In my piece the morning after the Europa League Cup Final in Baku, entitled Arsenal Have To Bite The Bullet And Understand Another Year Of Unai Emery Is A Waste Of A Season, I expressed the view that I could not see a good reason to extend Unai Emery’s tenure, on the basis that I had no faith that he would change anything regarding Arsenal’s porous defending were he given another year to do so. I was reminded of that while watching yesterday’s draw with Watford.
Now Emery has his defenders (at least off the pitch), and they blame the players for not producing on it. However, my belief is that the manager’s tactics are chiefly responsible for the number of goals his team concedes. Yesterday, two main questions kept popping into my head.
1 – Who is the organizer in the midfield? (and if there is actually one they certainly aren’t doing their job)
2 – This playing it out from the back thing. Shouldn’t it be a) done quickly before the opposition is set and b) not have to be an unbreakable policy – as in give the other side some element of doubt as to what is going to happen.
Emery’s teams can look useful at times going forward (as the first half goals demonstrated) but when the opposition have the ball, specifically when they intercept it or dispossess an Arsenal player, it’s hide behind the sofa time. Watford began yesterday’s match as the bottom side in the table, yet managed to rack up 31 goal attempts in the course of the game that doubled their points tally yet left them rooted in last place. New manager bounce or not, this is unacceptable. A better side would have converted at least half a dozen.
The starting line-up just looked plain wrong, as if it was some kind of selection with the aim of accommodating Mesut Ozil. I thought the attempts to make the number 10 feel wanted evaporated with the shambles in Baku, and that this season, were he to stay, would see him utilised in the Europa League and domestic cups. But here he was, starting a Premier League match, and an away one no less, apparently for the first time since last November? There is a reason he is not selected for away matches. I could have lived with it if the formation had meant Ceballos played in the number 10 role with Ozil as the left-sided attacker, but almost to admit Ozil’s lack of defensive contribution, Ceballos was stationed as the left sided of the midfield trio, with Xhaka in the centre and Guendouzi on the right. So up front it was a change from the PAL dream team to the slightly less appealing OAP.
Watford started the game strongly and it was a portent of things to come as they were presented with a number of opportunities to take the lead. Arsenal then managed to score twice to give the illusion that they could control a game against a team in the relegation zone. It was a possible foul by Ceballos that led to the first, but it was the kind of challenge that a certain other creative player in the team was never going to make, and refreshing to see the hunger to win the ball back. Kolasinac broke and fed Aubameyang for an excellent spin and finish. Ozil contributed to the second by splitting Watford’s back line with a pass to Maitland-Niles, who teed up Aubameyang perfectly for a tap-in. 2-0 and all’s right with the world…
Not with Emery’s Arsenal, who’s ability to shoot themselves in the foot simply cannot be underestimated. Guendouzi was highly praised after the North London Derby, but the bottom line is that was a teenager at the start of this year, and he is going to be inconsistent. Emery’s tactics of playing it out from the back put him under huge pressure and he has not yet learned how decisive and accurate you need to be when you have the ball in your own half. He almost gifted Watford two goals, but in the end, it was Sokratis playing a telegraphed pass to him that led to the Hornets’ opening goal. It knocked the wind out of Arsenal’s sails, and psychologically, issues that run all the way back to the title collapse in 2008 have still not been addressed. The mental brittleness is endemic in the club and it’s going to take a particular type of manager to change it – certainly not Unai Emery.
As for the equalizer, what can you say? David Luiz invited the fall and Watford’s Argentinian substitute Pereyra gleefully accepted. That he had the space in the first instance to make a run at Luiz gives clear indication that the midfield was nowhere to be seen, and there was so much space on the pitch by this stage of the game that is only felt like a matter of time before we’d see a goal. The hope was that it might come from the visitors, but substitute Reiss Nelson conspired to lose the ball a number of times when in a good position to create genuine danger. Instead, it came from the home side’s penalty, the third conceded in the last three matches.
In the end, Watford had the best chance to take all three points, but blew it. They were generally guilty of a lack of clinical finishing. On one level, it’s just two points dropped, but this was a stadium where the might of West Ham and Brighton have taken maximum points already this season. Watford are in the drop zone for a reason – their players aren’t very good. Good enough to hold Arsenal though.
The reality is that, even though we are seeing new faces since Arsene Wenger’s departure (Leno, Sokratis, Torreira, Guendouzi, Pepe, Ceballos, Luiz), the defensive fragility of the side that has been an Achilles’ Heel for a number of seasons has not been addressed. The team is disorganized and give away far too many goals due to a combination of lack of basic organization and individual errors. David Luiz is attempting to be the leader in the backline, but his own errors undermine his authority. No Virgil Van Dijk he. Why did be back off players and allow them to shoot or get into the penalty area? Because he knows he will probably be waltzed round if he tries to challenge.
The attackers are good enough to score goals no matter what is going on behind them. The club need to dispense with Emery at the earliest possible opportunity – because nothing has changed from last season and it isn’t going to – and get someone in who is going to give us an Arsenal more reminiscent of 1991 than 2018 (or indeed most of the seasons after the club moved from Highbury). Because as long as Emery remains in charge, there will be more games like this.
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