During our 22 game unbeaten run there were things that were good, and things that were not so good. It’s difficult to focus on the bad when you’re not losing games, but I tried to temper praise for what was going right with some reflection on areas which still needed some work. Generally though, there were positives that we looked to as signs of a new manager working things out at a club which was entering a new era and going through substantial change.
I can’t tell anyone else what to think or what to make of yesterday’s 1-0 defeat to West Ham, but I can tell you this morning, in the cold light of day and with some time to reflect upon it, that I found it really worrying. Unai Emery picked a back three, as I expected he would, played both of his £50m strikers, and somehow expected a team without any real creativity to win a game away from home.
Alex Iwobi tried his best, but unless we got the ball to Sead Kolasinac on the overlap there wasn’t much going on from an attacking point of view. On the other side Ainsley Maitland-Niles didn’t offer much, and in midfield Granit Xhaka and Matteo Guendouzi found themselves outplayed by their West Ham counterparts. There were some moments, Fabianski saving from Lacazette, Guendouzi shooting not far wide from distance, but as the game went on the more we struggled, not helped by carelessness in possession.
That was evident in their goal. Guendouzi’s touch was heavy, Mustafi slid in (of course) to try and rescue the ball, got booked, they ended up with a corner which we cleared but when the ball came back in Xhaka’s poor header saw the ball fall to Declan Rice who scored his first ever West Ham goal. I’m not convinced you can point to it being just a big error by Xhaka, there was more to it, but if you told me he smashed a hall of mirrors just before he signed for Arsenal and was now in year three of the seven years of bad luck I wouldn’t bat an eyelid. He is Murphy’s Law in football form.
Emery sent on Ramsey and Torreira for Mustafi and Xhaka – there’s plenty to read into those changes – and we did look better. I thought the Welshman’s energy helped change the momentum and we looked more dangerous. Not least when he set up Iwobi for a shot which flashed just wide, and there was a big chance for Aubameyang but under pressure he blazed his shot over. In a tight game you have to be more clinical, and it’s tough to be critical of our leading scorer who is a long way from our most serious problem, but he does have a catalogue of misses this season which would make some blooper reel.
We dominated possession in the final stages of the game, but the goal never looked like it was going to come. There was just not enough craft, not enough creativity or vision, which of course led people to question the continued absence of Mesut Ozil from the squad. The German was fit, just left out again, and you can get away with that if you win, but when you lose he instantly becomes the missing the piece of the puzzle.
Clearly it’s more complex than that, this is an ongoing issue that is unhealthy for the manager, the player and the team, but it’s also a festering wound that keeps getting picked at week after week, and it needs to be sorted out as soon as possible. Emery was at pains to point out that the players he selected should have been able to do the job, but I found his comment about Ozil that ‘No one player makes the difference between winning and losing the game’ a bit strange, because so often in football it’s exactly that.
I understand the need to focus on the collective, but you can look through almost any team and point to one player making a difference on a consistent basis. Salah, Kane, Hazard, Aguero, Messi – not that I’m suggesting Ozil has done it anywhere near as consistently as any of them, but they make a lie of his assertion that individual quality isn’t a factor. Of course it is, it’s what separates good teams from great teams, or average ones from good ones if we’re bringing it down to brass tacks here.
It feels like Emery is making his position over Ozil clear to the club. This is a message to them: I don’t want this player, sort it out. And it is their job to sort it out. We can’t continue to have this sideshow week in, week out, and while he might use him next week against Chelsea and people will say everything is fine, he’s fully fit now, it’s a home game blah blah blah, you can’t honestly look at this situation as anything other than a problem. Particularly when Emery himself admitted that having more attacking options on the bench would have been useful – another message to the powers that be, perhaps?
The reaction to yesterday’s defeat was evidence that the honeymoon period for the new man is well and truly over. Let me be clear: any new manager deserves time to do his job and to build a squad to his liking. Emery has had half a transfer window but most of the players signed last summer were not of his choosing. He’s been told he can’t sign players this January except on loan, so this summer becomes crucially important and at that point we can see more clearly what he’s trying to do.
I also hear people say: this isn’t his team, and that might very well be the case, but this is his job, and these are the players he’s got to work with. I think there would be a lot more patience if we could see what he was trying to do on the pitch, but as yet there is no defined style of play. We go between a back four and a back three on a regular basis. I don’t know what we’re trying to do in midfield, or how we look to involve our strikers beyond the cut-back from the full-back, and I feel a bit sorry for someone like Matteo Guendouzi who is willing and enthusiastic, but to me looks like a player struggling to cope with the step up in level from Ligue 2. I can admire his willingness to compete and refusal to hide on the pitch, and at the same time harbour reservations about his ability to perform consistently in the Premier League so early in his career.
We’ve kept just one clean sheet in our last fifteen games, just three all season. You won’t hear me argue with anyone who insists we need better quality defenders, but even so that’s a terrible record by any standards. Only Fulham have fewer, Manchester United are level with us, and they sacked their manager. Two points from the last fifteen available away from home is a poor return too, and we’re seeing a manager trying to offset our defensive deficiencies by playing five defenders and two deep-lying midfielders and it’s not working. It’s sort of like having a headache then hitting yourself in the head to see if that helps it.
I wonder does it speak to an inherent conservatism in Emery, and maybe the best way to deal with being bad defensively is to focus on where we’re strongest and that’s further forward. We have the league’s leading scorer, another top striker, a midfielder who is going to one of Europe’s biggest clubs and wanted by many more, a playmaker who on his day can do things few other players can, and in Alex Iwobi someone who can help link all those things together. It doesn’t necessarily mean we have to be cavalier, but I think I could cope a lot better with us shipping goals in games we’re trying to win than in ones we go into hoping not to concede and perhaps nicking a second half strike to win us the game. Our approach is timid, almost fearful, and it’s transmitting itself to our performances.
I fully accept that this is a squad of players that needs improvement, needs to be better balanced, and Emery should be given time to do that, but that doesn’t absolve the manager from criticism when his decisions and his tactics – whatever they might be – produce the kind of dismal performance we saw yesterday.
I think it’s also worth pointing out that if our Head of Football and Managing Director, both of whom were pictured at the game yesterday, aren’t making serious attempts to convince the people who own this club that without proper investment in players we’re going to continue on this pathway towards mediocrity, they’re not doing their jobs properly. I think we all know KSE are not going to put money in, but something’s gotta give. Nobody could have looked at that yesterday and thought it was Arsenal quality.
Chelsea’s win yesterday means that there’s now a 6 point gap between us and fourth, and it’s hard not to feel like that’s a battle that’s slipping away from us. United could go level with us today, and in the kind of form we’re in right now, we could see our domestic season more or less finish next weekend, which would be very disappointing considering it’s still mid-January. When you look at the fact we’ve got Man City coming up soon too and a cup game against United, it’s tough not have real concerns about where might be in a few weeks time.
Final point: this was always going to be a season of ups and downs, this is unquestionably one of the real downs, but Emery’s job, however difficult, is to turn things around. He might get some help in the transfer market with a loan deal here or there, but he’s got to find a way to do more with what he has. If that means some really short-term thinking and swallowing his pride over certain situations, then so be it, because what he’s doing right now isn’t working and the gap between us and the top four is unmistakable evidence of that.