Even though we are not even out of October yet, it already has the feeling of being a fag end of a season, marking time to give Unai Emery another chance to fall short of delivering Champions League football.
So far under Emery’s tenure, his record away from home in the Premier League is as follows -
2018/19 – Played 19, Won 7, Drawn 4, Lost 8 – 25 points from 57
2019/20 – Played 5, Won 1, Drawn 2, Lost 2 – 5 points from 15
Two clean sheets in those 24 games. This is a club that celebrates a history with defenders like Joe Mercer, Frank McLintock and Tony Adams to the fore.
Is this good enough to improve Arsenal from when Emery took over? No.
Is it going to get any better with Emery at the helm? No. We’ve had long enough to establish that.
The game hinged on four key incidents in the first half.
1 – The failure of Mike Dean to give a penalty for an obvious shirt pull on Sokratis (not certain what VAR is supposed to be used for if Dean was not informed of that… even though it did happen right in front of him)
2 – Pepe’s miss in front of goal
3 – The lack of a marker on the scorer for the Sheffield United’s goal from a corner
4 – The decision of Mike Dean that Buyako Saka played for the penalty when he was booked for (presumably) unsporting contact. I thought he was clipped by the Blades’ defender and lost his balance, but only Saka knows the truth.
So two debatable refereeing decisions – but Arsenal often suffer with scouser Dean – and two moments of poor play.
Sheffield United are hard to break down, no doubt about that, but in fairness, Arsenal had so much of the ball, they should have created more danger. That they failed to do this was a consequence of a lack of drive mixed with too many safe balls simply to maintain possession. This allowed United to settle at the back before attacks were mounted.
The delivery from the flanks wasn’t good enough, so often finding an opposition player. It raises a question about the selection of Kolasinac over Tierney, and the decision to leave Bellerin in London. Maybe they wouldn’t have done better than those picked, but if these players are fit enough to play on Thursday against Vitoria Guimaraes, it's a valid question as to why Emery did not pick his best full backs for the more difficult game.
There was at least one isolated memory of better days, when Freddie Ljungberg was issued a yellow card. Sadly, the Swede’s fighting spirit was not out there on the pitch, and this is why Sheffield United won the game, in spite of – theoretically – having a weaker side. Quite simply, it mattered more to them. Hence their determination in defence, so patently lacking when Arsenal conceded from a corner. Gunedouzi did not even get off the floor, leaving his opponent a free header which then fell to the unmarked Mousset to tap in.
After the interval, Ceballos replaced the ineffective Joe Willock and added a sense of purpose to Arsenal’s play, but the team needed 10 more players of his urgency and quickness of thought. The Spaniard couldn’t do it on his own. There is something fundamentally lacking with the Gunners at present, and there has been for several seasons, hence campaigns like 2015-16 where Leicester won the title for the simple reason they wanted it more. Arsenal are lesser than the sum of their parts, even allowing for some of the below par players they are having to get by with.
What is the solution? A fresh approach from a coach that will drill the importance of defensive responsibility into the players, and improve the way they are set up. Arsenal give away opportunities too easily, hence the mere two clean sheets in 24 away matches. It’s a self-imposed handicap, and no wonder they struggle to gain sufficient points away from the Emirates given that. Emery's side aren’t exactly exciting most of the time, so to actually focus on solidity won’t actually make a lot of difference. They need to become hard to beat. There needs to be a foundation to build on, and right now, it feels like they are trying to construct a future on quicksand.
If the club were seriously ambitious, they would be talking to Massimiliano Allegri now to persuade him to cut short his sabbatical. Get him in and shake things up a bit. The problem is that Arsenal, as a club, have historically been very conservative. The only occasion on which they have got shot of a manager quickly was Bruce Rioch – and that only because David Dein couldn’t wait to get Arsene Wenger in – although that was certainly a good decision until the stadium move gave AW too much power.
So Arsenal will chug along for the next few months. Always just about in contention. Chelsea look to be improving, so top four is reliant on Manchester United not getting a better manager in, and Spurs remaining in their current stupor. And of course Leicester not maintaining their good start. With Arsenal’s firepower, they will win plenty of home matches, and the odd away one. But they are brittle. They have been for years. A culture shift is required, and sadly Unai Emery is not the man to deliver it. Last night was testament to that.
Arsenal had the vast majority of possession but failed to do anything with it. A familiar story, one that people have got bored with. Hence the cries for the club to try someone else in the dugout. Emery still has his supporters, but they are dwindling in number. I wonder what Raul Sanllehi and Edu make of it, and what the line they take with the Kroenkes is? Arsenal are still in contention to achieve their aims this season, the table tells us that. But somehow, it all feels real flat at the moment. Just going through the motions. It’s like a relationship that you know has run its course, but you are still in it. You remember when it was all new and exciting, but it didn’t last. You got complacent and in your heart of hearts you know this isn’t going to be for the long term. So the rots sets in until someone has the balls to call time on the arrangement and admit it’s best for both parties to move on.
Who said romance is dead…?
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