When I was watching Watford batter us during an abysmal second half showing at Vicarage Road, I was heavily reminded by how we played Huddersfield away last season. That game was our first league win on the road in over two months.
On the day we went 2-0 up after the first 45 minutes and then decided to cling on for dear life in the second half. It proved a mistake, as Huddersfield, team bottom of the table, scored and piled further pressure. Luckily, we still got the three points, but it was neither pretty, nor convincing.
On Sunday we went one further and actually dropped points. Apart from that? Lead 2-0 against a team dead last in the league at half-time? Check. Play defense-first in the second half? Check. Invite pressure, look unconvincing, concede? Check. Individual mistakes? Check. Insistence on playing out from the back, despite looking shaky each time we do? Check. I even looked up the number of saves Leno had to make. 6 against Huddersfield, 8 against Watford. Not much in it, eh?
However, it’s not the commonalities that concern me the most. It’s the fact we are seven months down the line from that away performance and seem no more a team than we did on that February day. We insist on playing from the back but invite pressure and make mistakes. We want to ride out leads, but our defense is as fragile as it was last season. We chop and crop in midfield but can’t maintain a semblance of shape. We are still talking about mental blocks away from home and how those affect the performances. We still rely on bits of magic from Aubameyang, Lacazette and Leno to keep us at the races.
This Watford game looks like a rock bottom. We were historically bad and I’m not even exaggerating. We have conceded 31 shots, our worst tally since Opta began recording data in 2004. Let that sink in. Worse than 8-2 in Manchester, or 6-0 vs Chelsea or 5-1 vs Liverpool. We conceded a total of 96 shots in the 5 opening games. That’s the worst of any team in the top five leagues. That’s 14 more than the catastrophic Derby side allowed in 2007-2008.I would sooner bet on bingo online than Arsenal’s back-line keeping a clean sheet right now.
We are five matches in and our game is plagued by the same flaws that were evident a year ago. If this isn’t on the manager, then I don’t know who else is to blame. You can’t say Emery didn’t have enough time, because he is in his second season. He had the entirety of last and a full pre-season in 2019 at his disposal. You can’t even say it’s not his squad anymore. AMN, Kolasinac, Xhaka, Ozil and Auba were the only remnants of the Wenger era who started on Sunday and you can be sure at least Kola and AMN will make way once Tierney and Bellerin recover, while Auba only had four months under Wenger. The futures, even the immediate minutes Ozil and Xhaka will play, are under serious threat.
We are a team without a clearly-defined style, with a porous defence and with no discernible midfield. I know it’s early in the season, but I am starting to wonder what it will take for Emery to turn the current situation around and if he’s capable of doing that. And, if you look just a bit further down the line, what will constitute success for the Spaniard in his second season? What does he have to do to earn a contract extension, to convince he is the guy to take us forward?
The question that is bugging me is whether we planned on keeping him around for long at all. Maybe he is a transition manager, a kind of fall guy that will leave at the end of the season and we’ll find a new one to work with an almost completely new squad? After all he the club installed a break clause in his contract.
I don’t have answers to the questions above, but I sincerely hope Unai Emery does. Sunday struck me as something routine and I didn’t like the feeling. I wasn’t mad or surprised we were taken to the cleaners by the bottom side in the league, just sad. I expected this. I knew how it would end if we set up the way we did for the second half. Yet we did anyway, and it ended even a bit better than we deserved.
I hope this will spark some kind of revival, a revolt maybe. Looking at us now, we desperately need to ask questions, raise voices in anger, kick furniture or do whatever’s necessary to get out of this slumber. Not tacitly accept that’s who we are now, not believe everything’s alright when it very clearly isn’t.
It’s sad because I honestly can’t say we have a bad squad. Yes, we might need another creator, looking at Ozil’s dwindling influence, we probably need a left winger and another right-back. But currently these are problems we can cope with, while the pool of talent on offer is considerable. And yet we can’t finish off Watford, a team so bad they sacked their manager before hosting us. We rarely dominate games or create a lot of goal-scoring chances. Or even play beautiful, meaningful football.
Wenger’s last 2 seasons were pretty gloomy not because we garnered few points or failed to finish inside the top 4. I just wanted to gouge my eyes out because we no longer played the short passing game, we were so good at.
And look, I don’t insist that should be the blueprint. They are other ways in which you can win while being entertaining. High organised pressing is the flavour of the day, but I’d enjoy piercing counters or its mash with possession football just as much if we play it well.
Emery’s insistence on being adaptable is all well and good on paper, but on the pitch, it has led to a complete breakdown. No one seems sure what kind of game we are playing, or aiming to play, not even the players. The Spaniard changes formations and personnel constantly and the confusion it resulted in is there for everyone to see. It’s not in any way beneficial, and I don’t think we will reach our aims this season without a clear way of playing. It would be an enormous shame, because United and Chelsea are as unstable as they’ll ever be, while Spurs seem to be slowing down.
It’s in our hands to capitalize and show we are serious about returning to the Champions League. However, performances like the one on Sunday make me despair, and question our chances of returning to the top, delivering a result over the course of a season. I hope I’m wrong, and that we’ll get better from now on. Not that there’s much worse we can get.