Down By The River

It was October. The early autumn sun was low in the sky and the River Thames glistened in the background. An Arsenal fan to my left in the Putney End at Craven Cottage ‘assumed the pose.’ Back arched, chin angled upwards towards the sky, he sucked in a sizeable breath of air. I assumed he was about to inquire precisely what his Gooner brethren thought of Tottenham. But the bellow was different.

“We’ve got our Arsenal back!” he yelled with glee. The acoustics in Fulham’s Putney End are outstanding, its hollow structure carries sound to a tee. It wasn’t long before the majority of the away end, drunk on the same sense of heady optimism, joined the man in song. The Gunners were in the middle of a 5-1 dismantlement of Fulham and in the middle of an unbeaten run that would stretch to 22 games.

Aaron Ramsey put the finishing touches on a genuine goal of the season contender, a back to front team effort that looked as though it had taken place on the set of a Nike advert, or in an exhibition futsal match. The term ‘Emery ball’ echoed around social media. This was change, the change most of us craved and it was being realised with panache. Or so some thought.

Some had reservations about ‘the underlying numbers’ that scored Arsenal’s unbeaten run. But Emery had buy-in from the away crowd, who would boom “Unai Emery’s red army” around away ends up and down the country with gusto. My own view is that it wasn’t so much Unai Emery that people were buying into it, it was ‘Not Wenger.’

At time of writing Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has cached a significant amount of credit with his players and the press for being ‘Not Mourinho.’ But such an effect is ephemeral, as Solskjaer will find out soon enough (in my view). A little over 3 months on from that afternoon in West London, the mood has sagged among the Arsenal fans. Undoubtedly, this is because results have become inconsistent.

The Cardiff match on Tuesday night took on the appearance of any number of home games last season, with scores of empty seats and a semi-engaged crowd. The moans and groans returned and a chorus of boos greeted the half time whistle after a pretty dismal opening period. Even a Friday night cup tie against Manchester United, off the back of a victory over Chelsea that felt strangely subdued, was not enough to ignite the home crowd.

Is support for ‘The Emery Project’ fading? I am not sure it is as straight forward or mutinous as that. I don’t sense much ill will towards Emery, not yet. But an air of apathy does seem to have returned. The away end at West Ham was one of the most introspective, listless away crowds I can remember at Arsenal in some years. (The insipid performance didn’t help, granted). The simple explanation is that results have dropped off- even if performances have never really been consistent this season. But I think there is a little more going on here.

Alain de Botton was one of the keynotes speakers at a conference I attended a couple of years ago. During his speech, he said, “People like football because it’s easy to follow, the rules are simple and you can see exactly what’s going on- it’s the polar opposite to our lives and our careers, which we just kind of meander through.” This hits on part of the issue, I think.

There is existential torpor in the Arsenal fan base because the football is not easy to follow and you can’t really see what’s going on- it does just sort of meander. Arsenal aren’t really a possession team that plays tippy tappy triangles. Nor are they a high pressing team that blitzes opponents with a powerful, high octane approach.

There has been a large turnover in playing staff, which has led to a sort of identity crisis. Giroud and Walcott were popular with fans and we’ve not entirely grasped their replacements yet. Wilshere, Cazorla, Rosicky, Coquelin, Oxlade Chamberlain and Sanchez are not world beaters one and all (some come closer to that descriptor than others), but they are players with a clear identity, a purpose. To invoke de Botton, they are easy to follow.

We know that Walcott wants the ball played in behind. We know Cazorla wants to perform magic tricks. We can see that Sanchez wants to touch the ball a thousand times before forcing it into the net through sheer force of will. We can follow Oxlade Chamberlain as he tries to power past another full-back, even if his efforts often see him power the ball into touch.

Many of the current squad are a little harder to figure out. I happen to really like Matteo Guendouzi, but he’s difficult to categorise. People aren’t quite sure what type of player Henrikh Mkhitaryan is or what Alex Iwobi’s instructions are. I have already written about why Pierre Emerick Aubameyang does not draw the adulation his goal scoring feats deserve. Mesut Özil is an enigma wrapped inside a riddle. Does anybody know if Granit Xhaka is actually any good? Every commendable Aaron Ramsey performance is tinged with regret.

Conversely, Lucas Torreira and Alex Lacazette are popular with the Emirates crowd because their purpose is easier to appreciate- which is to say that a large part of their purpose involves running around a lot. Under Emery there has been, as yet, little sense of direction of travel. There is a fine line between tactical flexibility and trying lots of things in the vague hope that something works.

This is not entirely his fault of course. Arsene Wenger fell into the same trap with largely the same group of players. Emery has been handed an unbalanced squad, but it has been a little like watching an avant-garde movie at times, as we’ve stroked our chins in desperate search of meaning. In essence, Arsenal is not an interesting team at the moment. It lacks creative spark and largely relies on the gifts of two goalscorers to propel it forward. But watching the rest of the team try to deliver the ball to those scorers is a little like watching someone try to roll a bolder up a muddy hill.

If the football has been difficult to engage with, off pitch travails have quickly evaporated the optimism of the new era. The departure of Sven Mislintat punctured the tyre of the Arsenal support. Sven was our USP, our competitive advantage in the land of the giants. Now he is gone. On top of this, Arsenal’s reticence to spend money in January has rekindled old animosities.

The decision to only sanction loan moves this winter reanimated bad vibes and given the impression of the enforced frugality the club were supposed to have long left behind. The policy was poorly communicated, the Head Coach rather pithily telling reporters earlier this month, “We cannot sign permanently. We can only loan players. Only loan players.”

To a large extent, this is a policy driven by parsimony. But later in the month, Emery clarified that it was driven more by a desire for value in the summer than the precise state of Arsenal’s finances per se. Even so, Emery’s language is laced with imposition. “The club is telling me that this moment is not good to buy players but the club say to me in the summer it is going to be different.”

There is a sense of separation there- exacerbated by the premature departure of Sven Mislintat- that implies Arsenal don’t have a shared vision behind the scenes. Some of the language has created anxiety and doubt, which, together with a confusing team, has created disengagement. Early season optimism and the promise of a new era have given way to the fear that things might not be so different after all.

There is not a sense of mutiny, not yet anyway. When Arsenal erred under Wenger, he was an obvious single point of failure, a vessel through which to absorb our frustration. Without an obvious punchbag in the dugout, the fault lines have become foggier and that translates into confusion and apprehension. ‘Not Wenger’ is now not enough.

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