I keep having to write blog posts where I wonder where to even start, but that’s because Arsenal keep doing things that genuinely make me wonder where to start. The range and variety of ways they do this would be almost impressive if it wasn’t such a massive pain in the hole.
Yesterday we faced Brighton at home – a team now safe from relegation – knowing we needed three points to keep any hopes of finishing in the top four alive. Unai Emery picked both his strikers, as they’re about the only goal threat we have, and played a midfield diamond behind them, adding the fresh legs of Henrikh Mkhitaryan with Mesut Ozil in behind them too.
Our goal came from a penalty which came from a dive by Nacho Monreal. The ref bought it, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang convincingly scored his 26th goal of the season, and that 9th minute goal should have been the platform for something more convincing than we got. We did our best to give Brighton a chance with some comedy defending, Sokratis got booked for a dive, Leno saved from Murray to spare his own blushes after a bad kick, and late in the first half we looked quite dangerous with a number of chances we failed to convert.
The second half was poor though. By the 68th minute we hadn’t had a shot on target, were playing poorly and Emery hadn’t changed anything. Of course the scores were also level at that point after Brighton won and scored a penalty. Mkhitaryan’s carelessness up the top end of the pitch was compounded by Granit Xhaka’s stupidity at the other end. However minimal the contact, if you don’t know at this point that you cannot give that particular referee the chance to make a decision then I wonder if there’s any hope you at all.
Aubameyang had a tame shot in the 71st minute, the keeper saved easily. Emery still didn’t change anything. Aubameyang missed a great chance in the 74th minute, the kind of opportunity you’d fully expect him to score if you hadn’t seen him miss so many this season before that. Let me make it very clear though, however frustrating that was, a 26 goal striker really is the least of our problems.
In the 77th minute Emery made changes. Iwobi for Lichtsteiner as we went to a back three, fine. Guendouzi for Xhaka who had been hopeless all day, somewhat understandable but he’s not really a player who offers much in terms of creativity. And then Sead Kolasinac for Henrikh Mkhitaryan, the old hit and hope. Get some balls down the left to the Bosnian, let him lash them into the box. Meanwhile, in a game in which we badly needed a goal our only forward on the bench was left sitting there. Eddie Nketiah might only be 19 and still very raw, but we had to score and Emery put on three players who don’t contribute very much to that part of our game.
Iwobi has one goal and no assists in our last fifteen Premier League games; Guendouzi has no goals and no assists for the entire season; and Kolasinac looks good in comparison with five assists since mid-December, but his effectiveness is based on volume rather than precision. How many crosses can he put in in 12 minutes? The answer is not enough, and I don’t think Emery’s changes did us any good. They felt panicked, hopeful, and this from a manager who people were rightly praising for his initiative at times this season and his willingness to change things when they weren’t going right.
We pushed forward, Brighton could have won it but for Leno making a fantastic save and the fact they made an absolute bollix of a two on one late on. The injury time sight of Alexandre Lacazette, one of the only players in this team who can score goals, picking the ball up on the left hand side to cross it into a packed box to vainly try and make something happen spoke volumes about this team and its effectiveness.
Mkhitaryan was really poor, Xhaka dreadful, Torreira’s game nullified somewhat by being deployed in a strange sort of role, while Mesut Ozil had a stat-padding performance but was not in any way influential. At this point we’ve come to accept that away from home he’s not going to do it (which says a lot on its own), but shouldn’t we expect more from him in a game like this at the Emirates, against a team fourth from bottom? Without a telling contribution against Burnley next week – if he plays – he’s going to finish the Premier League season with two assists to his name. It’s a paltry return for a player of his standing, and if now even games against Brighton and Palace are beyond him, the wages we pay him become even more difficult to justify. There’s probably a bigger discussion to be had about why he’s dropped off so badly, and I do think the way we play under Emery is a consideration, but he’s played his own part in it too.
The final whistle brought an ignominious end to our season at home, and with Chelsea winning we’ve pretty much ensured top four is out our reach. There’s a way it can still happen, but it won’t so let’s not even consider it as it’s a complete and utter waste of time and energy.
It looks like we’ll finish 5th, and unless we win the Europa League we’ll spend another season in a competition which feels like it’s sucking the life out of this football club as it is. And people will say ‘Well, what did you expect this season? Is this not about where you thought we’d be?’, and back in August that was probably true. I’m sure I said if Emery got us into the top four that would be considered a successful season, and you can say ‘We’re only three points off’ third place, and that’s also true but it ignores the context of where we’re going to finish and how.
If being in fourth with a few games left to play, and with the potential to finish as high as third, was above people’s expectations, I can understand that completely. If you didn’t expect us to be that competitive, that’s not an unreasonable position to take from the start of the season when Emery took over.
However, if I told you that to secure Champions League football from that position and you had games against Everton, Watford Crystal Palace, Wolves, Leicester, and Brighton, I think you’d feel confident we could do that. Fast forward to now and the only game we took three points from was against 10 man Watford with a mad goal, and from those 18 points we’ve taken just 4. If being where we were exceeded expectations before that run of games, surely what we’ve done in our last six fixtures has been far, far below them. By any standards it’s an abysmal collapse and it raises serious questions about Emery, and many of his players.
I don’t discount their role in this, far too many of them are lightweight, flimsy characters who contribute considerably to our lack of consistency. At the business end of the season they’ve buckled. There’s a physical element to consider with a hectic schedule, but the Premier League dealt us the kindest hand I’ve ever seen in terms of a run-in and we’ve still managed to make an absolute mess of it. Their under-performance has been compounded by Emery’s, managing games badly, getting team selections wrong, and over the last few weeks he’s looked like a man who all of a sudden doesn’t have the answers.
There was footage of him yesterday during the game, holding his chin, looking at what was going on on the pitch as if he couldn’t quite figure out how to do anything about it. What he tried didn’t work and Arsenal dropped yet more points. People say these aren’t ‘his’ players, and yes he’s inherited some duffers from the previous regime, but he achieved some fantastic results this season with the same squad so it’s impossible to use that as an excuse for him.
Also, we’re meant to be in an era in this football club when the head coach/manager doesn’t really get to have ‘his’ players. He’s supposed to work with the players our Head of Recruitment brings in. Only we don’t have one of those because he got shafted and we haven’t replaced him. Emery did get one of ‘his’ players in January, pushing for Denis Suarez to add to our collection of lightweights, and that doesn’t augur well for a summer when he might have even more influence over our transfer business.
Above all that though, beyond Emery’s recent catastrophic run of league form which could still be offset by winning the Europa League, you have to ask questions about this club, how it’s being run, who is making the decisions and where it’s going. It’s now becoming blindingly obvious why Ivan Gazidis couldn’t get out fast enough after putting in place his choice of head coach and executive structure. The Chief Executive got the hell out of Dodge so quickly his feet barely touched the ground. KSE’s cost-cutting began almost immediately after they took 100% control of the club, and from afar the owners continue to preside over the slow and apparently inexorable decline of the club.
Maybe it’s a weird thing to say in a season which could see us win a European trophy for the first time in 25 years, but ask yourself: does it feel right? What does your gut tell you about who we are and what we represent these days? What we’d all like Arsenal to be – a competitive, successful, exciting club that plays good football and competes for the biggest trophies in the world – appears to be a long way from what KSE are happy with Arsenal to be, despite their mealy-mouthed words which say they want the same things we do.
At no point have they ever explained how they think we can compete for those things, and when they do grant a smidgen of press access, it’s PR fluff with no substance to it whatsoever. It might as well be a press release. Maybe being soft on the Kroenkes is the price of access, but when they’re let spout their nonsense without being challenged it doesn’t do anyone any good but them.
We have serious problems on the pitch: we can all see that. They are many and varied and we need to sort things out. I think we’ve got a bit of a problem in terms of the manager, because this late season collapse reflects very poorly on him. We’ve got problems at the top of the football decision making tree, although this summer will tell us plenty about the efficacy of Raul Sanllehi and the quality of his work during the off-season will allow us to make a real judgement about him.
However, above all I think our biggest issue – or certainly the one that worries me the most – is the ownership. When you’re owned by someone who doesn’t really care about you beyond the balance sheet and the book value of the investment they’ve made in the ‘franchise’, that’s reflected on a sporting level too. We’re seeing that now, and unless Stan and Josh and KSE fundamentally change the way they do their sporting business, I think it will continue. You can’t achieve anything without genuine ambition, they don’t have it, it’s not part of their decision making process, and ultimately that’s played a part in what we’ve seen on the pitch. They’re a pox.
The fixture list gave Arsenal a fantastic chance to take a step forward this season, and build on what would have been tangible progress. A European trophy win would be delightful and I sincerely hope Emery can deliver that for all the reasons you can think of, but it’s hard not to be disheartened, dismayed and worried about what we’ve seen from him and his players in the last few weeks.
My expectations were not unrealistic – I expected better than 4 points from 18 against mid-table opposition.
James is away this weekend, so we’re recording the Arsecast Extra later tonight. I’ll put out the call for questions on social media later on.
I also realise there was a lot went on after the game with Aaron Ramsey, Petr Cech, Danny Welbeck etc, but I’ll write a bit about them tomorrow perhaps. There’s plenty of coverage over on Arseblog News for now though.
Until then, have a good one.