10 issues from Arsenal’s first 10 league games
A growing number of supporters want Unai Emery gone, there is doubt over whether club captain Granit Xhaka can remain in the job and there are looming doubts over the future of key players such as Mesut Ozil and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
Meanwhile, on the pitch the Gunners have a mere 16 points from their first 10 league games meaning at their current trajectory they are on course to earn nine points fewer than they did in Emery’s first term.
Football.london assesses the key issues emerging from the first quarter of the league campaign below.
Arsenal has the structure for Emery to succeed…
Surrounding Arsenal’s head coach is a squad that may not be perfect but has been shrewdly assembled and shows no signs of any major holes in it.
Raul Sanllehi and the recruitment team performed wonders this summer on a tight budget, strengthening the areas that needed to be and adding a solid mixture of veteran leadership and intriguing young talent. Players that weren’t making the grade were shipped out, many for a far more sizeable return than Arsenal might otherwise have got.
Everton paid half of the eventual fee for Nicolas Pepe to sign Alex Iwobi. Arsenal found a taker for Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s onerous wages and made bold calls on the likes of Danny Welbeck and Nacho Monreal.
This is a significantly better squad than last season. For all that Emery is reliant on youth players to fill out his squad, there is a lot of quality and depth in key areas, especially central midfield.
A core of Granit Xhaka, Matteo Guendouzi, Lucas Torreira, Dani Ceballos, Ozil, and Joe Willock allows Emery to tailor his midfield to dominate all but the highest level of opponents, to set an identity for Arsenal.
It took a while to get there but the same is true in defense, where the easing of injuries has brought numbers, if not quality, to compete on multiple fronts. Arsenal has two good goalkeepers, several solid options at right-back and six potential center-backs as well as a promising young left-back in Kieran Tierney.
With so many of the ‘Big Six’ in crisis, this ought to be a season of significant improvement for Arsenal. The hierarchy could not have done much more to gift Emery a squad to make a success of the campaign.
…But his football is alienating fans
That means the harsh reality is Emery is simply not doing enough with what he has. Throughout the season his selections have been muddled, betraying a pragmatism that stands in stark contrast to how Arsenal supporters expect to see their team playing.
No game summed up the harsh realities of Emery’s approach quite like the 2-2 draw with Crystal Palace. Arsenal started on the front foot and played with verve and imagination in a 4-4-2 that became a 4-2-4 in the attack.
They might have had more than their two-goal lead but then came a careless penalty conceded on Wilfried Zaha and it felt like Emery and Arsenal could not help themselves. Their innate conservatism kicked in and, against a side that was prepared to go two-on-two against Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette, they found themselves defending for dear life.
The same is true in other competitions where Emery will take off a dominant Mesut Ozil with his side drawing 4-4 at Liverpool.
Moments like this have effectively cost him the fanbase. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that Emery might win supporters back but even an upswing in results might not be enough.
Those chants of “we’ve got our Arsenal back” from early last season feel like a lifetime ago but if Emery is able to get his side playing the same explosive, swaggering football they did early in the 2018/19 campaign then there might be hope for him yet.
The Mesut Ozil issue won’t go away
Certainly, if Emery wants to win back a significant section of the fanbase he could do worse than allow Ozil to build on the impressive performance he put in against Liverpool in the Carabao Cup when Arsenal face Wolverhampton Wanderers on Saturday.
And yet in the medium to long term, nothing will really change about Arsenal’s stance with regards to Ozil. He came in from the cold in the second half of last season but still, the club hierarchy wanted to sell him in the summer and they’ll look to sell him in January.
If they successfully shift his £350,000-a-week wages off their books that will constitute a saving of over £25million, money that can be invested in new players, better contracts for the likes of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette as well as balancing the books that were so blown apart by the decision to hand Ozil that wage.
In between now and January this issue will not go away when such firm lines have been drawn. Ozil says he is going nowhere and he has come to represent the white knight for Arsenal fans that want rid of Emery even though a change of coach would not change club policy on their No.10.
Leadership has emerged at the very top of the club again
This was apparent even before the season began. Josh Kroenke was engaging with fans in a way his father so rarely did, Sanllehi was manipulating the market with style and Edu was bouncing into his new job with delight.
There has been a deliberate attempt to reach out and engage with supporters across numerous platforms, whether that be media interviews, fan fora or the more old-fashioned approach of pressing the flesh.
It has paid dividends. Sanllehi can scarcely attend a game now without being mobbed by his adoring public. Edu can delay Arsenal’s travel plans as he greets supporters on the road.
At a time when there is so much turbulence on the pitch, it matters greatly that the hierarchy shows they are listening to and engaging with supporters.
The best defense still isn’t playing
Even as he works his way back to full fitness it is clear that Bellerin has athletic abilities that make him a vastly superior option at right-back to Calum Chambers or Ainsley Maitland-Niles.
Kieran Tierney looked a better option than Sead Kolasinac at the other flank in his debut and has only built from there. Rob Holding has scarcely put a foot wrong. Between them, they have started one Premier League game.
Emery was right to ease the trio back from their injuries but his refusal to utilize them is growing increasingly perverse when David Luiz, Kolasinac and the rest of the backline are making such basic errors.
Arsenal’s young core can compete at the highest level
This was always going to be a season where youngsters were given a greater chance under Emery and for the most part, they have not disappointed.
Bukayo Saka has shown maturity and poise beyond his 18 years and stepped into the team impressively after Alexandre Lacazette’s injury. In a squad where too many players seem terrified of what might happen if they make a mistake, he is fearless, continually trying to force his opponents into mistakes through direct running and incisive passing.
Gabriel Martinelli looks to be a pure striker with that most vital of skills, an instinct for where the ball might land in the box.
Reiss Nelson and Joe Willock might not have been as consistently impressive but in flashes have proven they have the quality for a long-term future at Arsenal. Meanwhile at Saint-Etienne William Saliba’s footballing education is continuing impressively before he joins up with the Gunners next summer.
Then there is Matteo Guendouzi, one of the best young midfielders in the world and a cornerstone of this side at just 20 years of age. On more than one occasion this season he has swung games by the force of his own personality and quality whilst the clumsy errors of his first season in English football have largely been eradicated.
If Arsenal can keep hold of him and the rest of their bright young things then in three or four years’ time, perhaps sooner, they will have the core of an outstanding squad indeed.
No Auba, no party
In the most simplistic terms if you remove Aubameyang’s goals from the equation this season and Arsenal have nine fewer points than their current tally of 16. They are not fighting for fourth so much as scrapping away in the 19th.
Of course, it is not as if Arsenal would not have had a different striker on the pitch scoring goals for them but they would have struggled to find anyone better. Without Aubameyang the Gunners would surely be lurking in mid-table with Tottenham and Manchester United at best.
Without him, they are not an attacking force to be feared. In the last three league games, Aubameyang has looked off the boil. Arsenal has scored three goals. Not one of them has been from open play.
Arsenal have the wrong captain picked in the wrong fashion
Being Arsenal captain matters a great deal to Xhaka, a widely-admired figure in the dressing room who invariably sets an example off the pitch his team-mates would do well to follow. But Emery was wrong to hand the decision to appoint the skipper to his squad and in doing so bound himself in an awkward position.
Strip the captaincy from Xhaka after Sunday’s events and he threatens to damage what unity there is in the squad. If he does nothing, however, he is effectively saying that swearing at and goading supporters come with no consequences.
The harsh reality is there is a simpler reason why Xhaka should not be Arsenal captain. He is not a good enough player to get into Emery’s midfield ahead of Torreira, Guendouzi, Ceballos, and Ozil.
More contract crises loom
As the gap between Arsenal and the top four widens so do the chances of signing up Aubameyang and Lacazette diminish. That is the simple reality of having two elite forwards and not being able to offer them the competitions their quality merits.
Arsenal is still of the view that the strike duo wants a reason to stay and are keenly negotiating extensions for them. They are prepared to offer them decent wage rises in addition to lucrative bonuses to get them back into the Champions League. But both Aubameyang, 30, and Lacazette, 28, know that their years among the top tier of European strikers are not as numerous as they once were, hence the slow progress made in these talks over recent weeks.
Sanllehi has publicly insisted that players in the final two years of their contract will be sold while their value is at its greatest. Whilst that is not the case for veteran players we are yet to see how he would react if a player like Aubameyang, in his late peak, has not signed a new deal going into his final years.
It is one thing to be decisive over Aaron Ramsey when your midfield is relatively strong, another to cash in on Aubameyang after two talismanic years in north London.
Lacazette has been on Barcelona’s radar for some time and has also of interest to Atletico Madrid for several years. For the former, he could represent a replacement for or alternative to Luis Suarez. How could he reject such an opportunity if Arsenal is not in the Champions League?
Both players have kept their counsel since the early weeks of the season, avoiding awkward conversations with the press that will only add further fuel to the fire. But if the Gunners can not tie down Lacazette or Aubameyang those conversations are coming anyway.
It’s just not fun anymore
Whether you’re a match-going fan or a supporter who wakes up at the crack of dawn to see his team in action I have a question for you. Do you still enjoy it as much as you used to?
This isn’t just the football or the failure to win trophies.
There is something deeper to the feeling around Arsenal which simply makes it a dispiriting environment to be in. Social media is dominated by toxicity and division to such an extent that there are supporters who seem to genuinely want Jose Mourinho as their next manager.
That is their prerogative but it does not suggest a club at ease with itself and its identity. The values associated with Arsenal – victory through harmony, doing things the right way – seem to count for even less on a daily basis.
That was typified by the Xhaka incident, a moment that left the club, its supporters, its players and those of us privileged to cover it as dispirited as ever before. No-one came out of last Sunday’s game with even an iota of credit, all that was up for debate was who had let down Arsenal the most.
A united football club is a joyous thing. To see Liverpool twice on their home patch this season was to give Arsenal something to aspire to, the ‘Holy Trinity’ that Pep Lijnders described of staff, players and fans all pulling in one direction.
That could scarcely seem further away for Arsenal. No player seems safe from fan fury, even Aubameyang. Of course, supporters want more and so they should – this is Arsenal after all.
They do not have a manager to unite them nor a squad who can consistently reward their faith. It is easy to lose your trust and grow cynical. But it has certainly made for an increasingly harsh environment around Arsenal that simply makes this brilliant club a far less enjoyable place than it can be.