Sunday, September 24, 2023

Arsenal 1-4 Chelsea: Rip it up and start again

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Just so we’re clear: there isn’t going to be much in this blog post that will cheer anybody up. I don’t think that’s even possible when you get battered in a European final, and your season ends with such a disheartening, demoralising defeat.

It was going ok until Olivier Giroud came back to haunt us early in the second half. The first 45 had been pretty even. I thought perhaps we were marginally the better side even if Chelsea forged a couple of good chances late in the half. The closest we came was a Granit Xhaka shot which skimmed off the top of the bar.

There had been shouts early on for a penalty, but having watched it again numerous times it wasn’t one. Even with my Arsenal hat on I can’t make any case for it. My rule of thumb is how I would feel if it were given against us, and I’d have been furious so that’s not something we can cling to this morning. We weren’t hard done by there, the referee got it right.

Before the game everyone pointed to the threat of Eden Hazard, few mentioned Giroud. Perhaps because they figured we knew him so well we’d know how to play him and keep him quiet. He always scored good goals for us, maybe not with the right frequency for some people, but we should have known well enough that in the box he’s capable of doing something you don’t quite expect. His header from an Emerson cross was brilliant, but crucially Laurent Koscielny was caught on his heels for a half-second to let the Frenchman get ahead of him and put Chelsea ahead.

It was early enough in the second period for that goal not to completely hole us below the waterline though. Ten minutes later however, we did that thing we’re always capable of doing – we crumbled. We lost the ball in midfield, Chelsea came forward, Pedro away from  Monreal and made it 2-0. Unai Emery was planning his changes, Iwobi was waiting on the touchline when Maitland-Niles fouled Giroud in the box, and when Hazard takes a penalty Hazard scores. At 3-0 that was that, and even if Iwobi’s brilliant finish gave us a tiny glimmer of hope, it was extinguished three minutes later when Giroud laid it on a plate for Hazard to make it 4-1.

A phrase I’ve used throughout this season when we’ve suffered defeats is ‘It could have been worse’, and but for Cech making a number of saves and some wayward Chelsea finishing it really could have been. The dream of winning a first European trophy in 25 years was well and truly out the window, there will be no Champions League football or revenue next season, and we face another campaign when the Thursday–Sunday schedule will play havoc with our Premier League aspirations.

We all know that this is a team which needs a significant rebuild, and if you needed any further evidence it was on the pitch last night. Some of these players have reached the end of the line with this football club. Whether it’s because they’re past their prime, simply not good enough and their continued presence prevents us addressing key issues that plague us, or the talent is there but they seem unable or unwilling to perform when we need them, we have to make tough decisions this summer. There are no two ways about it. We either start to face up to and deal with these problems now, or we’re going to continue slipping further and further behind the teams we want to consider rivals.

I thought there was something very pointed about Emery taking off Mesut Ozil and replacing him with 19 year old Joe Willock. I know the game was done at that point, but there was a clear message there from the manager. Whether it was to Ozil himself, or if it was Emery hammering home something to the board, it said a lot that our £350,000 megastar was hauled off for an Academy lad. An Academy lad who did more in his 13 minutes on the pitch than the German did in the entire game too.

Which isn’t to say Ozil was our main problem last night. It obviously goes far deeper than that, but this was the big stage when we needed him to deliver, and once again he didn’t. We’ve gone beyond the point now where questions about how he’s being used are relevant. The tipping point has well and truly been reached, he was booed off by the travelling fans apparently, and the only way forward for him and for Arsenal as a football club is a parting of the ways this summer. I think that’s what the club want anyway, but they face the very difficult task of shifting someone on massive wages who appears quite content to sit out his contract if he doesn’t get exactly what he wants.

The defeat, the margin of it, and the manner of it, also raises questions about Unai Emery. How can it not? His main objective this season was to get the club back into the Champions League, and he had two fantastic opportunities to do that. I think we kind of have to take a final in some measure of isolation because it’s a one-off game, but while losing to Chelsea isn’t in itself a shameful thing, getting absolutely battered and basically being noncompetitive in the second half certainly is. His tactics didn’t work, his changes didn’t come soon enough, and his players folded like a deck of cards when the pressure was on.

Just as they did at the business end of the Premier League season when he had a far better opportunity to achieve what he was asked to. I’ve said a number of times that the Europa League final was a kind of sticking plaster over that particular wound, and last night it was ripped off. The way we lost the final was dreadful, no two ways about it, but taking 4 points from 18 at a stage in the season when even being just average would have been enough is the real failure of this campaign for me. Was the Europa League a distraction? Perhaps. Is that any kind of excuse? Not for me.

Emery took his eye off the ball at a key point of the season, and we capitulated. We fell apart because we lack the quality and the character required. That’s not simply on the pitch either. The players rightly have to take criticism for their performance, so too does the manager who presided over it. I think it leaves Raul Sanllehi and Vinai with some serious thinking to do about the future. If we’re going to be ruthless with the squad itself, do we not have to apply that approach to all levels?

The difficultly, of course, is who on earth do you get to come into this club right now to do the job that needs to be done with a transfer budget that might be little more than £40m? You’d be laughed out of town by any established manager and you can throw around all the names you want but nobody in their right mind would take the job if that’s all they had to spend. It’s why I think they’ll continue with Emery, but maybe the fact we’re going to spend another season outside the Champions League will wake people up to the fact we’re a club with real problems.

Sitting here this morning, I’d be on board with another step backwards if I felt it was part of a cohesive strategy to regenerate and rebuild. Blow it all up, start again, give youth a chance, invest in some young players, get rid of the strollers and the crumblers, and take some time to do it all again. I don’t really think Emery is the right man for that particular approach, although he did say some interesting things in El Mundo which might give you some pause for thought in that regard, but we can’t continue to muddle through sticking our fingers in the various and many leaks in the dam because there are too many. Let the water through – the residents of the village in the valley might be the casualties – but evacuate them (or let them drown), and start again.

Whatever Arsenal is right now – and I wish I knew – is not working. You can’t fix this without taking a big broom to it first, and that now becomes the focus for this summer. Maybe, in some ways, not being in the Champions League next season could be beneficial, because our failure to get there has shone a spotlight on all the issues. It’s the end of the night in a nightclub, the houselights come on, we don’t have beautiful people under ultra-violet lights any more. The spots and the blemishes are visible, there’s chewing gum ground into the carpet, and someone’s got to make a big decision and clean it all up. We can’t just turn the lights off, go again and hope for the best.

Now we turn our focus away from the pitch, and I think we could all do with a bit of a rest from there anyway, and onto the boardroom. Onto Raul and Vinai who talk so well about their plans for the club but who now have to implement the kind of changes that will begin a period of regeneration. There’s no hiding place because what they do in the transfer market this summer, both in terms of selling and buying, is squarely on their shoulders. They backed Emery, said they were delighted with him, that they’d hire him again in a heartbeat, so they either back him properly or go a different direction. It’s time for them to make actions speak louder than their pre-prepared, corporate presentation words.

Sanllehi, in particular, moved to fill the executive gap when Gazidis left and saw off our Head of Recruitment. What happens this summer will be on him. He took that responsibility, so there’s no shirking it now when the work needs to be done. He is the Head of Football. The football is a mess. It’s literally his job to fix it, and while I appreciate he has to do it with a pretty limited budget, he was highly involved in the decision to hire Emery in the first place, gambling a bit on his Europa League record as a back-up to the Premier League, so he can’t escape his responsibility there either.

A final point for now, when I think about what’s missing at this club, the word leadership really springs to mind. I know people get a bit precious about intangibles because they’re non-quantifiable, but where is it at Arsenal? Do you see it on the pitch? On the touchline? At board level? From the owner? Certainly not the owner. Arsenal played in a European final last night, and our owner wasn’t even there. He sent his son apparently, but I think it says a lot about Stan Kroenke and KSE that he was absent for the biggest game this club has played in 13 years. Silent Stan, the absentee landlord who is apparently so great and wonderful and sends great WhatsApp messages to Raul and Vinai, could not be bothered to attend this fixture.

The old saying about a fish rotting from the head down applies so perfectly to Arsenal right now. Arsenal is the fish, Kroenke is the head, and it’s all starting to stink. I don’t know what we can do about it, but it’s the reality we’re faced with.

I’m sorry if I’ve rambled, I’m a bit all over the place this morning, and I’m really sorry that we’re not all sitting here this morning enjoying the fact we’ve won a European trophy. We’ve won some finals in the last few years so we know how much fun it is. It’s a shame for everyone, not least the dedicated few who made the trip to Baku – safe travels back to all you folks – but all we can do is take the defeat, let it inform the decisions we make about the future of the club, and hope that the people making those decisions know what the fuck they’re doing.

To compound your misery/provide some catharsis, James and I will be recording an 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 around lunchtime. Until then, cheers.

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