding his feet in a new defensive partnership
  • Injuries: Our first choice full-backs in Bellerín and Tierney coming back from injury, Lacazette’s injury
  • Weather: Ceballos, a man from Seville, being brought off because it was “too hot”
  • Fear: this doesn’t just pertain to Xhaka’s comments after the Watford game; Emery’s Arsenal have shown time and again that teams we ought to be seeing off comfortably are not actually seen as “easy” games, which is equally reflected in the conservative, bordering on subservient attitude he adopts when shaping our side

Perhaps the most damning revelation of his tenure (though I’m happy to be enlightened if there’s anything worse than this) came after today’s result:

“It’s a bad result, but tactically it worked how we wanted.”

Unai Emery

So, at the very least, the man can understand that it’s a bad result. That’s a small consolation. What proceeds that is nothing short of a trainwreck. In further pursuit of clarity, I’ve included today’s match statistics, which are hardly a far cry from what we’ve come to expect this season, both home and away:

ArsenalWolves
Possession (%)58 42
Total Shots1025
Shots on target48
Off target54
Blocked113
Passing Accuracy (%)86.479.4
Attacking 3rd (%)74.777.5
Key Passes716
Clear-Cut Chances11

It doesn’t take an expert to see just how worrying a picture this paints. Dominated at home in every aspect bar ‘ability to bore an opponent to death with monotonous and meaningless passes’, and not for the first time this season. Had it not been for Özil, the contrast would have been all the more stark. You can even gleen insight from the number of shots Wolves had blocked; against some teams you might attribute a figure like that to playing against a team who like to sit back, soak up pressure and hit you on the counter. For Arsenal, it can be quite easily explained by the sheer desperation in our defence.

Throughout the game, I had this niggling feeling that just wouldn’t go away which led me to post this – it only took 9 minutes to come to fruition.

Clockwork.

The Match

Özil starting. No Xhaka. Aubameyang taking over responsibilities. Game on.

We’ve got Özil…” within the first two minutes. Predictable enough.

Any hopes that simply “giving the fans what they want” was the remedy to our troubled form were quickly rubbished within minutes. Single passes bypassing our entire midfield, space aplenty for Wolves to have their way with us, holding midfielders being dispossessed in our own half and inviting unforced pressure. Xhaka wasn’t playing by the way, if any of that sounded familiar. Twice in 2 minutes was Guendouzi guilty of this. Six Wolves attempts in the first 14 minutes. Long afternoon ahead.

The goal wasn’t exactly against the run of play but it was so sudden, I don’t think many people felt we’d done enough to deserve it. A meandering Sideshow Bob Sr. had found himself with the ball on the touchline and took a swing, a hopeful ball at best. Taking a sizeable deflection, Lacazette picked up the pieces and fed Aubameyang who was faster to react, grabbing his 50th goal for the club.

The game quickly became stretched and I thought we were in for another match like Anfield. Özil’s ability to find not just any pass but the right pass appeared time and again. It was probably the first time in recent memory where I felt like Lacazette’s presence wasn’t detrimental to Aubameyang’s ability to find space in the final third, with the pair seemingly taking turns to try and supply the other.
Özil very much picked up where he left off on Wednesday and much of our play was anchored around him. His dependability felt like an aura at times, with players around him taking it in turns to recycle the ball through him as they slowly probed for openings. As much as Emery has struggled to find a No. 10 that works; Ramsey, Willock, Özil, Ceballos – even Torreira trialling there – having a focal point to centre our play around in the opposition half has always felt like one of the missing pieces to our offensive puzzle.


At this point, I don’t even know what constitutes a solid defence performance for Arsenal. A clean sheet is clearly asking too much, so perhaps conceding less than 15 shots would be an achievement? Average of only one goal conceded per game, perhaps? This would normally be fine if we simply outscored everyone, but another symptom of Emery’s Arsenal is struggling to put daylight between ourselves and the opposition even when we do win.

At the very least, I suspect Wolves were disappointed come half time to not have a goal of their own, having rifled a shot straight at Leno and another chance being blocked by Sokratis’ carefully placed arm. I couldn’t help but laugh at the customary theatrics the latter seems to be so fond of, going down as if he’d been shot by a 15-inch naval gun. I do sometimes wonder if anyone’s told Sokratis about things like VAR and television cameras; the man seems to love all things pantomime in football, from shirt pulling, to comical dives, tussling in the box and scenes like we saw today. Not content with his performance in Act 1, he was caught showing off his penchant for the arts early in the second half. He may well have taken a bit of an arm or elbow to the face, but for a man of his position, reputation and size to be rolling around on the floor when we’re not in possession to have a miraculous recovery when we are is just disappointing every time you see it. Apologies for the digression but there was very little to be cheery about again today.



The second started as the first, with our customary donations to the opposition’s “free shots fund”.

There’s a horrible feeling I get watching us these days of it being a mathematical certainty that we will concede (you can tell when I wrote this, but I had to leave it in…). I often find myself struggling to even remember when our last clean sheet was. It almost takes the fun out of football, a game steeped in what-ifs that turn into whens. It was all fun and games in the early 2000s, with one pundit famously remarking “Arsenal will score, because they always score.” This one’s really come back to bite us in the arse.

Pépé’s introduction was seemingly inevitable in a game so finely poised (or so I thought) – and this is something I’d be saying even with a 2-0 lead – let alone when we were up to our old tricks of almost giving the ball away from our goal kicks. I was interested to see how he would function in a frontline awash with talent, but it was Martinelli who first came into the foray. Lacazette made way with a suspected injury and given his involvement in what little of our play was good today, I can only assume this was the case. With any luck, it won’t be the same kind of absence as his last.

I would argue the saving grace of Emery’s tenure is his faith in our youth. Such is the quality of our two 18 year olds that featured today, the decision is at least easy to understand. Martinelli certainly found that the Premier League is a different kettle of fish to the Europa League and indeed Anfield in the Carabao Cup. He didn’t have close to the same impact but it’s fair to say this was a circumstance of the game and our inability to create chances than a reflection of his performance. For all of the faith Emery has shown, it’s also felt at times like he’s pissing in the wind when he throws on some kids and expects them of all people to be the answer to our problems.


The inevitable happened, like clockwork.

I really wish we’d just get it out the way early, broker some kind of deal where we let the opposition score straight from kick-off. It’s not that we don’t respond well from conceding, it just really gets in the way of the whole “trying to win football matches” thing we’re supposedly working on.

This team really has an incredible ability to not create goalscoring opportunities regardless of who’s on the pitch, though. I’m no expert but I think – I think – that might point to a symptomatic problem instead. Not wanting to repeat myself about who or what is causing this unerring period of inefficacy but I can’t even see a means to an end. Özil’s presence and quality was welcome and much of what was good about us came through him today, but was anyone really under the delusion that all our creatives deficiencies would vanish? He certainly waned as the game went on, as did the rest of them. And was it really more important to bring off Tierney who may or may not have been a bit tired and wet, with only minutes to go than bring on our record £72m signing when we’re chasing a victory?

Where we go from here is now very much at the discretion of those above Emery, whether they’re breathing down his neck or patting him on the back for doing what they asked of him. In closing, I’ll just leave you with a small insight into how the fanbase feels.

Apologies if the results/voting is only possible if you have Twitter. Once the poll concludes, you should be able to see the results.

´Til next time.

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/

Arsenal vs. Crystal Palace: a muddled mess

It’s not often that I’m completely at a loss for words but what I saw this afternoon was such a muddled mess, I’m really struggling. For the second time in four days, the result lay on a knife-edge and where Thursday was the yin, today’s performance was certainly our yang.


Saving the customary omission of Özil, I thought today’s lineup was just about our strongest available to Emery when I saw the teamsheet. His refusal to use Lucas Torreira appropriately in his teams certainly complicates this decision, but that was my take at least.

The frenzied first half started predictably enough – a free header to Crystal Palace in the 3rd minute, which could’ve easily put us behind. That predictability soon went out the window in the 7th minute with Sokratis’ stabbed finish after a crucial knockdown from the much-maligned Granit Xhaka. Pépé really didn’t waste time picking up where he left off after Thursday, with his contributions to the first and seconal goal a welcome change in set piece quality after what has been a frustrating period without a natural provider from these areas. The second in as many minutes came from another unlikely source but to score twice from set pieces against a team with Gary Cahill at the centre is a positive sign at the very least. Whether we made the right choice in opting for Luiz over Cahill is another matter entirely…

There was a degree of fortuity and scrapiness with the goals but I’ll take them any day of the week, if anything for Aubameyang’s sake and sanity that there are actually goals elsewhere in this team. I’ve spoken at length about our over-reliance on individual brilliance (“there’s no ‘i’ in team but there’s five in individual brilliance” isn’t a quip I want Emery to learn anytime soon) so it really was a bizarre juxtaposition to be 2-0 up inside 10 minutes thanks to a goal apiece from our centre-halves.

The early goals seemed to give us an edge and I was pleased to see us winning 50/50s and the like. We were competitive, were playing with pace and actually created some chances from open play, with Lacazette and Pépé coming close and Aubameyang almost finding himself through on goal – on another day, his first touch wouldn’t be his undoing and we’d likely have been 3-0 up. It wasn’t to be though and the predictability of our vulnerabilities came back to bite us. The first real chance Zaha had to run at us, he used to full effect and (eventually) won his team the penalty. I don’t have any complaints with Atkinson’s decision being overturned – Zaha might make the most of it but there’s enough deliberate contact and I suspect many would be aggrieved if someone like Saka or Pépé was on the receiving end. Milivojevic made no mistake but that was to be expected after his consistency at Selhurst Park last season.

Despite all the positivities of the first half, I was a bit taken aback by the half time statistics: we may have had the lion’s share of the chances but we were second-best for possession and total passes. For a team to be 2-0 up at home inside the first 10 minutes to post figures like that is cause for concern. Until this season, the Emirates has been a stalwart of our strength and I would hate if it were to lose that certain “je ne sais quoi.”


The heroes of the first half resumed their usual responsibilities of lax defending and ball-watching with their complicity in the second goal, which was so damning in so many ways. Questions can be asked about why Xhaka – a man who is 99% left foot (except when he’s shooting strangely) – was deputising as a right back, but he’s still got to do better in preventing the cross. The real blame lies with David Luiz however. Saving a cursory glance when it was already too late, Luiz seemed completely oblivious as to Ayew’s whereabouts and his ballwatching was painfully basic. A man of his experience has got to do better but therein lies the problem – we all knew about some of his tendencies before we signed him. He’s good for grabbing a goal, can take some wicked free kicks but when it all comes down to it, he’s a defender and time and again, we’ve seen these kinds of amateur mistakes from him.

The highs of the first half head start quickly unravelled and the chaos we’ve become accustomed to returned. Chances became few and far between and I honestly don’t remember us even creating a chance in the first 30 minutes of the second half. It was at this point that the match really reared it’s head with the departure of Granit Xhaka. We needed change and for the second time, Xhaka was the sacrificial lamb but the real question is whether he’s a a deserving scapegoat (no more ovine/caprine idioms from me now).

I had real sympathy for him as he came off. One of my lowest points as a fan was attending the infamous game where Eboue was hauled off after coming on as a substitute to a chorus of boos. The Emirates was ugly that day – I was ashamed to be there – and I felt the same feeling in my stomach today. “Class is permanent” is one of our unofficial mottos and what I saw and heard today was the polar opposite to that. I’m not Xhaka’s biggest fan but what he was subjected to was absolutely unacceptable. I very much feel like he is the biggest victim under Emery’s Arsenal; seemingly the first name on the teamsheet but to some, the chief architect of our problems. If there’s one thing that can be said about him, he always gives his all and to see him jeered like that and his reaction was sad – I don’t blame him in the slightest for his pained and explosive reaction. It was almost symbolic him ripping his shirt off and then heading straight for the tunnel – I do wonder what the fallout will be from today’s episode. As far as I’m concerned, there’s no place in football for being fickle – you either get behind the team or you don’t bother at all. More to the point, no good can come from that kind of treatment. By all means, rant ’til your throat is hoarse after the game but there’s no excuse for what we saw today. David Luiz was more culpable for the goal in my book, and yet Xhaka is the one leaving feeling aggrieved. Our problems run far, far deeper than one man.



For the second game in a row, Ozil was serenaded – the creative dearth in this side again evident. The clock ticked down and I again found myself wondering if we would even create a chance despite Emery throwing on Saka and more strangely, Kolasinac.

That chance did come around and just as VAR giveth in the first half, it taketh in the second. I’ve been crying out for consistency in Premier League officiating for some time. I never thought VAR would be the answer but for it to not only add even more inconsistency – seemingly swinging from one game to another depending on the relative egos and whims of the referee on the pitch against the ones in the back room – it’s already on several occasions realised the fear of many, that it would kill the excitement, for fans and players alike. Seeing Sokratis score and celebrate in such a manner, only for the buzz to be swept out from under him was devastating, both as an Arsenal fan and a football fan. This feeling was only compounded by the ridiculous nature of the decision, which was nothing more than a 50/50 that Chambers happened to win. If VAR was actually paying attention, surely the body check on Chambers prior to his alleged infringement would’ve taken precedence but that may just be asking too much of them. I know many fans have felt eqully aggrieved this season and although many expected their to be teething problems, VAR seems to be exceeding expectations of frustration.

Another bad day at the office for Unai’s Arsenal, and one which I feel has done lasting damage in more ways than one.

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!