Arsenal’s first Europa League game of the campaign will be a welcome distraction from the Premier League. Following the capitulation at Watford, the mood around the Emirates is far from upbeat.
Five games into the season isn’t the time to panic. But the rumours that are circling the club about players not understanding the manager’s tactics are a cause for concern.
After a summer in which the club acted decisively, both in recruitment and upheaval, Emery must be feeling nervous about how the team is currently performing.
Of course, it would be unfair to lay the dropped points from Watford entirely at Emery’s door. An incredibly sloppy pass from Sokratis allowed Watford to get back into the game, an ill-judged taunt from Matteo Guendouzi riled the already waspy hornets and a third penalty in as many games was the showpiece of an entirely predictable Arsenal movie.
These mistakes are the making of the players, not the manager. But it should be noted that Emery did little to stem the tide.
The new kick-out strategy, the deployment of players in unfamiliar positions and the odd timing and selection of substitutions are all issues that reside with the manager.
It should be noted that it does seem like Emery has a game plan. The performances and stats suggest that he is directing his players to press the opposition high up the pitch when playing at the Emirates and sit deep and counter when playing away from home. In theory, it would appear a sound plan. However, the constant chopping and changing seems to be doing more harm than good. The managers who seem to be succeeding in world football today are those who fully adopt a philosophy. The two most obvious are Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp.
To give up half your time to pressing and half your time to counter-attacking football is akin to selecting a designated driver and buying them a few pints regardless.
Perhaps Emery is feeling the sting of his previous post, where he was torn between implementing his own style and adhering to the demands of the PSG fans and their Brazilian prima donna.
His first interview as Arsenal manager seemed to suggest that he had a clear idea about the style of play he wished to adopt: “With personality”.
“This personality for all the minutes of a match: protagonists. I like the possession with the ball, I like good pressing against the other team. I prefer to win 5-4 than win 1-0.”
While his comments allude to a style that a leading club should look to emulate, his actions say another thing. The willingness to lie deep and allow weaker teams to attack at will contradict his early assertions. It brings to mind Groucho Marx: “Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them… well, I have others.”
At present, it feels like Emery has the correct cast, just simply in the wrong roles. He has positioned Xhaka as a single pivot at the base of midfield despite a clear lack of stamina or speed.
He has entrusted Sokratis to play the ball out of defence during a high press despite feeling as uncomfortable as a sibling at a Boris Johnson family dinner.
He has even refrained from appointing his leading man – as the captaincy still remains up in the air five games into the new season.
One of the most promising aspects of Emery’s first season was his quick and often incisive substitutions. However on Saturday, the Spaniard seemed to read his autocue all wrong.
Despite all three having a better passing accuracy than Granit Xhaka, Emery decided to substitute Ozil, Guendouzi and Ceballos at key moments in the game. They were replaced by a 19 year old winger, a 20 year old midfielder and, the slightly more senior, Lucas Torreira who had only recently returned from an away game in Costa Rica.
The substitutions may have been due to underlying fitness issues. However, by substituting arguably the three most assured players on the pitch, Emery effectively lost what little control Arsenal had.
It is still early days to make any definitive call on the Arsenal manager. He is a detail-oriented coach and his preparation may have been disrupted by the international fixtures. However, it is hard to shake the feeling that something isn’t quite clicking at the moment. If the coach doesn’t find a solution soon, the club may not be long calling time on his performance.
Arsenal fans will hope that Emery can come up with a plot twist or at least some form of entertainment. For what good is a movie, if we all know the ending.
Til next time,
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Level-headed columnist who secretly gets excited by wildly improbable transfer guff. Optimistic Arsenal fan, keen writer and a passable centre half (on a good day).