It isn’t rare for a new manager to face some heat in his (or, hopefully one day, her) tenure with a team but, often, at larger clubs it only manifests itself if the team is truly bad. Arsenal, expected to be in a fight for fourth place, is roughly where many predicted. So Unai Emery likely sees himself as fairly safe from an early departure. Still, the current stretch following a spectacular win in the North London Derby, one that has seen only 8 points out of 15 earned in the League, surely has put a little heat on.
There have been easy to spot reasons for it. The team is horribly diminished due to injuries that just keep mounting, leaving them threadbare at defense and lacking attacking wingers. But it could be countered that a refusal to fully rotate has exhausted the side to the point of injury and the options on wing were pretty limited to begin with.
More crucially, despite a lovely unbeaten run, Arsenal rarely seemed to put down enough solid games to warrant a great hope for this team’s revival. The team has been mediocre to poor often and only the continued brilliance of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s scoring touch and the Granit Xhaka - Lucas Torreira midfield has kept things from slipping sooner. Brief moments of team cohesiveness and individual efforts have given Arsenal a shout. The latest dip in form suggests strongly that the team needs more.
Furthermore, brewing troubles between the management group and star Mesut Özil and the utter clownshoes behaviour around the Aaron Ramsey contract have all the signs that Arsenal are prepared to lose two of their biggest players. Emery isn’t playing them either. What should be a position of strength for the team is being gutted before season’s end, leaving the club with a tougher task to qualify for the Champions League and, largely, it is a problem of their own making.
Which is why the upcoming Winter Transfer Window is so crucial to the Unai Emery reign. It feels foolish to say this as these windows are rarely known for landing bigger names or many new players. Nor does Emery have the same autonomy to buy and sell as he pleases, working largely through Sven Mislintat and company to get players in. But he will have a big say and that will give a strong suggestion as to what Emery’s plans are for Arsenal.
To date, there has been a pretty solid group that are starters for Emery, but bizarre substitutions and player usage have raised some questions about what this Arsenal team is supposed to be. Yesterday’s game against Brighton & Hove Albion would be a disappointment at any point, but to see Arsenal take shape that has Torreira playing in a more forward attacking role should set off alarm bells, given he was playing ahead of the more creative Xhaka and more energetic Matteo Guendouzi, while the natural choice, Özil, was taken off. What Emery is telling this team to be remains inconsistent and confusing to many. (Even some players.)
There is also the issue of Arsenal being old. The Brighton match featured a defensive line up that had three players over 30, leaving only Sead Kolasinac as the youth legs at 25 years old. Again, this is largely due to injury, but when only 5 players under 25 have appeared in more than 10 League games, it becomes clear that this is a mature team. Which would be fine for a contender. Arsenal clearly are not and questions of their ability to finish in the top four are real and worrisome. What Emery looks to add now becomes crucial to what this team is.
Obviously, bolstering team defense is critical. The losses of Shkodran Mustafi, Hector Bellerin, Rob Holding, Nacho Monreal have left them desperately thin, thankfully getting back the services of Laurent Koscielny and Ainsley Maitland Niles just in time. Sokratis has been solid but Stephan Lichtsteiner has surely seen the game pass him by. A new fresh face that can step in is needed. But at the same time, it is a big group when health returns. Whether the team buys young to toss to sink or swim or a short term veteran is a key decision.
Likewise, the loss of Henrik Mkhitaryan has left Emery with fewer choices for natural wingers. The natural solution is playing Alex Lacazette and Aubameyang together more with a central midfielder or two, but Emery has been unwilling to commit to that system as a starting option. Furthermore, the reduction in play for Özil and Ramsey and injury to Danny Welbeck, leaves only Alex Iwobi or a handful of youth. This again is a major question point with a lot of names, injuries and potential departures to make up a cohesive and functioning squad. Can Arsenal find the right player to help them along?
The question of finances is always an issue for Arsenal. Despite being one of the richer clubs, they’ve already committed a lot of money to past transfers and current wages. The likelihood of a landing a big name, such that we’re like to see Chelsea or the Manchesters will, is small. This would hopefully push the club to buying young. In need of bright young stars to fill the ranks of seasons to come, much in the vein of Torreira, would be a boon.
However, that’s not quite meshing with the reports that Emery and company are actively chasing signatures of the likes of Gary Cahill or Ever Banega. Two accomplished but already peaked players, capable of shoring up a squad with youthful talent but largely just making an old team older.
Which is where Arsenal seem to stand. Two stars wanting out, team old and falling behind in the race for the top four. Adding a player or two who aims to feature prominently for Arsenal for seasons to come should be considered a must. This team lacks any real sign they have many players going forward to build upon. One doesn’t do that with 30 year old players anymore.
It could very well be that a Banega or Cahill will solidify the team to keep them afloat in the League and Europa competitions. But neither moves the needle on what sort of team Emery wants Arsenal to be. They are short term solutions to a long term problem. Should ready made vets be added, Arsenal will be a team treading water and shedding dollars. To move forward, they need to be rejuvenated and quickly; any financial advantage they currently have over any competitive Premier League team will evaporate quickly without the Champions League money to back them up.
Whether Emery can do that in the January window is the question. If not, then Arsenal likely don’t finish any better than last year which will really put him on the hot seat.