Following on from a cobbled together team succumbing at Southampton (as per the annual tradition) and a hard fought victory over a particularly unpleasant Burnley team, the growing feeling that the Arsenal squad was running out of momentum was proven against Brighton and Liverpool.
The cracks have been visible for anyone who cares to look for most of this season, and as injuries have kicked in and the fixtures have piled up, they have widened to the levels on show during the last year of Arsene Wenger’s reign.
For the first 3 months of this season, the lack of high-end quality and recent incoherent squad building was largely covered for by expending more energy than our opponents and the impact of a manager with a penchant for tactical substitutions more nuanced than the Alamo.
However, the fact that the first 20 league games of the Emery era have only yielded one half-time lead, always made the giddy 22-match unbeaten run seem like one more likely to end imminently than continue into the distance.
As the weekly energy levels have inevitably dropped off, the fault lines have widened as much as the gaps in the defence, and have given clear indication of how much work the new head coach and supporting set-up have to do in order to return this club to the previously maligned status of Champions League regulars.
We now have our worst defensive record of any season at this point in the Premier League era. 28 goals conceded in 20 games.
Of course, our defensive record has fallen off a cliff since Bellerin, Holding and Monreal all picked up injuries, but the nature of the goals conceded suggested that personnel issues are being compounded by ongoing systemic ones.
Equally, going forward we alternate between looking swift, penetrative and efficient and reverting back to the worst elements of latter-day Wengerball, with sideways passing and wastefulness the order of the day.
In both cases, it is clear that the manager’s pursuit of tactical flexibility has been magnified by not finding a system that allows this squad and his broader philosophy to successfully co-exist.
There have been encouraging signs when all personnel have been fit and firing, but even so, this has not been characterised by a consistency of selection, system or performance.
What has become clear, and was probably inevitable, is that not all of Wenger’s departing squad will fit into whatever Emeryball turns out to be, much as, frankly, it didn’t really suit Wengerball by the end.
With this in mind, and with half the season gone, let’s have a look at where things stand.
1The case for the defence
Quite where we are with trying to implement something more cohesive in our back line is proving difficult to judge given the personnel currently on display. Certainly, earlier in the season we saw improvements from Bellerin and Holding, and despite remaining unconvincing in his own end, Kolasinac‘s recent form at wing back is light years from what we saw in September. It remains too early to say whether this is improved coaching or natural development in younger players, but what is clear is that our older defenders have not benefitted in the same way.
Koscielny has, inevitably, looked rusty as hell since his early return from 7 months out, and Nacho has been decent when fully fit, though this is becoming less frequent, so the jury must remain out on their short-medium term future. Either way, expecting either to play three times a week at this stage is a little unrealistic. Accordingly, neither are likely to be around by the time Arsenal are in a position to challenge for major honours again and we need to start looking at long-term replacements sooner as opposed to later.
Elsewhere, Sokratis has proved largely as expected. A proactive, aggressive defender with a decent turn of pace and a strong character, but one unlikely to nail down a long-term place as first choice when all parties are fully fit. Given the fee paid, we can have no real complaints, and with the injuries we’ve had, things would be a lot uglier without him.
Much the same can be said about Leno when measuring him against expectations.
The German’s greater comfort with the ball at his feet and his superior agility give him a partial edge over Petr Cech, though he has much to do to match the older man’s positioning and strength on crosses.
Certainly, the errors that have been part of Leno’s game in recent seasons have exhibited themselves of late, and while he represents the future rather more than Cech, he feels at this stage a ‘between’ keeper rather than continuing the Arsenal tradition of excellent number ones. That said, at this stage, he’s good enough for where we are, and there is no doubt that his comfort with the ball at his feet matches Emery’s vision rather more. Perhaps the improvements in goalkeeping coaching at the club can iron out some of those errors.
From this point on, however, things start going a bit pear-shaped when talking about the defence.
Despite adding some very welcome and overdue shit-housery, it’s easy to see why Juventus let Lichtsteiner go despite being a warrior for them. He’s still competent going forward against lower division or Europa League opponents, but despite a pleasingly old-school attitude, he looks shot against the pace and movement of any good attacking Premier League sides. In terms of mentality, he’s brought much of what we want, but it’s hard to see his stay in North London extending beyond a one-year cameo. He is this team’s Mikeal Silvestre.
Mustafi has remained a source of frustration, due to his complete lack of consistency. At times, we have seen the player Arsene Wenger must have hoped he was spending £30m+ on, but all too often he has Gus Caesar moments in the middle of otherwise good performances. And, of course, occasionally he has had a bad day from start to finish. We’ll know more about everyone by the summer, but early signs suggest that Mustafi remains as immune to the efforts of Emery’s coaching staff as he was to Wenger’s. Unless he suddenly starts taking unexpected leaps forwards between now and May, the club has to look at other options as part of its long-term planning.
Remarkably, Carl Jenkinson remains part of the conversation, but bar the odd vaguely encouraging Europa League appearance, it’s clear that this life-long Gooner’s Arsenal career is over as soon as mutual contractual commitments conclude.
Lastly, we have on-loan Calum Chambers. Following a promising pre-season and positive comments from Unai Emery, he was surprisingly sent to Fulham, where he was caught up in the malaise of The Cottagers defensive chaos, and looked out of his depth at the lower level.
Recent weeks, however, have seen him transformed into a holding midfielder, where his impact on the team has been much more positive. Quite what this means for his Arsenal future remains uncertain, but he looks no nearer a starting berth in North London at this point in time.
Perhaps holding midfield may present a better opportunity for him, looking at the deeper double pivot system preferred by the manager…