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The morning after the day before

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Who are we supposed to get angry at?

Watford FC v Arsenal FC - Premier League Photo by Marc Atkins/Getty Images

We all saw it, so there’s no need to go through the details of it again here - there’s a recap here, if you want to be masochistic about it. But you really don’t. All you need to know is that, yet again, Arsenal seemed to be completely unprepared to deal with an opponent that, on paper, should be much easier to beat than their last few opponents have been. Yet again, Arsenal made a team that is generally pretty bad look very, very good.

If this were an isolated incident, like Norwich’s win over Manchester City on Saturday, it’d be easier to shrug off - teams lose or draw games all the time, sometimes teams even lose or draw games they should definitely win. It happens. The difference, of course, is one of overall quality and trajectory. I don’t think anyone believes Manchester City will all of a sudden struggle to finish in the top four because of the one bad game they’ve had in probably over a calendar year.

Arsenal, though, are on a different plane. When Arsenal drop points at Watford, they don’t have the luxury of recent results to fall back on to say “they’ll be fine”. They have a history of dropping these points:

- Brighton last May (1-1)
- Crystal Palace, April (2-3)
- Southampton, December (2-3)

And that’s just last season. Go back a few more seasons, and there will be many more games in each season that Arsenal arguably should have won but didn’t. Go back, in fact, to Wenger’s late tenure, so it’s not just Emery’s fault. The point is, Arsenal are, for whatever reason, a fragile team.

I don’t know that this is unique to soccer, but one of the traits of soccer fandom, due to the nature of the game, is that we as fans tend to look for the one thing that caused a goal, or the one thing that caused a loss or drop of points. The quest for the smoking gun, as it were. So who, in our morning-after, hopefully a little clearer-eyed rage, do we blame for this state of affairs?

But that’s just it - at least at Arsenal, there’s not just one problem. There are several. In no particular order:

Unai Emery. I’m not going to sit here, on September 16, and demand that Emery be fired. I am, however, much more open to the arguments for firing him than I was at the start of the season. That’s not just because of yesterday, either - I try really hard not to overreact to individual games. But yesterday was not just another individual game; yesterday was the continuation of a worrisome pattern for Emery, a pattern of not seeming to understand what he’s up against, and a pattern of adjusting badly when he finally does.

Take yesterday, for example. Mesut Özil wasn’t having the best game he’s ever had, but he also wasn’t all that bad, and at least he was trying to create stuff. He and Dani Ceballos were both trying to push Arsenal forward, trying to make things happen...and were subbed out, for Reiss Nelson and Joe Willock respectively. That removed most of Arsenal’s creative midfield thinking, and once that happened, Arsenal didn’t really threaten again.

Granted, Arsenal’s bench was sort of thin as far as that kind of talent, but in that case...why sub at all? If Özil and Ceballos were having decent outings, which they were, why make those moves at all? Why not let the club keep pressing, pushing for a goal, and see what happens?

And again, it’s not just yesterday. Emery’s subs are puzzling a lot of the time, as are his formation choices. Injuries are a thing, squad composition is a thing - but it’s Emery’s job to maximize the resources he has at his disposal, and it seems like he’s not doing that job as well as he could.

The Players. This is not to single out any one player. But here’s a question. How many times have we all said some variation of “this squad is good enough”, while watching them aggressively disprove that thesis? At a certain point, no matter what the shortcomings of the coach, players gotta play, and players gotta perform.

Take yesterday, for example, and the first Watford goal. Emery has clearly instructed Bernd Leno to play the ball out the back whenever possible, which is generally a workable strategy. But Leno, as the goalkeeper, and as someone who surveys the whole pitch, needs to have the brainpower to say “you know what, maybe this time, I’ll hit a 20 yard pass to a midfielder because there are defenders in the way”, and if that doesn’t happen, Sokratis needs to have the brainpower to say “hey, there’s a defender in my way, maybe I’ll lift this pass into the air rather than slide it along the ground”.

Neither of those things happened, and Watford was gifted a goal that even MLS defenders would look at and say “damn, dude”.

The players can’t just be dogmatic about “this is what the manager said” and hope it works out - they have to be pragmatic and understand that sometimes a second option is the best option.

The Front Office. Arsenal had a pretty good transfer window this summer, and one unbelievably annoying result isn’t going to change that. That said, though, Arsenal have conceded 51 goals in each of the last two seasons, and are on pace, right now, to concede 60 goals this season (small sample size caveats of course apply there).

Yes, some key defenders have been injured, and yes, one of those injuries was a known part of a key defensive acquisition this summer, who will hopefully be a starter soon. But one of Arsenal’s biggest defensive prizes this summer was a kid they immediately loaned back to the club they bought him from, all while they are taking that dice roll on Kieran Tierney (and assuming that Hector Bellerin will be as good as he was pre-injury).

As with the “good squad” argument, on paper, that’s not a bad strategy - get one for now, get one for later. But the operational reality of Arsenal is that they need defensive help that is better than David Luiz sooner than later, and they didn’t really do enough there over the summer.

As with all things sports, there is no “right answer” here - there’s no one thing anyone can say like DO THIS ONE SIMPLE THING AND ALL WILL BE FIXED. I don’t have the answer, nor do you, nor do any of us.

Fire Emery now, and Arsenal still have a shambolic defense full of chowderheads who make bad decisions. Upgrade the defense (even with LANS guys) and Emery’s still in charge of them. All we can hope for is that, however slowly and evolutionally it happens, the tide starts to shift and Arsenal start making better decisions all the way up and down the org chart, because right now, I don’t see a good way out of this morass of relative mediocrity.