Why Arsenal's patience with Unai Emery has to run out sooner rather than later
The goals Arsenal conceded to Southampton last weekend described where they are in their life cycle under Unai Emery. They were desperate moments. The sort which bring the boos tumbling from the stands and send the club executives searching for the headed paper.
In both the quick free-kick which allowed Danny Ings to score and the petulant tug which brought James Ward-Prowse to the penalty spot, everybody at the Emirates that day saw a mental disengagement which would have convinced them that Emery is finished. That’s what football looks like before a head-coach is dismissed. Wrong, essentially, like a training-ground drill in which half the players haven't understood the instructions.
For now, Emery battles on. Towards what, who really knows, and that’s been his biggest issue at the club. He arrived with bold promises and convincing rhetoric about turning this side into a protagonist. But he’s under pressure now not just because he’s failed to do that, but because Arsenal – his Arsenal – have no footballing identity whatsoever.
That is a tremendous hindrance. Possibly the most obstructive scenario, actually, because fans can overlook almost anything other than the suspicion that their team has no direction. As a case in point, the current situation would be bearable if it was part of a journey towards something – if it felt as if the mistakes which keep repeating were actually informing an improvement.
But they aren’t. What was going wrong in August 2018 is still happening now. Some aspects, including the transitions out of defence, have actually got worse. As a result, the audible dissatisfaction is less ‘noise’, more a howl of frustrated anguish. Winning and losing is part of the game, every supporter just about understands that, but they accept that on the condition that it serves a purpose. The problem at Arsenal is not Emery. It’s not his style of football or even the way he coaches it. It's that the combination of the three hasn’t engendered any sort of noticeable buy-in from anywhere.
Not from those sitting in the stands, quite obviously, but neither from the players. Do they seem like an enthused group? One possessing any faith in the path they're on? Nearly 18 months, it's not clear that they even believe in the existence of a path and, unfortunately, that’s a terminal situation between coach and club.
But it’s an issue with influence beyond just the league table. When a club’s footballing identity doesn’t stand for anything – when, for instance, nobody who watches them is able to definitively say what they are – it creates a ripple of issues which can be very difficult to cure.
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Incumbent players start to wonder whether their best years should be spent elsewhere. Transfer targets who are unable to see a role for themselves or even a path into the team become much harder to sign. Most damagingly of all, though, is the existential gloom which descends as a consequence.
That’s best described as a foggy despondency, within which players, fans and everyone associated with the club are simultaneously gripped by ennui. They’re not angry, just overcome by the apparent futility of the situation. The supporters moan out loud, but the players begin to ask why – why run that extra kilometre, why risk injury for that tackle, why engage properly in that video analysis session if, ultimately, it's part of a process which is doomed?
Players who think like that aren’t being unprofessional, they’re being human. And supporters aren’t being fickle or entitled, just realistic. To move forward, a club either needs to outspend and out-recruit its rivals, or be enraptured from within. Ideally, a combination of all three.
But Arsenal have none of those strengths. Some they can control, others they can’t. Emery is an obvious variable, though, and what should make him especially vulnerable is the recognition, nearly universal by now, that granting him more time for the sake of it would achieve nothing beyond Arsenal's further entrenchment in the mire. Patience is really not a virtue in this situation.