From the minute he was appointed manager, I’ve preached patience with Unai Emery. A new manager, especially one replacing a club legend like Arsene Wenger, needs time to install his philosophy, teach players his system, and settle in at the club. After today (and Arsenal’s play of late), that patience is starting to wear thin.
To get it out of the way, yes, the Gunners have been ravaged by injuries over the past month. Emery has had to juggle personnel, lineups, and formations so much he’s starting to garner interest from the circus. But you can’t chalk everything about the recent run of poor performances up to injuries. A good deal of the blame falls to Unai Emery’s in-match decisions.
Today’s match against Brighton & Hove Albion started off well. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang nearly scored two minutes in and did score in the 7th minute. Alexandre Lacazette deserves the lion’s share of credit for the goal. He blocked the attempted clearance, beat three men in the box, and found a wide open Aubameyang for the finish.
A note on the goal: the PGMOL said that Lacazette should have been flagged for offside when he blocked the clearance. He was in an offside position when the ball was played but did not make an attempt to get on the end of the initial service. After the defender collected the ball and attempted to clear it, Lacazette blocked. I was under the impression that at that point, a new phase of play had started. Apparently not. Either way, the goal counted.
Aubameyang had a chance to double the Arsenal lead a few minutes later. He got in behind the defense and was one-on-one with Matthew Ryan (Brighton’s keeper). He tried to slip the ball into the bottom left corner but Ryan made a strong save to keep it out. Aubameyang really should have finished the chance, and as it turned out, the Gunners needed him to have done so. To be fair to Unai Emery, he is not the one on the pitch failing to convert golden opportunities (don’t worry, my Emery criticism is coming soon).
Brighton equalized on a horror-show of a goal that had echoes of last-year’s Arsenal. The Seagulls played a long ball directly from a Gunners’ corner, and Stephan Lichtsteiner misjudged the flight of the ball and instead of heading it clear, flicked it on for Jurgen Locadia. Bernd Leno came tearing off his line but arrived way late and probably should have stayed back. Locadia easily slipped it in to tie the game.
To start the second half, Unai Emery took off Mesut Özil in favor of Alex Iwobi. Later in the half, Alexandre Lacazette made way for Aaron Ramsey, and finally, Laurent Koscielny came off for Ainsley Maitland-Niles. To me, those substitutions make very little sense, and I believe they had a significant, negative impact on Arsenal’s ability to win the game. And that’s entirely on Emery.
Mesut Özil, even when he’s having an off day (and for the record, I thought he was fine in the first half), is capable of creating a goal from seemingly nothing. He is the only Arsenal player who can do that. He is Arsenal’s only creative midfielder. The Gunners generated no attacking threat in the second half. Mesut Özil could have changed that.
Whatever the issue between Unai Emery and Mesut Özil is, be it his defensive workrate, his attitude, or something else, needs to be resolved. Fast. Whatever message Emery is trying to send Özil by not playing him clearly isn’t getting through. It’s time to try a different way of getting the point across because limiting his playtime is severely hamstringing Arsenal’s ability to score goals.
Bringing on Aaron Ramsey was a positive change but taking off Alexandre Lacazette was puzzling. Arsenal needed a goal. Why take off a scorer who plays in an advanced role for a midfielder more comfortable making runs from a deeper position? Why not take off one of the three defensive midfielders still on the pitch? Matteo Guendouzi was having an off game. Lucas Torreira was one yellow away from missing the Liverpool match (and there was some confusion in the media about whether he had actually received one - he did not). Either of them were better candidates to come off than Lacazette.
Of the three substitutions, I have the least issue with Maitland-Niles for Koscielny. Switching to a back three allowed both Maitland-Niles and Sead Kolasinac to push further up the pitch for a go-ahead goal, it just didn’t work out. There’s not much Unai Emery can do about that. My only gripe with the change is Stephan Lichtsteiner didn’t make way, but I’m willing to chalk it up to wanting to manage Koscielny’s injury return.
To play my own devil’s advocate, so far this season Emery’s unconventional substitutions have generally paid off. Arsenal have been a much better team in the second half, and the substitutes have had direct impacts on tying and winning goals. Maybe today was just a bad day at the office.
But Arsenal’s recent run of poor form is concerning. Since looking fantastic in the 4-2 win over Tottenham, the Gunners have taken 8 points from 15 on offer. Over that stretch they drew a Manchester United team that fired its manager two weeks later, lost to 16th place Southampton, and drew 13th place Brighton. They also labored to a 1-0 win over last place Huddersfield, needing an 83rd minute goal to secure the points.
The Gunners need help in the upcoming January window. The good news is it opens six days from now. The bad news is Arsenal are away to Liverpool in the interim.