‘HOPE IN THOSE WITH THEIR SHINPADS IN THEIR HANDS’
Positives, Needs and Hopes
END of SEASON REVIEW
I’m sure we all have this childhood memory… We build a Lego Tower. Our sibling comes along as we near completion of said tower, and knocks it down. I may have been 6 but at the time this was a big problem for me.
I fast forward 39 years and equate this to how I feel having watched Arsenal’s 18/19 season. Like my tower it started off slowly (City at home, Chelsea away) but then I got on a roll (unbeaten run). As I’m building I’m not sure how good this tower is going to end up. I’m unconvinced (how I felt during Arsenal’s unbeaten run). My doubts are realized as I start to lose belief that this tower is even worth building (Liverpool away), but then 4 new innovative building choices later (Liverpool (h), Chelsea (h), Spurs (h) and Utd (h) I really start to think that this is going very well.
Then my little brother runs past and knocks it down (Arsenal’s run in). Then he starts laughing at me (Europa Final). I then remember that he did this last year too and in actual fact I’ve lived this hugely frustrating deja-vu moment many times before. Just happened in different ways.
I hope that this end of season PN&H is as therapeutic for you as it was for me in trying to unpack and process Arsenal Football Club. The club that’s never far away yet a long way from home.
End of Season POSITIVES:
* Ultimately, before the season started I thought that a fair 3 year plan for Emery was….
- Season 1… compete for Top 4 again.
- Season 2…. Get Top 4.
- Season 3…. challenge for PL title.
However messy our ‘competing’ was, we did.
Season one post-Wenger, I think that statistically the end result is a step forward.
* I think that it will never be fully known as to the extent of the mess that Arsenal Football Club were left in after Wenger left.
There is too much respect for him for the great amount of good that he did for those that know to want to be the one that tells.
I have such a wash of mixed feelings about the past as I’m very much grateful for the unique achievements, the many eye catching players that I’ve enjoyed and the football played for the first 12 years.
My eyes also told me that the deficiencies were great.
I think Unai Emery inherited an unbalanced squad that were missing leadership, tactical coaching on all levels, accountability, motivation, an understanding of ‘off the ball football,’ a balance between attacking and defending, had far more talented attacking players than defensive ones, in-game management, tactical flexibility, set play coaching, a focus on the opponent and fragile mentality.
My thought is not to beat Wenger with a stick. It is to state what was not only missing but what no other manager in modern history has been given (time) to try to fix all of it.
The point of saying this is that it is hugely relevant to bring up the recent past when discussing the current situation.
Some say that Emery had a blank slate.
I say he didn’t.
He had the above list as well as an uninterested owner, a second potential investor who gave up, a CEO who ran away, a Head of Recruitment who did the same, under-achievers on large contracts, almost no sale-able assets (that we actually want to sell), a huge wage bill, a fan base that live on the edge through years of frustration, no money in January and last of all a fraction of the money that his rivals have to spend on new players.
Again, I challenge anyone to tell me that the above is untrue or exaggerated. Most is fact, not opinion.
So the ‘positive’ is that if we remove our current emotion and try to be fair, I say that Unai Emery has done ‘quite well considering the many hurdles he inherited.’ Like you I’m sure, that doesn’t feel right as I’m still upset but I think it’s unfair to disregard it all because of my feelings. Could he have done better? Even much better? I do. (Read on).
* Could Willock’s successful cameo in the Final have opened the door for Emery to trust the younger players next season? I sure hope so. (Much more on this topic below).
* Last summer window we bought 3 ‘men’ and one 19 year old that acts like one. This was much needed.
The 5 transfers were largely successful. This gives me hope.
* Of the exhaustive list above, Emery changed or attempted to change much of it. I appreciate him for doing this as it could not be ignored.
The in-game management change was stark. The tactical coaching may have confused but was at least very evident. The accountability was seen at the beginning of the season when Torreira and Leno weren’t given their spot, they had to earn it.
Ramsey and Ozil in particular were hauled off for averageness.
Again, there may have been too much of this but there was a definite consideration given to our opponents.
The ‘5 captains’ experiment was tried to garner leadership from many rather than just one.
* The issue that would bother me more than any other pre-Emery was the refusal/inability to fix problems.
For so many years I saw the same mistakes.
Again, I credit Emery for fixing.
* Leno looks the real deal. Iwobi found some drive to make a difference, Sokratis led by example, Guendouzi surprised everyone, Kola started season very well, Holding and Bellerin too.
AMN had some great games as did Xhaka. Torreira did much unseen work. Ramsey proved how good he can be when playing for a structured coach. Koscielny’s return made me happy as did Ozil’s unique finish.
Auba and Laca gave me hope that we were better than we were.
* We have a long list of highly promising youngsters/loanees.
* The EL final gave us supreme clarity on who we need to keep and sell.
In the midst of all the disappointment, this was obvious and probably very helpful to the decision makers.
* As ever, Arsenal scored some beautiful goals that it seems only Arsenal score.
Auba’s vs Leicester at home was quite something.
End of Season NEEDS:
* The biggest decision I think our leaders make this summer is what to do with our large crop of very talented Academy players and some of our loanees.
In the past this would not have been so pressing but the new trend of young British players finding success particularly in Germany is worrying for Arsenal. This will no doubt make players and their agents less patient.
A player like Xavier Amaechi may look at Jadon Sancho and see his reflection. The truth is he may not be far off in thinking that. Amaechi is arguably the best young talent at Arsenal. He is also exactly what the first team needs. A quick, skillful dribbler with individual brilliance.
Saka is very much the same. Some say he’s further along.
John-Jules is being courted by PSG and he may not even be the best striker in the Academy! Have you seen Balogun? Willock is a unique talent as the third man runner from midfield is out of style/not available anymore. He has the uncanny gift of understanding when to arrive in the box. We all saw Smith-Rowe last summer and are all aware of Reiss Nelson’s talent. In midfield I think we have the player that will make the biggest mark at Arsenal Football Club of all these loanees/Academy players in Krystian Bielik.
Bielik has played more Centre Back in recent times but also Central Midfield. If I was to sign a CM this summer I’d want an imposing athlete with the ability to break lines with his passing and running with the ball. It would be great if he was also very good defensively as well as in the air as our current crop of CM’s have one but not the other. Bielik has all of this. He could even take Mustafi’s spot and save the club big money that they could invest elsewhere. I think Bielik is going to the very top and I sure hope it’s with Arsenal.
Stylistically, Zech Medley is the closest I’ve seen to Vieira. Not talent just style. Long way to go to match Patrick but he is a monster of an athlete. He’s a centre back but I’d be tempted to play him as a central midfielder or left back. It’s not often you get an athlete like Medley. He needs a chance.
I’ve seen less of Okonkwo in goal but he’s progressing fast.
If we were flush with money I’d say definitely keep Chambers as an option at both CB and DM as he is an admirable squad player for a Top 6 club. Keep an eye on Daniel Ballard at centre back. How patient will he be? He’s already a full Irish international. I have yet to mention Nketiah who will clearly make it somewhere if Arsenal don’t give him the opportunity. Martinez I’m hoping will accept the opportunity to be our second choice keeper. He’s mid twenties now so may look at Leno at a similar age and leave.
That is a list of 14 Academy/loanee players, all of whom are potentially good enough to play for our first team. When was the last time that the list was that long!!
* Alongside this conundrum is my biggest disappointment in Emery so far…..
When Emery was interviewed we were all told that he showed an impressive knowledge of our Academy. In a season where there was so much under performance and such a great need for individual brilliance in particular, I will never understand why he did not at least put Amaechi and/or Saka on the bench.
Nobody will ever convince me that we needed both ElNeny AND Guendouzi on the bench.
I think Emery has probably made this list of players (above) skeptical of whether Arsenal will give them opportunity. Add to this that Nketiah was almost never given the chance to make the difference and I start to worry what these players are thinking.
* I think the ‘5 captains’ idea was designed to create leaders in a team where the mentality is weak. What it inadvertently did I fear is create confusion and the look of indecision.
*As a coach, I believe that I would have approached the problem of the group being tactically inflexible in a different manner. Credit to Emery for addressing this but I think it was too much. I’d have decided on a base formation and taught flexibility by adjusting the base formation. The biggest tactical change is always in the back. If you switch from 3 to 4 there are huge changes in responsibility and it affects everyone else’s responsibilities in front of them too. It looked to me like the players were confused by the constant formation switching.
* I believe that this era of attacking full backs allowing wide players to tuck inside will be seen as flawed. The easiest way to penetrate a defence is around the outside of the full back as there is no cover there. For over a decade Arsenal have used full backs with very limited dribbling ability as their main source of creation. I just don’t think that’s tactically smart. All season I was pining to see Amaechi and Saka on the wings running at their full backs. It’s their skill set. It’s natural to them. They’d create endless opportunities if given freedom to make mistakes and just run at them. Not only are Kolasinac, Monreal, Bellerin, AMN and Lichsteiner not good one on one they are not great at crossing either! Why, oh why, oh why are they our first choice creators?!?!!
* After seeing Emery make Ramsey, Ozil, Auba and Laca accountable for average performance at the beginning of the season, I didn’t understand why he seemed to also maintain a hierarchy when choosing his bench and making substitutes. Until Willock came on for Ozil last week we had never seen Emery making the right choice over the political choice. If I was Sanhelli I would have identified this, sat Emery down and told him that he has the clubs backing to play who he wants, not what he thinks he should do to pacify egos.
* I need Arsenal to figure out how not to crumble.
We are not an inexperienced team and we have numerous starters that should be beyond ‘crumbling’ but apparently we aren’t.
* I’m hoping Emery has figured out that he doesn’t need to create a strategy or formation around players he doesn’t believe in.
* For the amount of talent that Auba and Laca have they need to be far better in their movement off the ball when in the box. Auba tends to go to the back post but Lacazette almost never loses his marker.
* The fans loved the sideline coaching. Certainly, at first. I do wonder if the amount of intensity on the sidelines is making Emery ineffective as a communicator due to the frequency?
End of Season HOPES:
* The Kroenke family are obviously poor communicators. There is so much that they could do that would take minimal effort. Classic example would be to communicate that Josh Kroenke was going to be at the EL final but not Stan. Not many fans even know this, but many think that neither were there which would be appalling. So, now many fans are even more ‘appalled’ when they need not be.
Will this family ever learn how they are perceived and care enough to change it?
* I hope we change our formation.
I hope we sell Ozil and Mkhi and buy wingers and ask them to create, not really on Kolasinac.
I’d attempt to buy Zaha and Ziyech.
I’d play a 4-3-3 with Zaha on the left and give Nelson, Saka and Amaechi the opportunity to play on the right. True, natural, scary individual brilliance!
I’d play Ziyech in a 3 man midfield and give him the freedom that Ozil enjoyed but didn’t use to the maximum.
I’d play Torreira and Bielik. One creator… Ziyech, one destroyer… Torreira and one all-rounder… Bielik.
I’d stop using Iwobi on the wing and give him and AMN the opportunity to play in a 3 man midfield as ball carriers. Finally using these two talented players in a formation and position that is their best!
I’d sell Xhaka and Mustafi as I’m fed up of having players at Arsenal who we have to play in certain formations and with certain other individuals in order to disguise their weaknesses. We can do better.
Before I bought a left back, I’d wait through pre-season and give Medley the chance.
If I could get Wan-Bissaka I’d buy him and therefore have to find a top CB for less. Eder Balanta at FC Basel would be that player.
If AWB wasn’t available/too expensive I’d buy Konate from Leipzig and Dani Alves for free to compete with Bellerin.
My math tells me we could get £105M from sales to add to our budget.
I’d play a 3-2-3-2 against weaker opposition allowing both Auba and Laca to play together.
These changes would add two qualities that are clearly missing….. more goals and athletes.
It would also put players in their best position rather than shoe horning tactically inflexible ‘stars’ into a line up that we don’t really want.
* These changes would also give ‘hope’ to the Academy and loanee players.
You don’t have to be extreme and play all of them. They just need to know that there is ‘hope’ for them.
* I hope we find loans for those that we aren’t going to use ‘yet.’
* My final hope is that we realize as a fan base that Emery made mistakes this season, could certainly have done better BUT that he inherited a situation where he had to spend the majority of his time FIXING rather than CREATING.
In any workplace it would be fair to say that if you inherited a mess, that your colleagues/fans may not see what you are capable of creating until you’ve fixed.
Maybe next season we see more of Unai Emery’s ideas rather than the superhero version he’s had to be.
End of Season FINAL THOUGHT:
If a book was written in 2022 about Emery’s three seasons at Arsenal I hope it would be called, ‘The season after the season and two seasons after that.’
It would be largely about all the on and off field changes that Emery was a part of during his first season which let’s be honest, came after one of the most tumultuous seasons in modern Arsenal history.
It would also be about the 19/20 season and how the club made it clear to him and the fan base that we had much unused talent at AFC that needed the platform to impress. Emery was allowed to play the talented youngsters and then season 20/21 showed up….
Season 20/21 had a blend of exciting youngsters fully established in the first team with experienced players with a winning mentality.
Arsenal were becoming the envy of many who were trying to prize these players away.
We had sale-able assets once again and the club was truly moving forward.
Oh, and we competed for the title!
Arsenal currently seems like a place with a sad face.
The interesting thing is though that it is also a place where envious eyes are looking.
Arsenal need to give opportunities to those who have ‘their shinpads in their hands’ before someone else does.