Sunday’s game against Cardiff seemed like a movie version of my previous commentaries on Unai Emery’s Arsenal. While it is true that a coach must imprint his own style, sometimes it looks akin to cutting off your nose to spite your face.
Emery isn’t the first to do this. Pep Guardiola, in his first season, insisted on playing out from the back, despite errors from the likes of John Stones leading to goals by the opponents. He looks like a genius today (OK, the guy is a terrific coach, and he insists on playing his way), but Manchester City barely made it to the Champions League that year. Would Pep have lived to tell the tale, had they failed?
Just about every Arsenal fan, not to mention the pundits on NBCSN, sees that Petr Cech is like a fish out of water playing with his feet. Even his best ball distribution has come from throwing the ball out after a save. It made me wonder if Unai Emery was reluctant to bench the popular Cech before building up a case to do so.
I hope Emery is not so callous as to deliberately set up a player for failure. Even if Cech can eventually learn to play with his feet, the last place you want him doing so is in a game that matters. Put him in a pressure cooker press on the practice field, maybe have him pass the exam in something inconsequential like the Carabao Cup – not in a full-blooded Premier League game. Ben Foster said it best (paraphrasing) – why destroy a great keeper like Cech by asking him to play with his feet?
Moving on to Exhibit 2 – Granit Xhaka. Statistically, Xhaka comes out as a very accurate passer. As the saying goes, there are lies, damned lies, and statistics. When was the last time you can recall a Xhaka pass that sliced open a defense? On the other hand, right on cue, Xhaka makes a bad pass in our third of the field, and Cardiff equalize in a game that the Gunners had a stranglehold on up to that point. Even worse, it was just before the half.
Turning the case over to the defense – when was the last time you recall Xhaka making a meaningful tackle? Heck, let us simplify it, when do you recall him making a tackle — well, one that didn’t come with a card? To bookend his performance, Xhaka nearly cost us the win with a clumsy handball in extra time.
Emery seems to be getting a handle on the offensive end, finally playing Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubemayang together up front. There is still some sorting to do on the third spot, with Henrik Mkhitaryan and Mesut Ozil out-lukewarming each other (I think I just invented a new expression). Perhaps it’s time to give Alex Iwobi a spin – at least he will play a bit of defense in front of the fullbacks.
Lucas Torreira has turned in a sterling performance in each of his 20-minute cameos. I can’t see the most expensive summer acquisition for Arsenal languishing on the bench. Will Emery have the courage to start an overachieving Matteo Guendouzi ahead of a disastrous Granit Xhaka? Guendouzi, being young, will need to be substituted at about 65-70 minutes. This would reduce the risk of being down to 10 men in the last twenty Xhaka minutes.
In a post-Cardiff interview, Emery stated that he would persist with Cech, that Cech would (eventually) learn the system. Had Harry Arter scored on Cech’s error, the game may have had a very different outcome.
We earned the fewest points in 2018 on the road; we are not good enough to leave any points lying on the table. Besides, the pressure will only mount on Emery with every bad result. Will he allow himself the chance to succeed? This is why being right feels so wrong.