Arsenal have a problem. Unai Emery has a problem. We all know what it is, but just for the sake of clarity, it’s our away form. A team which has amassed 44 points at home, just 4 fewer than Man City and the same as Liverpool, has won just 19 on the road, fewer than Wolves, Crystal Palace, Leicester and and Watford. And just to highlight how anomalous this is, the top five teams away from home are the other members of the ‘big six’ – we’re very much an outlier.
We’re the only team in the Premier League not to have kept a clean sheet on our travels – even relegated Fulham and Huddersfield have managed to do that – and with four of our last six games coming away from home, our top four chances look increasingly difficult unless Emery can find a solution right now for something that’s been a problem all season long and which has thus far evaded him.
Yesterday’s 1-0 defeat to Everton was the perfect encapsulation of our problem. Coming off the back of professional, controlled 2-0 win over Newcastle on Monday night, we looked practically a different side. Chalk and cheese. Jekyll and Hyde. We were weak, passive, lacking intensity, and barely troubled the home side throughout the 90 minutes. How do you explain such a dichotomy in performance? For me, it can only be one thing, and that’s the mentality of some of these players. They just do not have the character to produce consistent results on the road.
If they can beat Sp*rs, Chelsea and Man Utd at home; if they can beat almost everyone else in the plush surroundings of the Emirates playing with different line-ups, formations and systems along the way; then it’s not about their ability, tactical preparation, team selection, skill levels, or anything else. It’s because they can only really do it when they feel comfortable. Take them out of that comfort zone, make life a little bit difficult, and the self-fulfilling prophecy takes hold.
We’re bad on the road therefore we’ll be bad on the road. It’s got to be the mindset. What else can it be? Too many of the players believe that we’ll be bad when we play away, and just accept it without trying to do anything about it. The first half yesterday was a perfect example of that. We simply played football by numbers, went through the motions, and almost every player on that pitch looked around for someone else to shake us out of our funk rather than take responsibility themselves.
The half-time introduction of Aaron Ramsey only served to highlight this. The Welshman had an immediate impact because he tried to make things happen, and it worked. We looked more dangerous for a while until Everton realised it was just one guy doing his best while everyone else thought ‘Ok, let Ramsey do it’, and once they figured that out and paid more attention to him then we became toothless again. After that, they got back into the game and but for some good saves from Leno, some last ditch blocks by Sokratis, and some woeful finishing, the scoreline yesterday could have been embarrassing.
Emery wasn’t helped by the fact that our midfield was poor. With Granit Xhaka injured, Lucas Torreira suspended, and Ramsey not fit enough to play 90 minutes, he was left with Guendouzi and Elneny as his only two options. The latter is never going to be the man to take control of a game, while the Frenchman’s silly early booking left him impotent for the rest of the match and he looks increasingly like a young player who has hit a bit of a wall and doesn’t have the experience to deal with it.
On top of that, other players were just bad. Kolasinac, Maitland-Niles, Mkhitaryan, Monreal and Ozil were generally insipid. If the German had showed half as much passion on the pitch as he did when he threw his coat at Marco Silva maybe he’d have influenced the game a bit more. Lacazette struggled after being kicked around with impunity (and he should have had a penalty early on). Aubameyang made no impact whatsoever when he came on, and nothing we did – beyond what Ramsey contributed and late on Iwobi looked interested at least – made any real difference. The players meekly accepted their fate and until such time as we make some changes to this squad I don’t see how this problem resolves itself.
You can’t change all of them, that’s unrealistic, but we looked a team devoid of leadership yesterday. Ramsey’s impact was so notable because it highlighted the paucity of performance in that first half, but unfortunately he didn’t have enough support to really make life difficult for Everton in the second period. The lack of personality is really worrying when you look at the fixture list, and when you consider what’s at stake. Did these players get ahead of themselves when they moved up into third? I don’t think so, Emery’s public comments married some of those made by the players about how there was still work to do, so I don’t think it’s complacency.
I was hoping that yesterday would bring the kind of performance, or at least the kind of result, that would make us just a little more confident away from home. Build it up little by little until the weight of this issue is lessened and it becomes less pervasive. Instead, we made things worse, because if the players felt the pressure of it at Goodison Park, they’ll be hyper-aware of it when we go to Watford, Wolves, Leicester and Burnley. And you can be quite sure those teams will be – if not quite licking their lips at the prospect of an Arsenal visit – not particularly worried about us, because why should they be?
Make life a bit difficult for us in the opening 15-20 minutes and we don’t fancy it. Our collection of shrinking violets will do what we do, huff and puff a bit, throw our arms in the air to moan at the referee a lot as if somehow it’s his fault, and play like twats. I had hoped that what we did against Sp*rs a few weeks back was a bit of a step forward, but it’s fairly obvious that the singular intensity of a North London derby is not really an accurate marker. The bread and butter of our away games was yesterday, and we were found wanting yet again.
The schedule was always the big challenge for us in this run-in. Would we be able to shake off this malaise and win enough points from the five of seven fixtures on the road? We failed the first test, and failed it badly, which doesn’t augur well for what’s still to come. I’m sure it’s something Emery is tearing his hair out over, and something he’s tried to address throughout this season, but unless – in the very short space of time there is left in this season – he finds the magic solution, I think our Champions League hopes lean more and more towards Europa League success.
For more on yesterday, and our dismal performance, James and I recorded the Arsecast Extra last night. Everything you need to listen/subscribe is below.