With the campaign now beyond the halfway stage, the biggest talking point amongst the clubs supporters, is how Unai Emery has performed within his role as our manager to date. As they are with all subjects associated with The Arsenal, the opinions being offered by the club’s fans are extremely diverse. With some supporters believing Unai has done a brilliant job so far, and others considering him to be, in their own words; “as clueless as Wenger was in his latter years”.
My opinion differs somewhat to both of the above.
I won’t overcomplicate it and I’ll put it simply:
Unai has done a solid job, nothing more and nothing less.
The four-two victory over Spurs in the league in early December and the twenty-two game unbeaten run are the obvious highlights. (Even if the performances during the unbeaten run were not quite as impressive as the results may suggest on paper).
However, there have also been some very Wengeresque performances and results. The capitulation at Anfield, along with the lacklustre defeats at Southampton and West Ham were as bad as anything we saw away from home in the final campaign of Wenger’s reign.
I accept that Emery inherited the majority of his squad from the previous manager and that he cannot be held accountable for our defence being decimated by injuries. What I don’t accept is, that he’s not responsible for getting the best out of the group of players that he does have at his disposal – and at this stage, I’m not convinced that he is.
After six months of being in the job, I’d expect him to have a good idea of his strongest side but I get the impression that he doesn’t.
At the time of his employment, we were told that Unai had impressed during his interview by having prepared a detailed dossier on all of our players. If this was the case, why am I still to be convinced that he knows all their strengths and weaknesses?
I didn’t expect Emery to come in and wave a magic wand, I expected it to take time and I’m prepared to give him time. However, I don’t believe Unai is beyond criticism and I don’t consider it to unreasonable to expect a manager to know his strongest team after six months. After all, our squad doesn’t exactly have the greatest depth.
There are aspects of Emery’s management that I admire, he’s energetic and proactive on the touch line in terms of actively cajoling his players and making changes in formation or personnel: both a refreshing change from his predecessor. Whilst his substitutions are often effective, it could be said the changes he makes, be it at half time or whenever, are the players that he should have started with in the first place. Although I would say the fitness of the players this season is also a major factor in our improved second half performances.
At this juncture I would like to make it clear that my comments regarding team selections are not a knee jerk reaction to one or two disappointing results and that I’ve been critical of Emery in that respect, since the start of the season.
The most recent example has to be the line up at West Ham. My first question relates to Lucas Torreira being named as a substitute. I agree he started to look tired in some of our recent games, as you’d perhaps expect from a young player in his debut season in a new country, but he only played for forty five minutes against Fulham on New Years Day and didn’t get on to the pitch at Blackpool. I’m sure that someone will suggest that he’s carrying a knock but if that’s the case, why wasn’t he left out completely at Blackpool?
Reports in the media suggest that Emery is eager for Mesut Ozil to leave the club in order to free up wages for players who he considers a better fit for his philosophy. This may be the case as there is often no smoke without fire and with the exception of the Ozil fan boys (and girls), we all know what attributes Mesut does and doesn’t possess.
Despite this, whilst Ozil remains an Arsenal player and we are paying his wages, there is nobody who can convince me that having him on the bench at West Ham, wouldn’t have been a better option than having three full backs. Emery may wish to offload Ozil but the situation has a ‘cutting off his nose to spite his face’ feel to it at the moment.
Did we really need Stephan Lichtsteiner to be amongst the substitutes when we also had Hector Bellerin and Nacho Monreal? For me the answer is no. I originally considered the signing of Lichtsteiner, to potentially be a shrewd one but he’s played far more games than anyone ever expected him to. Sadly, as a result, his form has deteriorated by the game, having initially impressed in his first couple of appearances. However, his arrival did appear to give Bellerin a much needed kick up the backside before injury curtailed his recent improved form.
Hector may not be the best defensively, but his pace frightens players and because teams fear that pace on the break, his presence does help us reduce the attacking threat of the opposition and there’s no doubt that he’s been sorely missed during his absence- even more so as Ainsley Maitland-Niles has been struggling for both form and confidence. (Perhaps through no fault of his own as he’s not been playing in his natural position). Having impressed at the end of last season, he’s yet to rediscover his form.
I don’t buy into the view that Aaron Ramsey has downed tools either. I thought he looked one of our better performers when he came on at West Ham. Unfortunately, some of our supporters have already decided that Aaron has had a bad game in every game he plays for the rest of the season. The departure of Jack Wilshere last summer saddened many in our fan base but Ramsey’s expected exit seems to have pleased many. Strange when the latter has done far more for the club on the pitch.
Whilst we are still paying Ramsey’s wages and he’s still putting the effort in, I’d play him. We aren’t blessed with an excess of alternative or better options, so we have to at least try to get some type of return on the wages he’s earning. Having scored two FA Cup winning goals, I’m sure he’d love to go out on a high, perhaps by scoring another. Whether or not it’s the right decision to allow Ramsey to leave, has been done to death, as has the debate regarding Ozil’s future, so I won’t elaborate on either topic.
Some positive news, is the return from injury of Konstantinos Mavropanos, who could be the ball-playing central defender that Emery has been waiting for. Without being overly outstanding, Sokratis Papastathopoulos has done far better for us than I expected him to but aside from Rob Holding, whose injury was a devastating blow after his resurgence this season, those alongside him have been disappointing. Personally, I would make him captain as the continuous change of captain is farcical and devalues the armband. It has to be said that Laurent Koscielny is finished at the highest level – now that his pace no longer compensates for his errors in judgement.
When Emery made it public knowledge that we would be unable to buy during January’s transfer window, I originally thought it could be a clever move on his behalf. The reason? If our season went downhill in the latter part of the season, the fans wouldn’t blame Unai, they’d blame Stan Kroenke.
Unfortunately, I underestimated the negative impact it would have on the supporters and the players. At West Ham, the support was flat and so were the players. I also believe it allows players to be complacent if they know their places in the team aren’t potentially under threat from new arrivals.
Undoubtedly, some supporters will interpret my words as me suggesting Emery isn’t the right man for the job. That isn’t the case, I’m just a harsher critic than most and I need to see more in order for him to convince me that he is the right man.
In all honesty, I’m surprised that so many of our supporters have complete faith in him at this stage of his tenure. The new commercial revenues kick in this summer and some of the high earners will be leaving the club. We will then have the opportunity to find out exactly what the board and the manager are made of and make an informed decision about whether the club is heading in the right direction.
Until then, the whole club needs a positive result against Chelsea to give us all a lift….