Bravery from Emery needed to end inconsistency
If anyone was hoping the departure of Arsene Wenger last May would heal all divisions within the Arsenal fan-base overnight, they will surely be sitting here eight months later rather disappointed. It is perhaps a legacy of the Wenger era, and the loyalties some had to him and the extreme frustration others viewed him with, that any question on the early success of Unai Emery’s reign would bring a wide range of responses. Many fans, particularly the most ardent of those who had turned against Wenger, will emphasise the need for patience in Emery and the long term process that the club is undergoing, and while few would disagree on this, more tangible signs of progress since the start of the season would be welcome.
It is the lack of a coherent, overarching philosophy seen in Emery’s side this season that is largely responsible for any frustrations growing. The vast majority of fans would be willing to accept a difficult first season under a new manager if there were visible signs of a consistent brand of football being gradually implemented and improved on game by game.
Yet for the most part, this has been sorely lacking. There have of course been some changes in the style of play, whether that be the bursts of sporadic pressing seen across the season or the waning commitment to passing out from the back. However, the complete overhaul that seemed likely when the club started the season with a greater emphasis on fitness and the sorry sight of Petr Cech being stubbornly thrust into a painfully unfamiliar role has never really materialised.
In the summer, as reports emphasised Emery’s attention to detail and obsession with video analysis, there was an excitement at the level of change that would be seen across the season. Gone were the days when Arsenal’s line-up could be confidently predicted, sent out with the same tactics and no apparent thought to adapt to the opposition. For several years, performances, and most worryingly results, had been painfully predictable, as indeed were substitutions; fans could look down at their watches and count away the minutes until Giroud would trot onto the pitch after 70 minutes.
Emery’s adaptability and willingness to change systems is of course not necessarily a weakness, with certain tactics and formations suiting some games more than others. The key issue with the Arsenal side this season is that there appears to be no real identity or foundations from which performances have been built; the management has appeared more confused than flexible.
More important than the fans struggling to recognise any real consistency in performances are the problems the players themselves understandably appear to have adapting. It is surely unfair to expect a team to provide fully cohesive performances when changing tactics not only from one game to another but several times within the matches themselves.
Alex Iwobi coming on at half time against Brighton and asking Granit Xhaka what formation they were playing is an illustration that the confusion among supporters more worryingly may be mirrored on the pitch. Iwobi is surely not the only one, with Emery having already made 15 half time substitutions in league matches this season.
However, what started as seemingly decisive, game-changing management has increasingly come to appear like a manager desperately searching for a winning formula he is unable to produce from the start of matches. This is of course not a new development in the past few games; the vast majority of the 22 game unbeaten run was built on strong second half performances rectifying extremely sluggish opening halves.
The difference now is how fans are viewing these changes, naturally from a more critical standpoint due to the worsening results. There can always be a sense within unbeaten runs that the run must be maintained at all costs, with performances naturally subservient to results. The end of the run with the defeat away at Southampton could have given the team a clean slate to focus more on consistent performances, freed from the added burden of continuing a run of results.
This has not been seen since that defeat, with a more cautious approach often favoured by Emery that has at times led to passive performances and underwhelming results. Perhaps most frustratingly is that when the manager has implemented tactics more like the ones expected from him on a regular basis, such as the superbly intense displays at home to Tottenham and Chelsea, the results have been far more positive and created a real buzz amongst the fans.
However, these have been mixed by curiously cautious selections from Emery, for example in the defeat at West Ham and the edgy win more recently over Cardiff, when the side started seemingly unnecessarily with three defensive midfielders and allowed the opposition to gain the initiative and put Arsenal under real pressure. Had the side started in games like these with the same intent and aggressive pressing that has been seen in some of the bigger games this season, results would surely have been positive.
Looking to the future, Emery deserves time and financial backing from the club over the next transfer windows to move towards a team more in his vision and built on the requirements he feels necessary. However, at a club where the financial restrictions are well known and huge investment in the summer is unlikely, simply excusing any criticisms of the manager by stating that the players are not his is to downplay the expected consequences of bringing in a new manager.
Emery was brought in to replace Wenger not to oversee a complete squad overhaul, but because it was believed a new manager could get more out of the current squad. So far this season, particularly in defence, there have been no significant signs of improvement in terms of solidity and structure at the back.
If he is to be successful as Arsenal manager a more forceful introduction of his footballing philosophy, as seen when Guardiola and Klopp arrived in England, and consistent implementation of his tactics are surely necessary. Waiting for the signing of players more to his liking, and in the meantime relying on extreme pragmatism in an attempt to grind out results, is a dangerous game, and one that could be ended by the higher echelons at the club before Emery gets that team he wants.