When Arsenal hosted Eintracht Frankfurt in the Europa League last Thursday night, the Emirates Stadium in London was far from filled to its capacity of 60,000. Swathes of seats were empty as Arsenal fans displayed their growing frustration with the manager and the direction the club was heading in.
At this point, Arsenal was without a win six games in and the pressure was mounting on manager Unai Emery. Despite a promising start, Arsenal found themselves losing again due to a quickfire nine-minute brace by Frankfurt striker Daichi Kamada. You could cut the tension with a knife. Every misplaced pass, every poorly-timed tackle and every scuffed shot was treated with a cry of disdain.
Alexandre Lacazette’s last minute goal to equalise against relegation favorite Southampton Football Club bought Emery another chance. This time around, as the minutes on the clock ticked by, it felt like a countdown for Emery’s job, as well.
One cannot fault the passion that Emery had on the touchline and even with seconds left on the clock, he was gesticulating to his players with vigour. Yet, his face told a different story. It had the look of a man who knew his time was done and the cacophony of ‘boos’ that echoed around the Emirates made it hard for even the most ardent Emery supporters to believe he would be in charge at Carrow Road Stadium over the weekend.
Emery was sacked the next morning and Freddie Ljungberg was appointed as the interim manager. In a bid to improve the extremely sour mood around the camp, temporarily appointing a club legend as manager along with former captain Per Mertersacker as assistant coach seemed like the right move.
But despite a much better performance, Arsenal are still left craving a win. At Carrow Road, they were not hopelessly outshot nor were they repeatedly sliced open on the counter, as was the case in many of their previous games.
They were still bested by what appears to be their Achilles heel — these mistakes cannot be rectified by different managers. For the first goal, the two center backs Shkodran Mustafi and David Luiz left Teemu Pukki with an abundance of space. Instead of just maintaining the offside line with Mustafi, Luiz decided to match Pukki’s running (except without the pace).
This meant that when Pukki received the ball, Luiz was actually diagonal to his center back partner. Pukki received the ball, turned and drove towards goal. Luiz put no pressure on him as he shaped to shoot and Mustafi, meanwhile, was busy raising his hand to indicate something extremely obscure. This half-hearted defending led to a deflection.
The acres of space offered to Pukki was due to the massive gaps between the midfield and defence, a widely prominent feature this season. Ever since the swashbuckling days of Patrick Viera and Cesc Fabregas, finding a balanced midfield has been an insurmountable task for the Gunners.
When Lucas Torreira was signed, it seemed that the need for a ball winning midfield destroyer had finally been fulfilled. Yet, on Sunday, the sight of Torriera being brought on as a No. 10 behind on the striker while Mesut Ozil was on the left winger was bemusing.
And that is where the imbalance comes in, which is going to be a problem for any newly appointed manager. Arsenal are very attack-heavy with their best players occupying the same position. There is a reason Arsenal have not started a single game with an attacking force of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Nicolas Pepe, Ozil and Lacazette. They simply do not have two holding midfielders disciplined and pragmatic enough to balance out that attacking force.
The only reason that a manager will decide to bench Ozil would be because of his defensive inabilities. He is a luxury player whose body language represents an apathy toward more mundane duties. Similarly, having Aubameyang on the wings leaves the club’s best finisher peripheral to the attack due to the propensity of wingers needing to track back and help out in defence.
Finally, there is the curious case of $87 million signing of Nicolas Pepe, who has found it extremely hard to adapt to his surroundings, having not yet scored a single goal from open play. Just like his predecessor, Ljungburg seemed to prefer teenager Bukayo Saka over Arsenal’s record signing, which might suggest that the Pepe might not be fully applying himself in training to even warrant an appearance off the bench.
With high profile names such as Mauricio Pochettino, Massimiliano Allegri and Brendan Rodgers floating around, fans must keep in mind how daunting a task it will be for any of these candidates to bring Arsenal back to their best days. Implementing a clear philosophy will be laborious given the squad’s imbalance and sheer lack of quality in certain areas.
For now, the losing streak seems to represent a storm brewing over the Emirates, getting worse with every unwanted result. Brighton Hove & Albion at home on Wednesday could be the perfect fixture to get some positivity around the club again.