There’s been radio silence from the club since Saturday. It’s not at all unexpected, that’s usually the way after that kind of result and performance, and hopefully Unai Emery and his players are hard at it on the training ground this week because our next game – and the next couple of weeks – are absolutely pivotal.
Saturday’s game against Chelsea could sound the death knell for our top four fight, or open it all up again. Win and we’re just 3 points behind them, lose and they open up a 9 point gap making our chances of qualifying for the Champions League via the Premier League almost impossible.
I can’t help but think back to the North London derby in November when our 4-2 win felt like the team taking a real step forward. We had found a midfield duo which seemed to really work for the first time in ages. Lucas Torreira and Granit Xhaka were continuing a partnership which had really come to fruition against Liverpool a few weeks earlier, and while we had defensive issues to contend with, it felt like one of the fundamental building blocks we should build around.
Since then we’ve taken just 11 points from our last 24 in the league, lost three times, the Xhaka/Torreira partnership has been used less often – perhaps because of an injury or fatigue to the Uruguayan that we’re not aware of – and the step forward we thought we’d taken after beating Sp*rs doesn’t really feel like that at all.
Unai Emery has tinkered with team selection and formation, and I just wonder if perhaps we’ve lost our way a little bit. When you think back to the start of the season and the very definite way we tried to play against teams like Man City and Chelsea, we seem to be a long way from that now. We don’t play out from the back as much, we don’t press as often, and the line-ups have become more and more conservative. Maybe it’s a consequence of the absences, or Emery being unsure about this group of players not being able to do what he wants them to, but let’s not kid ourselves that he’s asking anything particularly complicated of them either.
With an FA Cup tie against Man United after Chelsea, then a trip to Man City following a home game against Cardiff, it’s a daunting few weeks for the manager who will not want to have his first domestic season over and done with by the end of January. He still has the Europa League, his specialist subject, but he needs to find something in this team which has been missing over the last few weeks.
Many will point to Mesut Ozil as somebody who can give the team that, and in truth I have little appetite to go over this situation in any great detail again. James and I had a long discussion about it on this week’s Arsecast Extra – listen here or in your favourite podcasting app, the Ozil section begins around 37’50.
What I will say is that we need some kind of resolution as quickly as possible because the longer it goes on the more toxic it becomes. It seems clear that Unai Emery doesn’t want him in his team, Saturday’s omission from the squad is not the first time this season a fit Ozil has been left out completely – which tells you plenty – and while we can only speculate as to the reasons why, it’s hard to imagine any manager cutting off his nose to spite his face and denying himself the obvious talent and quality of a fit and focused Mesut Ozil for no good reason.
From the player’s side all is well of course. You’ll never get anything other than positive messages which reflect well on Brand-Ozil, and there was even a Tweet yesterday showing his strength in the gym and willingness to work hard ‘no matter what’.
Whichever side of this fence you’re on, surely the one thing we can all agree on is that above all else this is unhealthy situation for Arsenal, and that’s where our first thought should be. We have a Head of Football who has to show his mettle here. I suspect the most likely outcome is that Raul Sanllehi will broker an uneasy truce between Emery and Ozil, with a bigger decision to be made in the summer when it’s easier to make it. Quite what that decision is may well depend on how the rest of the season goes, but the chances of shifting Ozil in January seem very slim to me so, between now and May, we need to be able to concentrate on what’s happening on the pitch and not this tedious sideshow off it.
Speaking of Sanllehi, I really think it would be very useful to hear from him – given he is now in charge of footballing matters at this club – about what exactly the vision is for the future. I don’t mean he has to show us the blueprints and go into minute detail, but something which tell us there’s a plan and strategy would go a long, long way at this point.
Right now everyone understands we’re going through a big change, and dealing with some issues that are a legacy of what came before. Even so, we’re seeing a quality midfielder leave for free to go to Juventus when he could have had his pick of clubs across Europe; our biggest star and biggest earner is barely even on the fringes of the team; Danny Welbeck is leaving for free; Petr Cech can leave for free in the summer; the head coach who has a real need to reinforce his squad is being told that he can only bring in players on loan this January – and even if that is part of a longer-term plan, it leaves people wondering what the hell is going on and how we’re being run.
One of the most frustrating aspects of the last few years was the almost total lack of communication from anyone other than the manager when things weren’t going well. Remember all those times Ivan Gazidis provided a message of reassurance in the last couple of years when Wenger, who always fronted up to the press, was under the spotlight? No, because he hid away in his office and had nothing to say.
He was front and centre when Wenger’s departure was announced, and all over Emery when he was appointed as if we hadn’t made a last-minute decision not to bring in Mikel Arteta, telling us about his amazing dossier on all of our players – something which sounded like a load of bollocks back then and appears to be even more so now when you look at some of the issues we’re having. That’s not to be critical of Emery by the way, it’s all on Gazidis.
So maybe something else needs to change, something cultural. We’re all grown ups, we can deal with some uncomfortable truths because nobody can seriously look at where we are and not understand that there’s a lot of work to do to get us to where we want to be. But be a bit more open about it, include the fans more, because even some information is a lot better than a complete lack of it. Particularly when all we have from the club are the mealy-mouthed assurances from the KSE offer document.
Let’s hear from the people who have been given the job of restoring this club to the Champions League, to one that can compete in the Premier League. We don’t need every last detail, but a little information can go a long way and provide some reassurance that these people know what they doing and how they’re going to do it. We’re not gonna get it from Stan, but that doesn’t mean everyone else has to be silent too.
I won’t hold my breath, but it would be nice if after all the other change at Arsenal, this was another area in which we at least tried to improve on.