Arsenal were shambolic against Watford, being outplayed and ending with a frankly fortunate point. A rather worrying stat demonstrates that so far this season the Gunners have conceded the most shots in any of the top five leagues, as well as having fewer shots than any of their opposition so far. This stat forces me to ask a bigger question, namely what head-coach Unai Emery has changed at the club. In this article, I shall examine each aspect of the side, and state the case for the fact that on the pitch, Emery has taken us backwards.
The art of defending:
The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. If someone hadn’t told me that, I would have thought that it could have easily been defining Arsenal’s defence. The Gunner’s backline has endured a torrid last eighteen months and Unai Emery’s attempts to rectify it have shown no substance on the pitch. Three of the five who started against Watford were signed by the Arsenal boss, and out of those, only goal-keeper Bernd Leno can come out of the game with any credit. Clearly, Emery’s philosophy is to pass out from the back. He has made this obvious from the beginning when Arsenal fans could not bear to watch the ball at Petr Cech’s feet. Twelve months on, and there is still little to no signs of improvement. Time and time again Arsenal work themselves into trouble, giving the ball away in or around their own penalty area. Against Watford, warning signs were present even before Sokratis inexplicably passed the ball to Watford’s Gerard Deulofeu to set up Watford’s first goal. Twice, Matteo Guendouzi had been dispossessed on the edge of his own box trying to turn out, and in the second-half, Arsenal gave the ball away countless times. Still the side persisted with trying to pass out from defence, inadvertently inviting pressure from Watford’s forwards who could surely sniff out the fragility. Unai Emery was appointed on the basis of his being a “pragmatic” coach, yet to persist with this strategy when it is constantly costing the team points through individual errors seems incredibly stubborn. The argument, of course, will be made that the mistakes are not his fault, and this to an extent is true. However, he is responsible both for signing and coaching these players, and to see such basic mistakes being consistently made must surely make him think twice about playing out from the back. He is surely able to communicate to his defenders that in some situations it is okay to play long into the channels, and that we are far less likely to make mistakes doing so. Defending is an art, but at the moment Arsenal are making it look like someone has given the paintbrushes to a caffeinated five-year-old.
Lack of leadership
Arsenal’s opening goal was hugely satisfying for many reasons. The side had ridden their luck in the opening minutes, and the lead came from a smart turn and finish courtesy of arguably the best striker in the Premier League. What I enjoyed most, however, was the huddle of five or six Arsenal players which followed the goal. It was a level of togetherness and leadership which I had been dying to see. The problem was, it didn’t last. What came next was perhaps the second-most shambolic forty-five minutes in recent memory, and second only to the 4-1 mauling in Baku. Not one outfield player could say that they played well as the hornets swarmed Arsenal and took advantage of the away sides numerous slip-ups. It was in these periods that previously Arsenal teams had players who would roll up their sleeves and rally the troops. It’s what makes great captains. Think Tony Adams, Patrick Vieira or even Kolo Toure. Emery wants five captains in this Arsenal side. On current evidence, I am honestly struggling to find one player who deserves the honour. Granit Xhaka, the current club captain, is likely the best option but is a divisive player among the Gunners fan-base. Yesterday, however, he showed no leadership or ability to motivate the players around him, which is what the side desperately needs. The reality is however, there are very few other options; David Luiz and Sokratis are surely finished as a centre-back pairing for the near future. Personally, I would give it to Bernd Leno, who seems a nailed-on starter for the next few seasons. However, the truth of the matter is that Arsenal have a terrible void of leadership on and off the pitch.
Reliance on strikers:
Here we come to the crux of the matter. Emery’s reliance on the strikeforce of Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Between them, the pair scored 35 of Arsenal’s 73 league goals last season, and have seven of the club’s eight this year. In short, they are both league-leading strikers. Inheriting such quality in forward areas, you could be forgiven for thinking that Arsenal would be only on an upward trajectory. The truth is quite the opposite. As these two have only got better, the rest of the side seems to have gone backwards. By expected points, Arsenal finished seventh last season, and after five games so far sit behind Wolves in thirteenth place. Time and time again, the side is bailed out by its forwards. Even through experimenting with various sides and systems, it is clear that the same flaws exist now that did when Emery took the helm. Arsenal fundamentally cannot defend, and this fact leaves it as a case of when, not if, an individual makes a mistake. It is all well and good blaming the players, but it is the managers who picks the same fallible players and systems week in week out.
Where we go from here:
At the beginning of Emery’s reign, I was willing to give him time, as he had no control over the players. He has now had three windows to change that fact, yet we somehow look like a worse side. In addition, I cannot see a clear philosophy developing, as the side represents neither a pressing team nor a possession-based one. A point against a bottom of the league side was never going to be good enough, new manager or not. The next few weeks will be crucial for Unai Emery and his future at the club. With first-choice defenders Rob Holding, Hector Bellerin and Kieran Tierney all returning to action, he will finally have his first-choice side back. If results and more importantly performances don’t dramatically improve, there will surely be a strong case for Emery leaving at the end of his two-year contract, if not sooner. At the moment, however, it seems that he has reneged on his promise to play as the “protagonist” on the pitch, in favour of defensive solidity, which in turn means mistakes are made closer to our own goal, the midfield looks horribly one-dimensional, and the forwards are left wholly isolated. Some form of change is needed, and soon.
I just want to end with a special mention to the Arsenal travelling fans. Their voices consistently outweighed the Watford fans, despite being hugely outnumbered. Even by the end, they remained vocal. If they can replicate this at the Emirates, then the Gunners will have a much needed twelfth man to really aid their push for the top four.