Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 15 December 2019

Arsenal are rudderless under Unai Emery, a captain who looks lost at sea

Spaniard feels like a man casting around in search of solutions, one who does not know his own mind

Unai Emery limps on. Perhaps there is something fitting in Arsenal ducking a decision whether to sack their increasingly beleaguered manager. Emery, after all, ducked a decision on the captaincy by letting his players vote. They chose Granit Xhaka, a candidate with little credibility with outsiders. It compounded Arsenal’s problems.

The parallels with Emery are all too obvious. Arsenal’s crisis of leadership seems destined to persist as long as the Spaniard is at the helm. They have made their worst start to a top-flight season since 1982, with just two points from four league games and no wins in five in all competitions. They lost a lead in four of those five matches, and failed to take one in the other, Saturday’s 2-0 defeat at Leicester City. They have conceded 54 shots on their goal in their last three league games and their goalkeeper, Bernd Leno, has had to make the most saves in the division.

If none individually constitutes automatic grounds for dismissal, the overall picture is damningly bleak. Arsene Wenger left Arsenal with them 12 points off the top four after 38 games. Emery’s side are eight adrift of the Champions League places after just 12 matches. They are stuck in reverse when they ought to be accelerating. Newer appointments such as Leicester’s Brendan Rodgers and Chelsea’s Frank Lampard have forged finer units in less time whereas Emery’s excellent autumn of 2018 now looks a false dawn.

This time last year, Arsenal were in the midst of a 22-game unbeaten run. Emery was becoming known for early substitutions that transformed games. Fast forward 12 months and swift changes look evidence of initial mistakes. Tactical flexibility now seems cases of desperation, not inspiration. Emery feels a man casting around in search of solutions, one who does not know his own mind. If a faith in youth is admirable, is it really helpful when the only players hauled off at half time this season are Reiss Nelson, Bukayo Saka, Emile Smith Rowe, Joe Willock, Ainsley Maitland-Niles & Willock (again)? There are times when their selection seemed evidence of Emery’s difficult relationship with some senior players, an issue he has brought from Paris Saint-Germain to Arsenal.

He did not create the Mesut Ozil situation but it has been mishandled. The marginalisation of Lucas Torreira was a mistake. Injuries have hampered his cause, but Emery has not alighted on his best defence. Arsenal’s lack of organisation renders them even more fallible.

It hardly helps that, at centre-back and in the centre of midfield, Arsenal’s choices may compare unfavourably with each of their immediate rivals’ personnel, even before Emery sometimes plumps for the wrong options. He has been hampered by the composition of their squad but a lack of direction is highlighted by an inability to communicate. There are two types of misunderstood foreign managers in England: those whose English is not understood and those whose tactics are not. Emery definitely belongs in the former category. Increasingly, it feels as though he has a place in the latter as well.

Linguistic difficulties may offer easy opportunities for mockery and both sets of supporters taunted Emery with a chorus of “you’re getting sacked in the evening” on Saturday, but it is not a problem that is not confined to the stands and the press box. A few weeks ago, Robin van Persie, another of those who struggled to grasp Emery’s English, said his best managers brought a clarity to their message. He cited Arsene Wenger, Alex Ferguson and Louis van Gaal as examples.

Arsenal have felt as incoherent as Emery of late. A manager who has a host of ideas – too many, at times – has struggled to implement or explain them. The progressive elements of his regime, and Arsenal have plenty of players whose careers should be on an upward curve, can be overshadowed by confusion and underachievement. Perhaps it does not help that he replaced Wenger, whose eloquence and ideology underpinned many of his achievements but it is ever harder to identify precisely what Emery stands for, how he will win back those he has lost or how he will achieve anything. It renders him not just the wrong manager for a febrile fanbase, but for Arsenal.

Updated: November 13, 2019 04:22 AM

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