It was the 2019 version of the famous midweek evening match at Highbury in May 1966. 4,554 turned up to see Arsenal beaten 3-0 by Leeds United, although the Arsenal board waited for the conclusion of the season before giving manager Billy Wright his cards. After the game last night, Sky Sports reported that “senior figures at Arsenal will meet on Friday morning to discuss the club's worst run of results since 1992”. The only thing they need to discuss is who will be in charge on Sunday at Carrow Road and whether that will be on a temporary or long term basis. That will depend on how much work has been going on preparing for Emery’s departure behind the scenes (hopefully plenty) and whether or not their chosen candidate is ready to start immediately. One outcome that is surely off the cards is Emery taking charge of another game.
It was always going to be an odd atmosphere last night, with no away fans admitted (although once Frankfurt equalized, they showed how easy it had been to get through Arsenal’s supposedly strict ticket checks). It seems it didn’t matter where you were from, as long as you had a valid ticket, you were fine to get in. Additionally, a lot of club level seats had been purchased by Eintracht fans, and you cannot rule out the possibility that the club were happy to sell these due to anyone due to the income they generated. Certainly they were all congregated in an area where I believe there are very few club level season ticket holders. Perhaps they were purchased by touts and then sold on, en masse, without the club smelling a rat. You don’t need to be a member to buy seats for individual games in club level, so no fear of getting banned.
However, even if there were around about 1,000 away fans in various parts of the ground, the actual attendance was between 18,000 and 20,000. 45,000 of the seats are season tickets. Let’s be generous and say 1,000 silver members and junior gunners bought seats, which means a maximum of 40% of season ticket holders bothered to take up their paid for seats. It wasn’t a good look, and certainly the powers that be won’t want a repeat against Brighton next week, which would be the case were Emery to retain his job, which looks highly unlikely now.
The #WeCareDoYou statement last Sunday evening compared the club to a rudderless ship. And to run with the analogy, right now it's like a boat that is slowly sinking into thick mud. Going nowhere except, slowly, inexorably, down. It’s been happening for many years. Arsenal’s last full tilt title challenge – by which I mean one that had legs on it after the end of February – was in 2008. At times, it feels like the club have never psychologically recovered from that season, in spite of the change of personnel at all levels.
The irony of last night was that the draw between Vitoria and Standard Liege pretty much confirmed Arsenal’s progress to the knockout stages of the competition. Due to the head to head rule, Standard would need to beat Arsenal 5-0 in a fortnight to progress. Cue the gags on that happening if Emery is still in charge, but he won’t be. In a sense it was an experience to be at his final game. And we saw the same old problems.
Emery did try something new, by playing David Luiz as one of his two holding midfield players, in a 4-2-1-3 line up. Luiz was crocked in the first half and replaced by Guendouzi. Granit Xhaka returned to the starting eleven. There were a few boos when his name was announced pre-match on the PA, but it was interesting to see him applauded as he limped to the sideline after getting treatment from the physio. So that wound seems to have been healed then, and Xhaka returned to the field to complete both the half and ultimately the game. Shortly after he did, Arsenal took the lead in first half injury time. The team did put a few attacks together in the opening 45 minutes and restricted the visitors’ opportunities. But it took time for the deadlock to be broken, a Martinelli cross being converted by Aubameyang.
Joe Willock played in the Ozil role behind the front three, and both he and Saka on the left side of attack saw plenty of the ball, yet were not composed enough to finish their chances. As the second half progressed, Arsenal paid for that as the visitors’ Japanese striker scored twice with decent long range efforts. The lack of spirit in the Arsenal team as the game drifted away from them was culpable. This is a team without belief, and it seems without a fixed notion of how they should play beyond the attempt to build from the back and minimize the percentage football. But when confidence is low, the plan needs to be based on territory and second balls – so at least not to leave yourself vulnerable near your own goal. Emery doesn’t seem to get this. Eintracht had lost their last three matches and should have been low on confidence themselves, but Arsenal once more conceded a lead and let their opponents back into a game they had control of. It’s happened too often and it’s no coincidence.
So we wait the announcement of what happens next – Freddie Ljungberg will most likely take charge at Norwich, and might be given a few games if the club have not prepared for this moment. The other names being bandied around are generally worthy of consideration (Pochettino, Allegri, Arteta, although please not Nuno Espirito-Santo because of the Jorge Mendes factor), but who knows how advanced talks are. In fairness to Freddie, the job required at the club is probably too big for him at this stage in his coaching career, but who can really say? Pep Guardiola took a similar route at Barcelona, although he had far more quality to work with.
It feels like a season has been wasted. I wrote after the Europa League final back in May, in an editorial titled “Arsenal Have To Bite The Bullet And Understand Another Year Of Unai Emery Is A Waste Of A Season":
What Arsenal fans need to ask themselves though, and more particularly, what the club’s decision makers need to do so, is whether or not things are going to improve under Emery next season. I don’t see it. The 22 match unbeaten run that ended in December papered over the cracks. Arsenal got lucky in putting that sequence together. Unai Emery will get another year in all likelihood. Arsenal will fail to make the Champions League again and we’ll wonder why the club waited. Just as they should have called time on Arsene Wenger in May 2017, they’ll make the wrong decision now. They may be ruthless with minor cost-cutting, but shirk the big decisions.
Emery cannot do defence. Put a better coach in and you’ll get a more organised resilient Arsenal than the flaky display we saw in Baku, and on so many other occasions this season. The club need to focus on results now. The winning of the points, the return of consistency and confidence. That is not going to happen with Emery. He’s not suited to the Premier League. Time to admit they gave him a try and it hasn’t worked out. Send him and his team away with a modest pay-off (in comparison to the £17m received by Wenger and his yes men) and give someone else a go. Someone with a reputation for drilling a defence.
The powers that be saw it differently, brought in some new faces over the summer, including a club record signing, but Arsenal are even worse than last season. They failed to see what was obvious from the last months of Emery’s first campaign – he cannot deliver results consistently enough in the Premier League. He chops and changes personnel and formations so much that there is no familiarity, no understanding, no definable (positive) pattern to the team’s play, no sense of identity. It is spiritless and random. The quality of the forwards will generally see the team score, but the chaotic nature of the defence isn’t good enough to actually win many games. People compare Emery to Bruce Rioch, but the latter had a structure and was consistent in selections. I could name his first choice eleven now. He inherited a team that was on the slide having gone stale under George Graham and Stewart Houston and made Arsene Wenger’s job somewhat easier by converting them to a passing team built around Dennis Bergkamp.
What Emery’s successor will inherit is far worse. But there are some decent players in the squad. They simply need some organizing, some defensive drilling, some belief and a consistency in first team selection. It’s probably too late to salvage this season, but the sooner the re-build starts the better. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but I think most fans would have been willing to see a change last summer, and certainly there isn’t anyone left who wants Emery at the club now. Given the compensation he will get, he is not going to resign, so as an individual, I have some sympathy with him being in the position he is now in – vilified by so many. He was due to give a talk to students at the University Campus of Football Business at Wembley today, as part of a "masterclass" series on football coaching, and dealing with prejudice in the game. However after his appearance was announced on the UCFB website last week, it was met with some abusive online messages, which have led to university bosses cancelling the event. That’s just plain sad, although that is the world we live in.
You can criticise Emery’s unsuitability for the Arsenal job, but if fairness to the guy, he’s been hung out to dry by Raul Sanllehi if you believe the press stories that the latter does not want to admit he got it wrong with his lobbying for Emery to get the job back in 2018. Who knows, but Sanllehi’s own reputation has sunk dramatically since the summer transfer window, and if the press are reporting accurately, then he’s brought that upon himself. His job, along with Edu’s, is to advise the owner of the major footballing decisions that need to be ratified. We just do not know if it has been Sanllehi or Stan Kroenke keeping Emery in a job, but one thing seems certain. Emery will surely be clearing his desk at London Colney before the club’s next first team fixture.
Recent home Arsenal matches have had the feeling of visiting a dying relative in hospital, knowing the end is near, but never knowing whether you are seeing them for the last time. Yesterday evening felt terminal. At least, when we said farewell at the Emirates to Arsene Wenger, it was a sunny feelgood day with a win. Last night, it was cold and wet, and Arsenal lost. The sooner we can all move on, the better for everybody.
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