I was 13 years old when Bruce Rioch had his solitary season in charge of The Arsenal. He had David Platt, Dennis Bergkamp, the back four that had won leagues, an Ian Wright in his prime and Paul Merson all able to do the business for him. Yet we finished fifth and just scraped in to the UEFA Cup. About a month before the end of the season I remember watching a post-match interview in a game we’d lost and Rioch told the interviewing that we “weren’t getting enough crosses into the box”. Even at 13 I remember thinking that this was too simplistic a measurement of success on the football pitch. It’s as redundant a stat as possession can be.
So when, after yesterday’s pathetic 1-0 defeat to newly promoted Sheffield United Unai Emery started talking about giving away too many corners, I had a real deja vu moment. It feels very much like Emery is following in the footsteps of Bruce Rioch rather than George Graham or Arsène Wenger right now.
We can blame the corner count if we want. We can even blame the refereeing that missed a quite clear shirt pull on Sokratis in the first half. But we have to blame both the managers and the players that represented the Arsenal last night because that performance was utterly shameful and unacceptable.
There were plenty of plaudits for Sheffield United from the commentary box but what I saw was a team who played long, physical and took their chance against a woeful Arsenal defence. Then, defending a lead, barely had to sweat as Arsenal popped the ball around like a testimonial match.
There was no reaction from the Arsenal players to going behind a goal. There was no drive and intensity. There was no “sh*t, we need to up it here, or we’re in danger of losing this.” Attitude from the players in yellow. We just popped it around – slowly, lethargically, lazily – without too much concern for working the Sheffield United ‘keeper. If you took away the scoreboard and watched that second half you’d have assumed that Arsenal were 3-0 up and managing the game, not 1-0 behind and in need of a goal. It was disgraceful from players who are supposed to be some of the best in the league. But we saw no such response and it is yet another black mark on Emery’s copybook.
He was supposed to improve our back line. He hasn’t. We have changed personnel from Wenger’s time in charge but the same familiar failings happen. I said last night on the radio show that it felt like a big turning point for some of us was the Europa League final and when listening to the Arsenal Vision podcast at the weekend I heard Clive mention the ‘three strike rule’ and one of them being the Europa League last season. I’d agree with that, but I’d also agree that last night was another strike, because up until this point we’ve played poorly but been able to scrape results.
And hey, it’s a results business, as they say. So Emery and his team getting the results means that on that measure it’s difficult to chastise too hard. But this result had been coming: Watford, Bournemouth at home, even Villa at home until the latter stages, showed us that this team isn’t clicking. Yet we held our collective breaths because the results were coming. But last night we got what we deserved and Emery’s decision making got what it deserved too.
Why no Tierney, for example? Why no Özil even in the squad? Why no Torreira from the start?
I like Saka too and I hope he goes on to be a star, but he’s 18 years old and he had the sort of game you’d expect an 18 year old to have. It’s fine. It happens. No chastising of the kid just a “wasn’t your night lad” response. So what do you do? You bring him off on around 60 minutes and you move things around a bit. But instead Saka played the full 90. I have no idea why.
I also don’t really understand why Ceballos was brought on to play where Willock played. I thought the Spaniard slowed things down with his desire to travel with the ball at his feet and much like his teammates last night, he wanted an extra couple of seconds with each touch.
Pepe had some bright moments I thought, but he’s suffering like some of the rest of the creative players in the team because we haven’t got a proper link between midfield and attack. I’m not saying it should be Mesut Özil, but anyone who can fill that position and maybe that’ll be Lacazette next weekend against Palace when he drops in. But he shouldn’t have to because we should have somebody in there that can do it. Maybe Guendouzi with Torreira further back?
It was woeful from start to finish from The Arsenal players and really should be seen as a key moment in the future of Unai Emery because last night turned me for the first time. I’ve been willing to stick with him, I’ve been so desperate for him to be successful, but we can’t have bizarre team selections, poor performances and weird excuses at the end of the game and be expected to back the manager. This is all feeling a little like the Rioch season the more I look at it.
If that is the case then the action should be swift. Make the decision sooner rather than later and let’s see if somebody else can’t come in and do something special at the club. It feels like it’d be better than watching this for another seven months. Arsenal are boring right now. We’ve been boring each season. We are a boring team that aren’t even dull but winning competitions.
It’s time to start thinking about coaching change.