Over the past few months, many fans believed that our results were papering over the cracks at the club. Whilst the results are the main priority, individual brilliance can only get you so far. The system is disjointed. The line-up is missing many key players. There is no playstyle. These issues have come even more to the forefront over the past week, as we came out as narrow winners vs a mediocre Vitoria side in between a defeat vs newly-promoted Sheffield United and a 2-2 draw at home to Crystal Palace. It seems like we’re asking the same question every week at this point, but where do we go from here?
Firstly, it is essential that we identify our strongest system. Every top side has one. Manchester City, Liverpool, etc. Having a secondary system is by no means a criticism, as some sides require a different approach to others. However, it has to be just that. A secondary system. At Arsenal, it would appear that nobody is fully aware of what our strongest system is. Over the past 25 games, we’ve seen Emery experiment with various formations. Sometimes it has four defenders, at others it has five. Sometimes we play with two up top, at others Aubameyang is shifted to the wing in order to accommodate Lacazette. Sometimes we play with a traditional number ten behind the striker/strikers, at others we don’t, as seen yesterday vs Crystal Palace. Regardless of how many systems we attempt to utilise, the outcome tends to be the same. Defensive frailties, disjointed football and sub-par results. For me, the first step in turning things around has to be finding a system which suits the personnel and gets the best out of as many players as possible. This will allow the players involved to gain a clearer idea of what the coach wants from them, rather than having to adapt to new demands on a weekly basis.
The second point is somewhat related to the first, and that is fielding the best starting eleven available to us. You probably think that I’m going to insist that Mesut Özil plays, but the issue runs much deeper than that. Whilst I believe that the German should be getting more minutes, there are many others who are being under-utilised. A prime example is Lucas Torreira. The Uruguayan was one of our best performers last season, yet he is being used sparingly so far this campaign. Has Granit Xhaka been performing to such a high standard that Lucas doesn’t even deserve a sniff? I’m afraid not. Even when he has featured, he has been played in a position which he isn’t accustomed to and, understandably, his performance level has dropped in accordance. He is a defensive midfielder. Not a box-to-box player. Not a creative midfielder. A defensive midfielder. His job is to win the ball back for his side and then supply those with the capabilities to unlock opposition defences. Over the past three seasons, he has been one of the standout performers in Europe’s top five leagues regarding defensive statistics. I don’t think anyone, even Lucas himself, is fully sure as to why Unai has seemingly changed his role in the side, but I hope that our recent form will act as a wake-up call regarding the situation.
Regarding line-up issues, there are also clear problems in defence. Against Palace, we were lucky enough to see Kieran Tierney make his Premier League debut which is a step in the right direction. However, there are still some glaring selection issues. Rob Holding has been back in full training for almost two months now, yet we haven’t seen him feature domestically. Whilst I am fully aware that we have to be cautious of not rushing them back, there is a middle ground. Rob has seemingly been deemed fit enough to play one game per week for now, so I would much rather see him feature in our league fixtures than in dead rubbers against Vitoria. Our defence has been shaky to say the least so far this season, and the Englishman was arguably our most reliable defender last season, prior to his season.
Regarding Héctor Bellerín’s reintroduction, I am willing to be more patient. While I am eagerly anticipating his return to the side, it’s important to remember that his injury did occur approximately one month after Holding’s at Old Trafford. He is roughly a month behind Rob in terms of his recovery, so he perhaps needs another week or two of playing against the so-called lesser sides before being thrown back into the Premier League XI. However, when he is introduced, I would like to see Calum Chambers given a chance to prove himself alongside Rob Holding in central defence. He has been one of our better defenders this season, despite being constantly played out of his natural position. He has performed well at right-back, but his physique and playstyle is much more suited to a central role. Our current centre-backs, David Luiz and Sokratis Papastathopoulos, have had inconsistent seasons thus far. If I was in charge, I would give Chambers an opportunity to prove himself centrally once Bellerín returns to the side. Calum was Fulham’s standout performer last season whilst playing numerous games in central defence. The current set-up isn’t working, so why not give him a chance?
Thirdly, the captaincy needs to be addressed. Granit Xhaka’s reaction to being substituted yesterday has made the headlines, to put it mildly. Upon the announcement that the Swiss captain was being withdrawn, many fans responded with jeers and boos. Granit responded by walking off the pitch, verbally responding to the fans, cupping his ear, taking off his Arsenal shirt and disappearing down the tunnel. It really is an ugly situation for all involved. I am not defending Xhaka’s antics, but as a fanbase, we have to be better. Do I think Xhaka should be in the starting eleven every week? No, I don’t. However, to boo one of your own players reflects badly on the club collectively. Granit wasn’t particularly poor yesterday, and even set up the opener. Regardless of his performance, there are enough problems at the club without fans and players conflicting. Héctor Bellerín posted a message on Instagram stating that ‘we are all humans, we all have emotions, and sometimes it’s not easy dealing with them. It’s time to lift each other up, not push each other away. We only win when we are together’. This sums everything up quite nicely. Nonetheless, I think that the captaincy should probably be addressed as a result of this incident. Regardless of who was it wasn’t in the wrong, things could get quite toxic if the captaincy remains with the Swiss international. Unai Emery was reluctant to reveal information about the situation post-game, but I think that the captain has to be a player who represents both the fans and the players. Whilst I feel like Xhaka is often used as a scapegoat, and receives a huge amount of personal abuse which he doesn’t deserve, it would appear that he doesn’t fit the bill anymore. Perhaps a change of who wears the armband would benefit all involved.
Regarding Unai Emery’s position, his days are potentially numbered. Over the past fifteen months, poor performances have often been bypassed by fans because the results have been impressive. However, when the results also deteriorate, then what do you have? The side looks just as poor, if not worse, than when he took over. We also have just 6 wins from our last 17 Premier League games. Obviously, this isn’t entirely down to the Spaniard, but he is undeniably a contributing factor. There have been whispers about Freddie Ljungberg being a potential successor, and José Mourinho was in attendance at our Europa League game against Vitoria, so there could be some interesting developments in the coming months. Nonetheless, one thing is for certain, if things don’t significantly improve, bother regarding performances and results, the pressure will continue to pile up on our head coach. It remains to be seen how he will respond to the criticism.
Even though we find ourselves in fifth place, it’s fair to say that this season simply has not been good enough. There is still a long way to go, and hopefully we can turn it around, but things are incredibly toxic at the club right now. I believe that some of the issues that I’ve addressed in this article could have a positive impact, but time will tell. Let’s hope that we can turn things around and turn the 2019/20 campaign into a successful one.