all enquiries to:

Monday 22 April 2019

Unai Emery, linguistically challenged masterful tactician, or the Basque Barry Fry?

One of Manuel's weaker menus
          I’ve done my utmost to avoid reaching any definitive conclusions on Unai Emery’s management before now, preferring to allow him as much time as possible to put his imprint on our squad and to ensure that I’m not party to the premature rush to judgement of those irritating, customarily fickle, usual Gooner suspects.

          It’s going to be an interesting summer, since it seems to me that we at least need to wait until the beginning of next season, both to see how Unai addresses the blatantly obvious deficiencies within our existing line-up and before we can start apportioning blame, because not until then will this truly begin to be Emery’s Arsenal, as he starts to have his opportunity to mould a squad in his image.

          Nevertheless, hard as I try to remain patient, Unai’s seemingly naïve inability to appreciate the significance of fielding our strongest XI against Palace on Sunday afternoon, only raises further concerns about his overall competence. It’s been suggested that he’s too obsessed with repeating his Europa Cup success and maintaining his impressive record on the European stage (albeit the far less glamorous B-stage!). Could it really be the case that Sunday’s weakened team selection was dictated by our management team’s focus on achieving optimum fitness levels come the 2nd May semi-final encounter with Valencia?

          For all the high-tech statistical models designed to predict footballers’ red lines (and how to avoid crossing them!), in my humble opinion, there is nothing more important than maintaining a winning run and building the sort of psychological momentum that will invariably trump any such data-based evidence. No matter the line-ups Emery selects between now and the semi-final, surely there’d be no question of fatigue and energy levels would be a whole lot higher, on the back of a succession of confidence building victories.

          If the Gunners end up appearing at all “leggy” against Wolves at Molyneux on Wednesday, it won’t be because of insufficient squad rotation, it will bloomin’ well be because we lost against Palace. Surely Unai and his management team (since our new gaffer always speaks in the third person “we”, instead of “I”, I am assuming there must be collective responsibility in his management by committee model?) should have learned by now that while one might well get away with it when playing against the lesser lights on the Continent, selecting a weakened side in the Premiership is an open invitation to have one’s pants pulled down for an ignominious spanking!

          Frankly, we got away with it last Monday night and were extremely fortunate to come away from Vicarage Road with all three points. Yet while one’s luck might hold over the course of ninety minutes, the marathon league campaign is designed to sift the chancer whey, from the genuinely talented chaff. 

          My Spurs mates have spent much of the time since their euphoric Champions League triumph, fretting about the likelihood of there being insufficient fuel left in the good fortune tank, for a nail-biting, neck and neck race down the Premiership home straight. Their considerable anxiety was highly amusing (and perhaps not unsurprising for supporters of a club whose most memorable performance in their modern history happened to be a 4-3 defeat :-) and I was able to enjoy of few token crumbs of comfort, knowing that we at least had Spurs worried.

Mavro giving it all he's got
          For all the constant banter, in more honest moments I found myself reassuring my closest Spurs pal that in the Gunners current guise (the depressing workaday form seen at Watford) we didn’t have a hope of producing the level of focus and intensity necessary to churn out consistent wins in the last few games. But I meant that I didn’t think this team looks capable of banking nine points from the remaining three away trips to Wolves, Leicester and Burnley. I certainly wasn’t expecting to be so promptly proved right, by Sunday’s soporific home display against Palace.

          By Unai fielding anything other than our strongest XI against the Eagles, such disrespect not only presented Roy Hodgson with a motivational gift, but this also sent out entirely the wrong signal to our own squad ie. that we didn’t really need to be at 100% to beat Palace. Heaven only knows how we’ve managed to achieve such miraculously consistent form at home, but I was hoping Man Utd’s drubbing at Goodison in the lunchtime KO might serve as a timely warning of the humiliating consequences, when any team fails to turn up, fully attuned to the commitment demanded in every Premiership encounter

          Sadly, I guess we ended up getting precisely what we deserved, since complacency was on the cards both on the pitch and in the stands. Apparently, it was hotter in Highbury than it was in Spain this past weekend and when I received a call five minutes before KO with the kind offer of a Club Level spare, Sunday afternoon was all going swimmingly. I was looking forward to spending ninety minutes in the glorious sunshine, soaking up some rays and enjoying both a tan and the satisfaction of ending the afternoon lording it over our North London neighbours.

          I adore my inconspicuous lower tier pitch at the Emirates, compared to the dirty looks when bellowing my head off in the sedentary environs of Club Level. Yet nowadays it’s far less exhausting being able to remain seated for ninety minutes, rather than suffering the physical toll of the constant up & down of a lower tier workout. However, seated on the halfway line, in the front row of Club, savouring the 24-degree heat in my shorts and t-shirt, I couldn’t possibly think of a better way to spend an Easter Sunday and much like our team and fifty odd thousand other Gooners, I sat back to savour a perfunctory three points.

Only one winner in a contest of "statues"
          Perhaps much like our defence, I was guilty of dozing in the sunshine and considering it had been more than a year since Benteke last found the back of the net, it simply didn’t compute when the Palace striker headed home. It felt as if the response to our guests taking the lead was largely indignation, both on the pitch and in the stands. Unfortunately, Palace had inconsiderately neglected to stick to Sunday afternoon’s script!

          As a committed Gooner, I adore Carl Jenkinson, but that doesn’t mean I’d allow someone who gives the impression of a fan who happened to turn up with his boots, anywhere near our first XI. The Corporal might’ve been to blame for playing Benteke onside, but apparently Mustafi, El Neny, Guendouzi (to name but three!) all need reminding of football’s most basic principle of playing to the whistle. Force of personality alone and all the hissy fits in the world are never going to change the course of things, when the ref fails to toot his tin whistle (are they still tin?) and little pisses me off more than the sight of an Arsenal player standing there whinging like a truculent teenager, whilst the game goes on about them.

          Mavropanos might well have lacked composure, terrified of a tricky Zaha making a monkey of him, but while the majority of his team mates were prodding the ball sideways and backwards in a far too leisurely fashion, our Greek centre-half was at least one of the few players in red & white who actually looked “up for it”. In view of Mustafi’s culpability in all three of Palace’s goals, with hindsight, we’d probably have been better off if Emery had left Mavropanos out there and instead hooked his German sidekick for the second-half.

          It invariably appears difficult to change gear, whenever the Gunners start a game in such a sluggish fashion, even with the half-time injection of youthful vigour from Iwobi and AMN. I’ve got nothing against El Neny. The Egyptian midfielder always puts in a shift whenever he gets a rare run out. But in a horrifying vision of our future, in Ramsey’s absence, the Gunners are devoid of dynamism and any forward impetus in the middle of the park.

          It made for seriously frustrating viewing, watching us attempt to thread the eye of a needle, through the massed ranks of the Palace defence across the width of the penalty box. Despite catching Foster asleep at Watford last Monday and his mazy second-half run for a superb goal on Sunday, this was pretty much the sum total of Auba’s contribution to 180 minutes of football. Who knows if PEA has already downed tools for the summer, but he’s definitely gone off the boil in recent weeks and we really can’t afford our Gabonese goal-poacher losing focus at this crucial stage in proceedings, if we’re to retain some hope of sneaking under the wire into 4th spot.

          I lost track of the number of times we were camped in the final third first-half, with Auba the sole target amongst all the yellow shirts in Palace’s box. My most frequent whinge about Özil is that with so much pace in our front pair, Mesut so often appears guilty of slowing the game down and gifting the opposition defence time to organise themselves. Yet when Mesut popped up in the penalty area, only two minutes into the second-half, I think that like most of our crowd, we were only slightly less surprised than the Palace keeper when Özil dinked him at his near post because we were all expecting the cut back. 

          Here’s hoping Sunday’s goal stimulates Mesut’s appetite because it feels as if our “assist king” all too often has an aversion to taking responsibility for putting the ball in the back of the net, which is bonkers when you see him do so with sort of “Coolhand Luke” composure that the likes of Iwobi would kill for!

Pained expression of incompetence writ large
          Sadly, the game was only back on script all too briefly, only so long as it took for Mustafi to make yet another brace of costly rickets. After he’d been mugged off by Zaha, forlornly and idiotically hoping for Leno to come out and rescue him, I sat there pondering quite how frequently during this one encounter we either suffered, or failed to capitalize for the want of some proper leadership.

          I’m embarrassed to admit that I actually missed Palace’s second goal, as I was distracted, focusing on something through my binoculars. I originally started bringing binoculars to away games because it’s impossible to work out what’s occurring at the other end of the pitch, when located behind one goal. But superstitious anorak that I am, I now have to bring them to every match and truth be told, as my eyesight deteriorates with my all-round increasing decrepitude, nowadays I often need them to decipher what’s going on over the opposite side of the pitch.

          However, I frequently find myself concentrating on something other than the ball and after having endured a decade or more, devoid of any real leadership out on the park, I spend most of my time peering through my binoculars, searching in vain for some evidence of communication between our players. As an experienced old lag, I thought Sokratis showed some sign of paternal promise as captaincy material, but then admittedly I was suggesting something similar about Mustafi, when he first rocked up!

Who's the Daddy? Sadly not Sead
          Most baffling to me is the apparent complete lack of communication when we’re defending set pieces. What I wouldn’t give for a goalie like Ederson, who dominates his penalty area with such assuredness. The crowd at the Etihad might not be the noisiest, but there aren’t many keepers who’s cry when they come for a ball is so authoritative that it can be heard on the effects mics on TV.

          They were enthusing n MOTD2 about the Liverpool players working out that Wijnaldum was being left unmarked at corners. Invariably the only time we see Arsenal players talking to one another during a game, it’s when one of them has made a blatant cock-up and is looking to blame one of his colleagues. The apparent lack of communication between the Gunners can’t be blamed on us having a team full of timid, introverted personalities. Therefore, I can’t help but question whether this failure to coax, or cajole one another is a reflection of their limited desire?

          Even standing on tiptoes, Lucas Torreira is probably only level with Scott Dann’s bellybutton, so where was the vocal defensive authority to ensure that the diminutive Argie wasn’t left marking the lanky Palace centre-half at the corner that resulted in us conceding a third? Moreover, as captain of the Arsenal I’d be screaming at a couple of our paciest players to go and stand on the halfway line in such instances. Not only would this have forced a couple of the Palace players to drop back, but when visiting opponents park the bus after taking the lead, a swift counter attack seems the most obvious source of scoring.

          If we had a demonstrative captain geeing the team up, we might not have started Sunday’s game in quite such a languid fashion, but after going a goal behind, I wanted to see a reaction, some evidence of vocal leadership from someone willing to take names and kick arses, thereby demonstrating a determination not to blow such a prime opportunity to put one over on our own increasingly noisy neighbours.

          I find myself being increasingly wound up by Unai’s post-match gibberish, wondering what it says about our new gaffer’s own commitment that he hasn’t made more of an effort to get to grips with the lingo. Doubtless I’m being hyper-critical and Emery could be talking in Vulcan so long as he’s talking about victories. Perhaps we should be grateful he’s no Steve McClaren, trying Spanish phrases with a cockney accent, but the problem with his continued use of limited cliché-speak in English is that it doesn’t exactly promote a perception of him as an astute managerial genius and for all we know, Unai might merely be the Basque Barry Fry?

          At the very minimum, I hoped that Emery’s enthusiasm would rub off on his charges, but while he’s been able to motivate the team for the odd encounter and there were a couple of players who put a shift in against Palace on Sunday, there was little evidence of the sort of intensity and urgency of a team that’s utterly desperate to secure Champions League qualification. If Emery is indeed fixated on achieving qualification via Europa Cup success, it is perhaps inevitable that his team put their Premiership efforts on the back burner, as a secondary objective?

          To my mind this would be a massive mistake. Aside from the fact that they rolled over Villareal (with Coquelin and Gabriel on the bench), I know nothing of Valencia, but my feeling is that the odds of us beating the Spanish side and then overcoming Chelsea (or Eintracht Frankfurt!) in a final in Baku are fairly similar to our chances of achieving a top four finish. But you simply can’t turn form on and off like a tap and to my mind, it’s a fool’s game to do anything other than to go all out to win every single game.

          With the cheapest flights to Baku a hefty 600 quid, it will be utterly outrageous for both sets of fans to have to schlep all the way to Azerbaijan, if it ends up being an Arsenal v Chelsea final. Emery’s stock will rise tenfold amongst the Gooner faithful, if his first full season in charge results in an immediate return to Europe’s top table. However should the Gunners fail to win the Europa League Final, Emery will find himself starting next season in some way into the red, should we find ourselves narrowly missing out on a top four finish solely for the want of putting out a full strength team against Palace and the three points Unai’s seemingly pissed up against the wall on Sunday!

email to: