Just a few weeks ago we were 8 points better off than Manchester United. Their 1-0 win over Sp*rs yesterday saw them draw level with us, we remain in fifth thanks to slightly better goal difference, but what looked like a two team scrap for a place in the top four is now very much an unpleasant threesome.
On the one hand it’s an illustration of how quickly things can change when a team puts a run of good results together, but it also highlights how poor our recent form has been. We’ve won just three of our last eight in the league, been beaten by Southampton and West Ham, dropped points to Brighton, and kept just a single clean sheet between September 29th and January 12th – that was the 1-0 win over Huddersfield when Lucas Torreira’s late goal gave us the three points at home.
It also shows you how quickly the mood can change. There was clearly a lot of goodwill towards Unai Emery when he took over, people wanted something new, this was it, and he talked well about the kind of football he wanted his team to play. We heard a lot about playing out from the back, pressing high up the pitch, working hard, hard work, collective effort, and more. He wasn’t afraid to make changes, yanking players at half-time if things didn’t go right, and those things were viewed as positives because generally they had the kind of impact we wanted them to.
At the same time, it was hard not to worry about us defensively. How often did we get away with the opposition being presented with great chances to score, saved by their profligacy or our goalkeepers who both made a string of good saves? I know I’ve linked to this before, but Darren Burgess spoke openly about Emery’s defensive focus back in August, so it’s not something he was unaware of, but as yet he’s been unable to fix it. Our goals against tally tells you that, and the things that seemed to define his football in the initial weeks have been muddied along the way – perhaps through pragmatism, but maybe something else too.
Are our defenders so inept that even with all the work he must have been doing on the training ground they’ve haven’t improved? In fact, they have got worse. I don’t rule that out, by the way. When I look at the collection of players we’ve got there, Hector Bellerin and Rob Holding are the only two I can see with a real future at this club, the rest are either coming towards the end of their careers or simply not good enough (I’m not including Mavropanos because he remains an unknown quantity). Nevertheless, we continue to concede goals in a manner which could generously be described as amateurish.
What about first halves? A team getting off to a slow start can be an issue for a few games, no question, but for basically the entire season? We’ve been counting on big second halves for most this campaign. You’ve all seen the stats as they flash up on screen about how many goals we’ve scored in the second half, how many goals have been scored by subs, but as impressive as that is, it still means that we’re not playing well enough in the first 45 minutes on a consistent basis. That’s no longer a little quirk, but a significant problem, and another one that he has found no answer to of yet.
In general scoring goals hasn’t been an issue, but we’ve looked less potent in recent weeks. Some people will naturally point to the lack of creativity, and the absence of Mesut Ozil, but let’s remember that when the German was in the team he wasn’t exactly pulling up trees either. He has just a single assist to his name this season, and while the situation with him is clearly a very unhealthy one, the idea that his return to the team would fix all our problems is a bit fanciful. He is not the magic pill to make everything great again, even though like many of you I can see how an Ozil at the top of his game would certainly give us something we’re missing.
It’s such a complicated issue because I cannot believe that Emery is denying himself a player like that on a whim, or as a kind of power play or show of strength. Particularly when you look at the other options available to him. There’s got to be more to it. Maybe he’s been put in a position where to show weakness would be damaging to him, and from what I’ve heard things behind the scenes are far from ideal when it comes to the German, but I simply don’t buy the idea that he’s having a pop at the biggest name in the dressing room to lay down a marker to the other players.
Whatever you think of Emery, that’s not his style and it doesn’t tally with anything he says. He’s not about confrontation, he talks about the importance of the collective, the team, of unity. He’s not a Mourinho who will take on a star to show the others ‘If this can happen to him, it can happen to you’. As frustrating as Ozil’s absence might be from a footballing perspective, I think we have to see this as far more than Emery v Ozil, and a lot more goes on behind the scenes at football clubs than we’ll ever know.
Now, if this comes across as overly harsh of Emery, it’s not meant to. It’s possible to be critical of somebody and not delve into the realms of #emeryout which I’ve seen consistently over this weekend. It has to be possible to have a nuanced look at the work the man is doing, discuss it, analyse it, debate it, without it going to the extremes.
I think it’s very clear this is a squad in need of considerable investment, and Emery is being told that the only way he can do that this month is with loan deals. There may be good reasons for it, as I wrote the other day it might well be Arsenal playing a longer game, and keeping what we have for the summer. That makes a lot of sense, we’ll have more money to use in the market, plus a good chunk off the wage bill when some players leave on a free and hopefully more when we sell or move on a couple too, but it doesn’t give him a lot of help right now when, let’s face it, he really needs it.
I also think we need to focus a little more on our owner who will hamstring any manager if we continue on the path we’re on now. I fully accept that there are ways we can generate funds via a self-sustaining model: selling better, improved commercial revenues, using our academy as a source of income more frequently, but we’re missing out on Champions League revenue again this season. A defeat to Chelsea next weekend would essentially rule out a top four finish, so only winning the Europa League would get us back to where we want to be, and the vagaries of knock-out football make that a difficult job despite Unai Emery’s fantastic track record in this competition down the years.
Try and grow your commercial income significantly when you’re playing European football on a Thursday night in a half-empty Emirates Stadium against a team from the farthest reaches of the continent. That’s not the kind of thing blue chip commercial partners want to be involved in. They want the glitz of big games against the biggest opposition. You know, the kind of games we built this stadium for. The stadium that so many people worked so hard to build and sacrificed so much for, that Kroenke simply inherited with absolutely no understanding of how much it cost.
And by that, I don’t mean financially. I mean leaving Highbury. I mean breaking up a brilliant team that should have been bolstered with new talent and remained properly competitive at the top of the Premier League and in Europe. We deliberately chose a path which would erode our football potency in the short-term for the long-term gain. And Stan swooped in, saw this shiny new stadium and its wonderful facilities, the corporate boxes, match-day income, and its land-value in North London, but never got what it was for.
It was so we could, as a football club, go head to head with the best teams in Europe every season. To challenge for the title, to win a Champions League, to increase our revenues so we could invest in best players to play for the team. Not to find ourselves in a scrap to stay in 5th while we tell our manager he can scratch around looking for Barcelona cast-offs on loan. I feel for Emery, because whatever issues we can see with his performance, I think he’s come into a club that is in worse shape than we have previously considered and the owner isn’t bothered that much because the Premier League will ensure the value of his investment continues to rise regardless of what happens on the pitch.
I go back to the offer document when KSE bought out Usmanov, and the line that always comes back to me is this one:
KSE’s ambitions for the Club are to see it competing consistently to win The Premier League and The Champions League, as well as the major trophies in the women’s senior game and at youth level.
It’s a lie. It can’t be anything other than a lie, a sop to fans because we can all plainly see that’s not the ambition. We do not behave like an ambitious club, we don’t act like an ambitious club, and the owner does not, and never has, behaved like an ambitious owner. Tell me how you achieve those things without money? And if the owner isn’t willing to put any money in, they don’t happen.
I think there’s a big mess to clean up at Arsenal, particularly when it comes to squad management, how we’ve spent so badly over the last few years, and I get that we might have to correct things in order to go in a different direction, but I can’t shake the feeling that as long as Kroenke is in charge, the hopes we have for Arsenal will never be realised because he simply doesn’t care enough.
In the meantime we’ll have to hope that Emery can work things out, that this run of bad form is our little blip for the season, and that he can get things back on track as soon as possible. Otherwise, the rest of this season will be a long way from what people had hoped.
James and I will have plenty to discuss on the Arsecast Extra this morning. If you have any questions or topics for discussion, please send to @gunnerblog and @arseblog on Twitter with the hashtag #arsecastextra – the podcast should be up before lunch.