Arsenal’s 1-1 draw with Wolves on Saturday afternoon is not the sort of result in isolation that should absolutely condemn a manager to their fate. Wolves are a more-than-respectable team, finishing seventh last season and beating champions Manchester City away from home, among other scalps, this campaign.
Nuno Espirito Santo’s side set up solidly, rarely conceding a lot of shots, and break at pace, with their role players particularly excellent at performing tasks very few players can – Adama, for example.
Yet another ‘drawfeat’ at the Emirates Stadium left a taste more bitter than last week’s capitulation against Crystal Palace in Arsenal fans’ mouths.
Having absorbed a lot of pressure, Arsenal took the lead through the evergreen Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, and then, like so many games this season, attempted to sit on a 1-0 lead, only to gradually lose control of the game, eventually, yet again, conceding a soft equaliser to Raul Jiménez on the far post.
It was the same old story as last week, and the week before, and it’s been evident for months, if not most of Unai Emery’s tenure at Arsenal: his squad is plagued by flaws which will only be solved through a managerial change.
There is clearly no trust between players and manager, and with little tactical innovation that’s actually worked this season, an absence of control in games, and bizarre substitutions, it’s difficult to see how Emery can carry on.
Robbing Peter to pay Paul
The return of Mesut Ozil saw the discarding of Nicolas Pepe to the bench. If ever a statement was to sum up Unai Emery’s inherent tactical conservatism, it is that.
Pepe has been Arsenal’s most creatively interesting player this season, and despite his lack of goals, is often the player that generates opportunities through mazy dribbles, bursts of acceleration, or off-the-ball-movement that no other Arsenal player is capable of pulling off.
The Ivorian’s problem is that he’s lacked a second creator to allow him more space to move in, a player who can utilise his movement and pick him out in the right situation to get him closer to goal, thus increasing his effectiveness.
That player is Mesut Ozil, but Emery refused to play the two together and dropped Pepe to the bench, likely out of a fear of making his team too offensive and leaving Arsenal’s rather lean defence exposed to opposition attacks. Naturally, obviously, it didn’t work.
It’s decisions like this, bound by fear, underpinned by a flawed philosophy, that will define Emery’s Arsenal reign, and likely expedite his departure too.
Yet again Arsenal played utterly turgid football at home, bogged down in wide areas, with little movement off the ball, a lack of cohesiveness in attack and little understanding of an already-muddy and inherently flawed game plan.
The absence of an exciting style of football was first noted last season, but with a transfer window awash with activity and Emery moving to his more-favoured 4-3-3 this season, it was expected Arsenal would utilise their riches of attacking talent more effectively.
It has in fact been the opposite, and despite the return of chief creator Ozil to the starting line-up against Wolves, Arsenal hardly fashioned a chance after their goal, up until Jiménez equalised. Their inability to generate regular chances while in control of the games cost them the chance at a second goal and ultimately in this case, two valuable points.
Emery’s insistence that Arsenal build conservatively in attack means Arsenal find it difficult to transition the ball into dangerous areas, resulting in fewer shots, and less chance to kill the game before the opposition can gain a foothold.
Football is a game of momentum: both sides always have moments on top in any contest, and to disregard your own team’s moments of superiority in favour of making it more difficult for the opposition to attack quickly in those moments of superiority – by refusing to have the ball in the centre of the pitch in attack, and by refusing to commit to attack-minded players who will instinctively create chances – is both un-Arsenal but also ill-thought-out, and shows so glaringly a manager who’s thinking is too flawed to be at the top end of the Premier League.
The kids are alright, just about
Emery’s influence on Arsenal’s more seasoned professionals is obvious: this is a team that is scared and confused, with and without the ball.
The exception to this is Arsenal’s ever-growing list of talented youngsters, who’s naturally introspective nature at this stage of their development means they are oddly shielded from Emery’s fearful mentality, playing with refreshing freedom when given the chance.
It’s what’s made the Europa League and League Cup so interesting to watch this season. In these competitions, Arsenal look a different side, one without fear, one with passion and purpose. Like the Arsenal of old, one could say.
This was evident, in small patches, at the Emirates on Sunday. Matteo Guendouzi, although not one of his best games, continued to show leadership with the ball, always showing for a pass, and coming to the fore when Arsenal were chasing the game.
Bukayo Saka is patchy at the moment, but did some nice things on the ball and has extraordinarily good natural movement in tight spaces. Gabriel Martinelli, fast becoming one of the hottest talents in Europe, looked threatening despite – in typical Unai Emery fashion – being played out of position, and was inches from toeing in the winner after a superb Ozil run.
Arsenal might be a club in crisis right now, but the kids are more than alright, and it should give fans hope, for, whatever happens, at least some of these kids are going to be top-quality, top-six Premier League players, costing no or little money.
With the right manager, this is going to set the club up superbly in years to come.
Now, we wait
Ultimately, this is all going to keep going the way it’s been going all season until a change is made by the hierarchy at Arsenal.
Poor quality football, fear-borne tactical setups, gross misuse of players, but ultimately glimmers of hope in some academy graduates will all be the norm at Arsenal until Emery is gone.
Yet, for the first time, an Emery exit does feel imminent, or at least, in clear view on the horizon. It will be a difficult time for the club when he does leave, and one senses there’s going to be a few humiliating defeats in between now and his departure, but at the very least, there doesn’t seem to be the same level of passivity and fear of change that once stank up the corridors of power at the Emirates.
This regime will act on the evidence in front of it. And that evidence is blindingly obvious, no more so than the thousands of empty seats at the Emirates each week. The apathy is back at Arsenal, and until the right chance is made, it will continue to rot the club.