A classic Arsenal ‘draw-feat’. We’ve seen it so many times before.
Two goals up, only to capitulate to the bottom-of-the-table side. How can you possibly draw positives from a game like that? How can you sum up what we all just saw?
Here’s some helpful context: 2% of the entire shots in the Premier League this season were taken by Watford in the second half at Vicarage Road on Sunday. That’s one-fiftieth of the total shots in the entire league, in 45 minutes. By the bottom team, against a top-four hopeful.
To quote Martin Tyler, the iconic voice of the Premier League through time: that, sums it all up.
It’s worse when you zoom further out: Arsenal have now given up 96 shots this season, which is worse than any team in the Premier League, Bundesliga, Serie A, Ligue 1 and La Liga this season. It’s 14 shots more than the 2007-08 Derby County side in their first five games, who ended the season with 11 points and a solitary win to their name.
Yes, you read that right.
The deconstruction of the problems are simple: the philosophy underpinning Arsenal’s football is fundamentally flawed. The root of the problem lies at the feet of a man who has given his all, but at this stage of his career, is unlikely to adapt to the conditions he now finds himself in. At the very least, he’s unlikely to adapt correctly.
The main problem, as most know, lies in the mentality of the tactics that Unai Emery has attempted to implement at Arsenal.
Conservatism in attack is mixed with aggressiveness in defence. Keep the ball away from dangerous central areas in the build-up, lest Arsenal are cut through like butter on the counter. Restrict the creativity to the safest areas of the pitch.
Yet press proactively to win the ball back, expose space in behind and a set of defenders who aren’t even the first choice at a club who’s first choices often defend like they were paid not to.
It’s typical of Emery at Arsenal. It stinks of chronic indecision, but most depressingly, of an acceptance of an inferiority complex that a club that wants to fight for titles in the medium term simply cannot have.
It’s madness, from idea to implementation.
It’s personified perhaps by the central midfield selection on the weekend. It’s an area of the pitch in which Arsenal have five first-team options: Granit Xhaka, Matteo Guendouzi, Lucas Torreira, Dani Ceballos and Joe Willock. There’s creativity, drive, height, leadership, youth, pace, incisiveness, dynamism and determination between those five options.
Sunday saw Xhaka and Guendouzi start, with Mesut Özil further forward. This was despite neither Xhaka nor Guendouzi being particularly good defenders – in fact, Xhaka is obviously bad and Guendouzi is, somehow, statistically worse – and despite neither of them being obviously capable at defending how Emery would like his central midfielders to defend: proactively.
Both players are extraordinarily similar, adding superb creative passing from deep, some size at set-pieces and the ability to influence the tempo of Arsenal’s attack, but together, they rob the team of pace and defensive awareness. Both of them cry out for an obviously defensive or obviously proactive partner, yet they get each other.
Combine that with the presence of Özil and Ceballos further forward, of whom neither had an obvious role in the attacking phase, and you get a confused midfield made up of attack-minded players who are asked to play conservatively and without protection, while the ball is kept away from the areas where they can have maximum impact.
In essence, Emery picked a team based on what he imagined the shape to look like in particular moments. He’s a still-image manager, wanting to create and control exact scenarios. He wants Arsenal to score one way, his way, and yet fails to account for the simple fact of the sheer extraneousness of football, in his own players and in the opposition.
The manager can only add (half) the ingredients; the players create the moments. The players are the variables.
At Vicarage Road, just as there was so many times last season, there was no thought to how the shape and the ability of players would apply to the match as a whole, just how they would create a series of moments that would perhaps shape the outcome in Arsenal’s favour.
Spoiler: they didn’t. They cost Arsenal the game. And slowly, but ultimately, they’ll cost Unai Emery his job.
There’s no point looking at the positives at Watford, who it should be said, were very good, because to do so would be to take those positive moments out of the context of a profoundly negative and legacy-defining performance.
This is Emery’s version of Wenger’s 3-0 defeat to Crystal Palace in 2017. There’s no corpse yet, but we know the process has begun.
In the short-term, Arsenal are in a seriously worrying position. They have a manager who is caught between two polar opposites, trying to hide the weaknesses of both ends of the ground by stripping the other end of what it does well.
They have a manager who is projecting his own inferiority complex onto his players. They have a manager who’s fundamental philosophy is compromised at the core, and who’s flaws will continue to compromise his team until the day it all ends, ignominiously.
The alarm bells are ringing for a reason. This isn’t a drill, this is a core meltdown for Arsenal, again. It won’t happen straight away, but mark Sunday down as the day Arsenal began to inject Emery with football management’s execution cocktail.
How long it takes to administer the lethal dose will show how competent the Arsenal administration have become.
Be aggressive, Josh Kroenke.