There isn’t a single thing about yesterday which makes for pretty reading this morning. Not the scoreline, not the game’s stats, and definitely not the league table. We’ve been beaten again, the third defeat in a week, and our fourth loss in five Premier League games. At this point in the season it’s a situation which raises many questions, which I’ll try and get to in a coherent fashion because there’s a lot going on in my mind this morning.
I think I’ll do it in two sections, starting with:
I’ll be honest, I didn’t have any real issues with the line-up. We were without Mesut Ozil but I don’t know that played any significant part in what happened. He had a foot injury, Nacho Monreal had a calf problem. Unai Emery went with a back four, rested Koscielny as I expected, brought Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang back, and basically played a 4-4-2 with the best players he has in the squad to do that.
The problem was the approach. To say it was timid is an understatement. I watched Arsenal Football Club go away to a mid-table team, and play the way we’ve seen countless so-called ‘smaller’ sides perform when they come to the Emirates. Sit deep, look to hit on the counter, eschew possession of the ball. Some might say it’s a sensible tactic because you don’t want to leave space for Jamie Vardy to run into it, but it smacks of a small-time approach, a kind of footballing inferiority complex, and it wasn’t nice to see.
We barely made a pass for the first 20 minutes. We were absolutely dominated and somehow Emery thought ‘we started very well‘. The manager said the red card for Ainsley Maitland-Niles left us unable to carry out this craven gameplan, but by the time he was dismissed Leicester had already had 8 attempts on goal and we’d just about made 50 passes – this was the 36th minute by the way. Vardy had fluffed his lines minutes before, so it’s not as if the 11 brave yeoman of Arsenal were stoutly defending the castle walls from the home side.
I have sympathy over the red card. The first yellow is absurd, there’s just no way that’s a bookable offence, and the second was soft too – although Maitland-Niles gave James Maddison the chance to make it look like he’d been badly fouled. A touch of inexperience there, but I think the referee based his decision on the Leicester player’s overreaction than what he’d actually seen.
Did that make our life more difficult? Of course, but I think our approach the game had already put us on the back foot, and this only added to that. Iwobi came off at half-time for Koscielny, the Nigerian had missed our best chance of the game but Leno was by far the busier of the two keepers. Mustafi went to right back, it was all Leicester, and eventually they scored. Granit Xhaka allowed Youri Tielemans – a player they took on loan from Monaco in January while we spent the month bringing in the duffer that is Denis Suarez – to run in behind him, his header was superb and that was that.
First goal to the opposition, away from home, we all know how it goes. Leno made about fifty saves as they peppered our goal, while we looked incapable of threatening. A set-piece maybe, but there was nothing about the way we played that gave you any encouragement. Guendouzi came on to run around, Nketiah replaced Lacazette, but our day was summed up by two late goals for Vardy which left our defending – if you can call it that – looking amateurish at best.
We unquestionably suffered because of the sending off, you can’t ignore it as a factor, but the way we set up for this game was the key issue. It felt small-time. Emery was timid, we played like we were a Conference side about to face Barcelona, and it was not at all something I’d associate with Arsenal. For who want to use injuries and absences as a factor, compare and contrast the starting XI with the one that went to Wembley and should have beaten Sp*rs.
Are you telling me there’s such a vast difference between those two line-ups that explains our approach yesterday? There are some differences, the obvious one being Aaron Ramsey whose absence has been very costly, but there’s no other reason than the manager being afraid of Leicester to explain why we played the way we did yesterday. And if we have a manager who is afraid of Leicester, and that fear is transmitted to the players which I firmly believe was the case yesterday, then it’s a big, big problem.
I mean, I get he must be at the end of his tether trying to figure out why we’re so bad away, but you have to ask serious questions about an approach which demands defensive solidity from a group of players who have shown over the previous 35 games of the campaign that they aren’t really capable of it. We had that nice little run recently, with six clean sheets in seven games, but we went into this one having conceded three goals in each of the previous two games, so it was a poor decision from Emery to play the way he did.
The stats tell their own terrible story too. We had just one shot on target, six overall, to Leicester’s 12 on target and 24 overall. We were absolutely battered, but it just continued a recent theme. We had one shot on target against Wolves in midweek, and while we all worry about Arsenal defensively, Emery has managed to blunt our main strength along the way too because we can’t seem to attack with any real intent anymore either.
Yesterday was the end of a dismal week for Arsenal and Emery. The players didn’t do themselves justice at all, but I think the manager got it all wrong too. From the conservative team selection against Palace which meant he had to take a risk against Wolves which led to him turning up at Leicester and putting out a team which was basically afraid to play football. That’s on him, and it leads me to ..
Just over a week ago we had top four in our own hands, and on paper fixtures against Crystal Palace at home, then Wolves and Leicester away, were relatively kind when it comes to the Premier League. We lost all three games, we conceded three times in each one, and as I pointed out above I think Emery was the architect of those defeats. The approach for each fixture was wrong. Too conservative against Palace, too risky at Wolves, spineless and feeble at Leicester.
We’ve now lost four of our last five games in the Premier League, and the game we won was against 10 man Watford a couple of weeks ago. That was a scabby, scrappy 1-0 away from home against a team a man down for 80 minutes with a freakish goal to secure us the three points. I was glad to win it, but I also expressed some concerns that the way we played didn’t augur well. ‘Results are more important than performances’ some said in defence of that, but I think the last week has shown that you ignore performances at your peril because they do matter.
Unai Emery had a chance to basically secure top four this week and Champions League football for next season. He was in a fantastic position to do it, and he failed miserably. I keep hearing people make excuses like these aren’t his players, but were they his players when we beat United, played very well against Sp*rs, beat Chelsea, beat Napoli over two legs without conceding etc? You can’t pick and choose.
It’s not to ignore the fact that this is a squad which requires a considerable rebuild, anyone can see that’s the case, but we haven’t just lost three times in a week to the best teams in the league. We’ve lost to Crystal Palace, Wolves and Leicester (and the week before to Everton). The manager made his decisions about who to play and more importantly how to play, and ultimately he’s the one responsible for what happens on the pitch.
As I’ve written extensively on the site, I’m generally sympathetic and understanding of the difficulties of his job, and the circumstances at the club right now, but this week has shifted my perception of the job Emery is doing and his capabilities as manager. How could it not? How can you lose three times the way we did this week and not have your opinion changed a bit?
I worry that we struggle more against ‘smaller’ games than bigger ones. Emery has generally set us up well for games against the top six, and our record in those is pretty good, but in games where we’re expected to be the ones in control, we’re found wanting too often. To me Emery seems like a decent, honest man but the way we play in certain games is a reflection of him, a kind of battling underdog who doesn’t feel like he really belongs, which is not how Arsenal should be. We’ve lost to Southampton, lost to West Ham, lost to BATE Borisov, lost to Rennes, lost to Everton, Palace, Wolves and Leicester.
We’re not protagonists, as Emery said we’d be when he took over. Yesterday was as far from that as you can imagine, and for all the talk of his tactical flexibility, we feel like a team that is rigid in its mindset and unable to improvise when the game takes a turn. We can’t react or operate outside the auspices of the game plan going just right, and this week Emery’s preparations and decisions have more than likely cost us a top four place.
Maybe we are a long way from being a competitive Champions League team, maybe we don’t deserve it for the way we’ve played, but I can tell you what won’t make us any more ready for it is another season in the Europa League. I think we have massive issues to contend with in terms of how Arsenal is being run, and whether you believe we’re ready to dine at European football’s top table again or not, spending another season on the poxy Thursday/Sunday merry-go-round, and the impact that will have on our transfer budget this summer, is not good for this football club.
There are bigger questions about what’s going on above Emery. I might ponder those a bit more today and write about them tomorrow, but this morning the spotlight is well and truly on the manager. He’s had a dismal week, his players might well have let him down at times, but we’ve seen him get much more out of them than he has this week so pointing the fingers at individuals and their quality doesn’t do it for me right now. I know we’ve had a hectic schedule, I understand we’ve had injuries, but it’s the job of a good manager to make decisions which offset those aspects, not exacerbate them – and that’s what Emery is guilty of this week.
James and I are recording the Arsecast Extra this morning. As always, if you have questions or topics for discussion, send to @gunnerblog and @arseblog on Twitter with the hashtag #arsecastextra – or if you’re on Arseblog Member on Patreon, leave your question in the #arsecast-extra-questions channel on our Discord server.
That’ll be available before lunchtime.
Last but most definitely not least, congratulations to Arsenal Women who were crowned Champions yesterday with a 4-0 win over Brighton. What a brilliant season they’ve had, and for more on that achievement, check out Tim’s coverage over on Arseblog News.