Monday, January 17, 2022

New Dawn Fades

Arsenal were presented with an open goal when it came to Champions League qualification last season. With Chelsea and Tottenham chucking points away willy nilly and a relatively kind run-in, as well as a Europa League campaign frothing away in the background, the Gunners were in ‘they can only throw it away now’ territory.

Throw it away they did, culminating in a 1-1 draw at home to Brighton in May, which prefaced the most stony-faced ‘lap of appreciation’ in living memory. Dissatisfaction with Unai Emery was cast to one side with a Europa League Final- and an opportunity for redemption- on the horizon.

Criticism for the coach was therefore placed on the tab with all of our other mouldering resentments. We added it to the laterbase. The Europa League final in Baku was so utterly soul destroying that, strangely, Emery averted further criticism. The supporters were in such state of torpor that they simply did not want to talk about it.

I think most of us went into the summer like a disgruntled spouse slamming the door after a heated domestic argument. We didn’t want to see Arsenal, nor talk to or about Arsenal until we’d cooled off. Even a fairly quiet opening period of the summer transfer market drew little comment as Arsenal fans enjoyed their exile.

Passions stirred as supporters’ club members attended a fiery Q & A with Raul Sanllehi, Edu and Vinai Venkatesham. However, wheels started turning, the sky was rearranging and, after some transfer activity, the weather started changing. The arrivals of Dani Ceballos, Nicolas Pepe, Kieran Tierney and David Luiz re-energised the supporters.

After years of botched outgoings, Arsenal fans even allowed themselves to be excited by some high profile departures, an event sweetened by the promised emergence of a talented academy crop. Nothing gets the supporters’ juices flowing like the promise of locally developed talent.

The club made other subtle amendments to the structure, giving further cause for hope. Unai Emery has never been considered a people person, to put it lightly. The promotion of Freddie Ljungberg into the first-team setup might have been a happy accident, but Ljungberg has been able to demonstrate the personal touch that is not Emery’s forte.

Likewise, Edu Gaspar spoke about being a consistent physical presence on the training ground to provide counsel for the players. “I explained to the players when I arrived that I’m not the guy who stays inside the office and waits for someone to knock on my door and send a message to me. I want to be involved in the process, I want to be on the inside, I want to be with them.

Edu and Ljungberg were also a valuable engagement point for supporters. Two former players and club legends with a personal touch that perhaps Unai Emery doesn’t quite have. Though it turned sour towards the end, in Arsene Wenger, Gunners fans had a totem pole manager, someone they, for a time at least, admired and cherished on a personal level.

It made sense, logically, for Arsenal to take a left turn when they appointed Wenger’s successor. The environment needed shaking up and most clubs, in a similar scenario, will appoint a diametrically opposed figure. On the Arsenal Vision podcast recently, we had a discussion about fans readjusting to a manager that operates purely as a coach as opposed to an ideologue.

It may be a symptom of some kind of Stockholm Syndrome, but it still feels as though Arsenal fans crave a messianic figure in the dugout. I would imagine that Freddie Ljungberg would be a popular interim appointment despite his total lack of managerial experience, purely because of the emotional connection it would generate. A glance towards Stamford Bridge and Frank Lampard illustrates how a feelgood factor can put plenty of credit in the bank.

However, Arsenal fans’ deteriorating relationship with Unai Emery is principally driven by performances and tactics. The executive branch of the club have earned commendation from the support, who have even been motivated to nickname the Director of Football as ‘Don Raul.’ (That nickname itself shows a sense of affection never reserved for Emery).

The worm turned against the coach quickly this season, partly because expectations were raised by the summer transfer business. Arsenal fans also sense another open goal for the club to re-take their place in the Champions League. Manchester United and Spurs hover from crisis to crisis, while Chelsea have rolled the dice on a rookie manager and a young team, which makes them potentially vulnerable.

Those situations, unfortunately, will not persist in perpetuity. The train is leaving the station and Arsenal are only limping after it. Underneath the surface, the club are trying to negotiate new contracts with their star strikers, Pierre Emerick Aubameyang and Alex Lacazette. These negotiations have been a matter of public record for some months.

That the contracts remain unsigned is revealing. It seems likely that both players are going to wait and see whether they are signing up for Champions League football. The price of failure to qualify is incalculable. While the Gunners continue to play a confused, muddled brand of football that is neither defensively secure nor offensively ambitious, patience is wearing thin.

Emery has made an enemy of Mesut Ozil, rightly or wrongly. This is a personal issue influenced by factors invisible to supporters. However, where Ozil is concerned, that matters little. He has a fan base with a tribalism to rival any club and any run-in with Mesut Ozil is going to affect a coach’s popularity (I am sure Emery isn’t concerned by that and nor should he be, really).

With each creatively bereft performance, Ozil’s cache grows in this particular spin war. Lucas Torreira quickly made himself popular with fans due to his all-action displays and he too has been sidelined by Emery, or else played in unfamiliar positions. Again, logically speaking it makes little sense to be drawn into individual agendas when assessing tactics and selection, but in reality that only holds true when a manager has the performances and results to vindicate him.

There are few, if any, Unai Emery evangelists from his past coaching roles. Few of his former players are minded to speak of him with reverence in public. That doesn’t mean all of his players hate him, of course, but few seem to demonstratively love him. Emery is unarmed for any kind of PR conflict.

Yet ultimately, Emery’s lack of effusiveness, the situations with Ozil and Torreira and the resulting spin wars, are side issues. To quote Amy Lawrence’s piece from earlier this week, “Either his team are not reflecting his ideas, which is a worry. Or they are, which is a worry.” Arsenal cannot afford to let another season pass them by and judgement day could well be brought forward if improvement is not forthcoming swiftly.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillberto– Or like my page on Facebook.

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