Unai Emery is pleading patience but after seeing his side succumb to a third consecutive Premier League defeat in their 3-0 reverse at Leicester on Sunday, he must know the need for change at Arsenal is now urgent.
When Unai Emery was asked to change things at Arsenal, being passed off the park by Leicester City was not part of the plan. The Gunners recorded their lowest possession stats in a Premier League game since Opta began collecting such data and it wasn’t just because Ainsley Maitland-Niles was sent off. Arsenal had even less of the ball before that.
The bigger concern, of course, is that they also happened to lose the game 3-0. A third consecutive league defeat for the first time under Emery and a third consecutive league defeat in which Arsenal have conceded three goals – the first time that’s happened since 1966. It was 3-2 against Crystal Palace, 3-1 at Wolves and now this. They are getting worse.
Highlights from Leicester’s 3-0 win against Arsenal in the Premier League
The last time that Arsenal lost three Premier League games in a row was in March of last year and the last one of those defeats resulted in supporters urging Arsene Wenger to go. They got their wish the following month but any anger at his successor is undercut by the feeling that few would do much better than this with what is currently available.
Emery is trying to find different solutions. After being punished on the counter-attack against Palace and Wolves, it appeared a conscious decision to surrender some of the ball at Leicester in the hope of robbing Jamie Vardy of his greatest weapon. It might have worked, but while Emery clearly felt the referee undermined his efforts, his own players are part of the problem.
Arsenal had opportunities on the break through the pace of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette but, when Alex Iwobi was put through, he could only shoot tamely at Kasper Schmeichel. Little surprise there. The plan might have had some merit but the players were not able to execute it. Even less surprise there.
Two transfer windows have come and gone but Emery still has so much to do in overhauling this squad. He was hired as a coach with a proven ability to make do and mend, to maximising the resources, but it is increasingly apparent that he is going to need some help in the market.
The immediate problem for Emery and Arsenal is that, if they are going to get the funds to change it, then they will need the Champions League money. There is a home game against Brighton to come and a win there would take them to 69 points going into a final day fixture away to Burnley. Given Arsenal’s away form, they will have to hope 69 will be enough.
Arsenal’s away problems
An unconvincing win over 10-man Watford earlier this month proved a false dawn. Arsenal’s only other win in their last dozen Premier League away games was at Huddersfield. While they rank third for home form this season, they are down in tenth on their travels.
Otherwise their Champions League prospects will hinge on finding a way past Valencia in the Europa League semi-final and securing qualification by lifting the trophy in Baku next month.
A look at the bench against Leicester further emphasises the problem. Emery had four players under the age of 21 and a couple who have already turned 33. There is a shortage of top-class talent in the right age bracket. He does not have enough players he can build things around.
Arsenal’s possession low
The Gunners had just 32.8 per cent of possession in their 3-0 defeat at Leicester. The previous low since Opta began collecting records was the 35.3 per cent of the ball that they had in their 2-0 away victory over Manchester City in January 2015.
Petr Cech is retiring and many Arsenal fans would welcome 35-year-old Stephan Lichtsteiner departing with him. Nacho Monreal and Laurent Koscielny are fan favourites but both are 33. Sokratis Papastathopoulos, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Mesut Ozil are all the wrong side of 30 and even the impressive Aubameyang will be joining them in the summer.
At the other end of the spectrum, Maitland-Niles, harshly red carded at the King Power Stadium, has progressed this season. Reiss Nelson will return a better player too. There is justifiable excitement about the prospect of Lucas Torreira and Matteo Guendouzi developing into a high-quality midfield partnership but it will inevitably take time.
There are players within this squad who should be at the peak of their powers, but there are reservations about most of them. Are Granit Xhaka and Mohamed Elneny really good enough to construct a midfield around? Hector Bellerin is recovering from serious injury, while Shkodran Mustafi continues to play like the junior centre-back. He is 27.
“I had Mustafi in Valencia for three or four months,” said Gary Neville, in the studio for Sky Sports. “He’s committed, he’s really good in the air but he needs someone alongside him to pull him into position and hold him there because he does like to wander into midfield.
“He does like to make movements that you wouldn’t normally see. You think of a back four staying in shape and making sure you don’t become disconnected. He does like to run into midfield.
“What that then does is that for someone like his partner or the full-backs, they have to adjust their position quickly, and that almost quickens up the attack and allows spaces for opponents to run into. It’s a real problem. At the moment, he doesn’t have that strong partner alongside him.
He needs someone alongside him to pull him into position and hold him there because he does like to wander into midfield. At the moment, he doesn’t have that strong partner alongside him.
Gary Neville on Shkodran Mustafi
“He had Nicolas Otamendi the season before I got there and did really well with him. The year after that Otamendi went to City and he had a different partner and it was really difficult for him. If Arsenal are going to play him then they need a strong partner alongside him.”
But, as Graeme Souness noted, how long can Arsenal wait? “He is getting to the age where he is beyond help,” added Souness. “It’s OK saying that he needs someone by him to guide him, not at that age. If he doesn’t get it now, he will never get it.”
Buying players in that peak-age bracket is about as expensive as it gets and the quality that Arsenal really need to take them forwards is likely to be beyond them. The only strategy that makes sense is a long-term one – coaching these youngsters to improve and supplementing the squad with other top prospects who can develop in time.
Delivering results while overseeing that kind of overhaul is some challenge. No wonder Emery is pleading for time. “We want to get with this club to the point where we are the best club in England and the world,” he said on the eve of the Leicester game. “But it is a long process. Sometimes, like today, we need to talk about patience.”
It’s a lofty target and Emery is entitled to expect that patience. But Arsenal supporters are allowed to ask for a few more signs of progress than they are seeing at the moment.
Unai Emery’s view
“I don’t agree with the decision because for me the key is the first yellow card and it’s very clear it was not,” Emery told Sky Sports. “For us it’s not a good decision. It did change it a lot to play with one player less because we prepared with our game-plan to be strong defensively, but with the red card the plan changed.”
Unai Emery felt Maitland-Niles’ sending off was a harsh decision
On the subject of what happens next for his team, he added: “We are thinking in the present and the next match is Valencia, then we think about Brighton and winning. At the beginning of the season, during the season and now, we know we have possibility in the Europa League and in the Premier League. We will play Brighton at home and try to win.”
Alex Scott’s view
“When you look at Arsenal’s defending, one is dropping, the other is holding,” the former Arsenal defender told Sky Sports at half time. “They are all over the place. Arsenal are playing a 4-4-2. At some point you have to press Leicester and they are not.”
Speaking before the game, Scott had praised Emery’s efforts in keeping Arsenal in the race for the top four given the resources at his disposal. She pointed to the recent form of centre-backs Mustafi and Sokratis as a source of concern.
“If you look at their last performances, there have been individual mistakes from these and that’s been a repeat pattern,” said Scott. “They are working as individuals instead of working as a partnership because the tinkering has been there and the injuries that Arsenal have had.
Thanks for reading.
Adapted from skysports.