With an impeccably prescient sense of timing, I wrote on these pages a month and a half ago that Arsenal’s “results and performances to date provide enough encouragement for us long-suffering Gooners to not only believe the future is bright but also that we might just be ahead of schedule in getting back to where we want to be.”(https://football-nerd.org/2018/12/07/football-nerd-weekly-ramblings-taking-stock-of-arsenals-progress-under-unai-emery/).
At that point Unai Emery’s team were on a twenty game unbeaten run in all competitions, however just a week later they lost away at Southampton, and endured a run over the Festive Period that saw them drop points away at Brighton and humbled 5-1 at Anfield. The defeat at the London Stadium last Saturday raised further questions about the actual progress of the Gunners under their new head coach.
Through the unbeaten run, if we are totally honest, there was a feeling that Arsenal were getting away with it to an extent. That the number of goals they were able to score was compensating for a defensive fragility that has seen them keep just 3 clean sheets in the League and concede a total of 32 goals in 22 matches. Against West Ham there was a lack of creativity and genuine attacking threat that in essence robbed the Gunners of their ‘get out of jail free card’.
For the first time in his fledgling tenure questions are being asked of Emery by some of the fans, most specifically with regard to his handling of the two genuinely creative players that he has at his disposal, namely Mesut Özil and Aaron Ramsey.
Özil has featured only fleetingly over the last couple of months: appearing for a total of 155 minutes since the home game against Wolves on the 11th of November, and not at all since being hooked at half-time at Brighton on Boxing Day. While there have been suggestions of all too convenient back and knee injuries, he didn’t even make the matchday squad against West Ham, despite reportedly being fit to play.
It seems clear that Emery doesn’t trust Özil for away games where defensive hard work is the foundation on which results are shaped. Whereas Wenger used to indulge the mercurial playmaker, the new head coach has no truck with a player who simply won’t put in the requisite effort.
In contrast to Özil it feels as if Aaron Ramsey fits the mould of an ‘Emery player’ perfectly: his work rate, technical ability and his welcome knack of arriving late into the box to create opportunities are all attributes that fit with Emery’s intention of adding “verticality” to Arsenal’s play. Yet because of the mess that the club have made of contract negotiations which will, if rumours are to be believed, see the Welshman plying his trade in Turin next season, Emery feels he is unable to pick Ramsey in his starting XI. We only need think back to the difference he made after coming on at West Ham to realise the self-imposed handicap this represents.
In complete fairness neither of these situations are of Emery’s making, both are legacies of the Gazidis/ Wenger era but perhaps a degree of pragmatism is required here. It seems highly unlikely that Özil will leave the club during this January (if at all!), even if the will was there from both player and club there hardly seems to be a queue of suitors willing to match his wages either by signing him or taking him on loan. Equally while it seems inevitable that Ramsey will depart in the summer why not use him for the remainder of the season?
Another dilemma for Emery is how to get the best out of his two £50 million strikers. So far when he has tried to play them both it has either been by deploying Aubameyang wide, a role that doesn’t necessarily get the best out of him, or more recently by using them as a central two with a number ten behind, or a nominal wide player such as Iwobi; an option that leads to the Gunners lacking width in attack as characterised by the blunt performance at the London Stadium.
One question that does hang over Emery and his team’s performances thus far is his seeming inability to sort out the ongoing defensive fragility, which has seen his charges concede four more league goals than they had at this stage last season. Back at the start of the Basque’s tenure he spoke about having a plan to add defensive solidity: “First is confidence with our defensive players. Second is working tactically to be more compact. But not only for the defensive players, for the whole team, the first XI and the other players”. While this positive affirmation was welcomed after years of watching Wenger’s teams suffer for being way too open and vulnerable to counter attacks, it simply hasn’t happened.
Injuries to the first choice personnel at the back have no doubt played their part but it is equally pertinent to ask whether the players themselves are suited to Emery’s preferred defensive set-up which relies on a high defensive line and requires pace, organisation, calmness and ability in one-on-one situations? At the same time the lack of width in attack requires the full-backs to combine the attributes and positioning of a winger with the necessity to get back into a proper defensive position when possession is lost. Time and again the backline is exposed as the fullbacks are caught too far forward when an attack breaks down.
Another point of concern is the trend for poor first halves, a stat that gets trotted out every time Arsenal are on TV is that the Gunners have gone in at half-time in the lead just twice out of twenty-two league games this season. Beyond that though has been the level of first half performance, with half-time or early substitutions being used to improve the performance in the second half. While these changes have been largely effective it does beg the question as to whether they are deliberately planned or a reaction to the deployment not being right in the first place.
The state of the squad that led to Wenger’s departure was such that the majority of Arsenal supporters recognised that it is very much a work in progress and that if Emery is the man to mould them into creditable challengers once again it would take several transfer windows and significant time on the training pitch to get there. Many fans, yours truly included, have suggested that we could see ourselves in largely the same position as Liverpool were in three years ago when Jürgen Klopp marched purposefully through the doors at Anfield.
Already it is clear that the squad is in need of some further rejuvenation and quite frankly the replacement of some personnel who aren’t and never will be of sufficient quality to meet the standard required. Worryingly the noises coming out of the club are alarming to say the least. We already know that, unless he undergoes a significant transformation in personality, Stan Kroenke won’t be investing any of his own financial resource any time soon. However Emery revealed last week that such is the financial position of the club that the only option for bringing in new players this January is through loans.
Then came the rumours this week of the imminent departure of highly-rated Head of Recruitment, Sven Mislintat, allegedly as a result of recent suggestions of transfer targets being ignored and a feeling of marginalisation to a role of glorified chief scout. While the signings made since Mislintat’s appointment in November 2017 can be regarded as something of a mixed bag, the hope was that his skills in unearthing unknown gems was something that we could build a future on even without the financial war chests possessed by the Manchester clubs, Chelsea and to an extent Liverpool.
Once again we are left scratching our heads wondering what exactly the club’s strategy is. If we believe what we are told then it is to compete with Europe’s very biggest clubs, just as it was when we were sold the move to the Emirates. However just as it has been for the last twelve years, it is still very much a case that actions will speak louder than words.