Another insipid performance. Another poor result. And now we wait. And while we wait for the board to figure out who replaces Emery, that gives us a little time to unpack the 17 months that we have just been through.
Looking back is depressing. Emery promised so much when he was announced. I wrote then that I felt like he’d sold the board on him as the next manager because he’d “lit up their eyes with dollar signs” by giving them the infamous “individual dossiers” on how he was going to improve the players.
But as cynical as I was I wanted it to be true. You have to remember where we were when Wenger left: Ozil divided opinion, Xhaka divided opinion, Kolasinac made people angry, Mustafi made people angry, even young talents like Bellerin, Maitland-Niles, Iwobi, and others needed to get their careers back on track.
So, yeah, I wanted a coach who could spend all of his time coaching young players. Making them better. Getting the best out of older players like Ozil, Xhaka, and Ramsey. I wrote a piece before he signed on how he could bring Ozil into the modern era by getting him to play defense.
That was the other thing that I wanted from Emery: I wanted him to shore up the defense. He specifically promised a high press. That was an intoxicating promise. Imagine a front three of Ozil, Lacazette, and Aubameyang, camping out in the opponent’s box, winning the ball in dangerous positions, getting lots of chances.
We didn’t get that.
We got a team that actually sat back all the time. Let the opponents come onto us in waves. And that had a “Real DM” in Torreira but either almost never played him or put him in weird positions.
But probably the biggest crime was that Emery sacrificed attack. I have been writing about this topic for a year. I’ve been telling you that the attack at Arsenal wasn’t good enough but what did I get in return? “Stats don’t tell the whole story”, “the only stat that matters is the League table”, and people saying we needed to give Emery more time. He got more time and you know what he did with it? He made us worse in every aspect.
The stats didn’t change, the results did. In fact, none of it worked out. Instead we got treated to weird lineup changes. Half-time subs that damaged player’s confidence. Playing the only DM on the team in forward positions. Fights with Ozil. Fights with Ramsey. Fights with Koscielny. Fan unrest. And all along, nothing working out the way that he said it would.
He kept telling us to “trust the process” and some of us kept asking “what process??”
I’m not trying to score points on anyone here. Instead, I want to just say that as a writer I’ve felt highly policed by my fellow fans over the last four years but especially since Emery arrived. If I say that a player has a bad game, people come back with some weird stuff about how “real supporters support”. The club even got in on that action – which, of course they would because they don’t want us to be critics, they want us to be cheerleaders. I’m not going to be a cheerleader for a multinational business, unless they pay me to do it.
But worse than the offhanded dismissals of criticism, there has been a rhetorical move toward conflating any criticism of a match performance, any criticism of a player, any criticism of the manager, as being the same as the people who go on a player’s instagram and threaten a player and his family. This is what I mean by “policing”. People out there shouting down any criticism by making it the same as death threats.
I’m not talking about challenging someone’s argument, provoking thought, or good faith debating. I’m talking about ad hominem attacks. And I do find it ironic that some of the same folks who equate any criticism of a player as the same as death threats have no problem being utter pricks to writers.
You know what I’d like to see going forward?
First, an end of people saying “that’s not how fans act” and also at the same time stop saying “Arsenal fans are the worst”. People are going to be jerks, people are going to boo players, people are going to go on Instagram timelines and say awful things, people are going to vote for Trump, people are going to be racist. Absolutely call out that behaviour but stop conflating that awful behaviour with simple criticism and then couching that in some vague morality about fandom.
I get it, you need to signal to the world how virtuous you are. How you’re a true fan as opposed to anyone who has any criticism. Cool story, bro.
Of course, that’s just a gripe I have. It’s annoying. The real thing that Arsenal need is to hire a manager who will get Arsenal winning again. Once that happens a lot of the internecine fighting and morality policing will fall away.
And to get us winning, I think there are two tracks here. The first is pretty simple: organize the defense, play our best players as much as possible, play players in positions that they are best at, and find ways to compensate for player’s deficiencies. That formula means playing Ozil, who is clearly Arsenal’s most talented footballer. That also means playing Torreira as a DM, not as some sort of ghost forward.
And that means getting the defense to try to actively win the ball back. As far as I can tell, Emery’s game plan is to win the ball back by letting the opponent shoot. Yesterday, Wolves took 25 shots but were only dispossessed 8 times and Arsenal only had 6 interceptions.
That may actually be a more “medium-term” project at Arsenal. That might take a few months to get organized, though hopefully not the remaining 27 matches.
But long term, Arsenal also have major problems. They need a coach who can help with our passing. Our passing football has been bad for at least 5 years and has regressed under Emery. I’m not talking about the type of possession where the center backs pass the ball around in a circle near their own goal, I mean passing with the purpose of moving the ball into shooting positions. We seem to lack a structure that allows us to pass and also defend. The best teams do this (they also commit cynical fouls) and it’s got to be our number one priority.
We don’t have to spend billions to achieve this. Leeds United haven’t spent a single dime in two years. In fact, they have earned about £7m in the last two seasons and they play possession football. Yes, they have failed at the last hurdle but they aren’t the only team in the world who have a coach that teaches them how to play with the football: Bayer Leverkusen do it (they have other problems, but they are able to pass the ball), Ajax do it, and so on. And it doesn’t take two years to get teams playing good football.
Leeds brought in Bielsa and went from 18th in the Championship, a team that completed 73% of their passes, scored 59, conceded 64 to a team that completed 79% of their passes, had 59% of possession, scored 73, and conceded 50. And this season they have improved on their strengths: 81% passing, 59% possession, and conceded just 8 goals in their first 15 games.
It’s not impossible to improve a team almost right away with almost zero investment. Wenger literally did it for a decade.
Bielsa (he’s out of contract in 2020), Ten Hag (2022), Allegri (available), even Rafa Benitez all could organize Arsenal in a few months. But I’ll leave that up to the board to pick. Hopefully, through an exhaustive process that looks at the numbers behind the manager’s success, that watches his best and worst games, that talks to fans from that club, that speaks to people who knew that manager in a professional capacity but didn’t work for him.
The signs were there for Emery before he was hired. There’s a thread on twitter – a fucking fan, dude – that accurately predicted everything we are seeing now. I had my misgivings when he was picked but the only stat I could find that seemed negative was that his teams have always been error-prone (just one exception, his 2nd season at PSG).
If the “brain trust” had done their homework they would have known that he played frantic football, that his ideas weren’t very clear, that he picked fights with players, that he was passive-aggressive, and that many of his players didn’t listen to him or understand his vision.
I even watched some of his old matches, the successful ones, and I can tell you that at his best, his teams played like Arsenal did the other day in the 5-5 loss to Liverpool. I can also tell you that he had incredible attacking talent (Mata, Villa, Silva) and would make bizzarro substitutions and try to sit back and soak up pressure without proactively winning the ball back.
I think it’s clear that the board didn’t do their due diligence in hiring this guy. Everyone is blaming Gazidis and he certainly deserves some opprobrium but remember that this was a “unanimous” decision of the board. That means Raul, Vinai, and Sven all approved of this guy.
I’m fine with Arsenal hiring an interim coach. I’m also going to go out on a limb and say I’m fine with Arsenal finishing 7th or 8th this season – because it means we won’t have the distraction of European football next year. But the board needs to spend some time researching and vetting, then recruiting the next coach of Arsenal football club. We need a coach for five years, not another two year appointment.
Everything is in place for the next coach to be successful: the defense has two outstanding fullbacks and a good mix of youth and experience in the middle. The midfield has outrageous young talent in Willock, Guendouzi, and others and even has a guy who will sacrifice everything for the team in the DM role. And up front, every coach in world football would be drooling over an attacking foursome of Ozil, Auba, Lacazette and Pepe.
Every coach except Unai Emery.
Considering what he’s been given and what he did with it, this coach has been an astonishing failure. Let’s hope the board corrects their mistake, immediately.