At the time, Arsenal’s away win over Watford just over two weeks ago seemed symbolic. A landmark moment in their season. Having struggled on the road for months, the victory at one of the toughest grounds to visit in the Premier League lifted the Gunners up into the top four. With just five games left to play, Unai Emery was well on course to achieve the objective set for him.
Since then, of course, Arsenal’s season has disintegrated. Three defeats, to Crystal Palace, Wolves and Leicester City, in the space of a week have seen the North London side drop to fifth with two points to make up on Chelsea with just two games remaining. The damage would have been much worse had their top four rivals not stumbled around the same time.
Arsenal have stumbled harder, much harder, than the others, though. Now, it appears their season, and the success or failure of Emery in his first year at the club, depends on the Europa League, with the Gunners taking on Valencia in the first leg of their semi final this Thursday.
It is Emery’s most important game as Arsenal manager to date.
Emery is a Europa League specialist and so there is still reason to believe he can salvage Arsenal’s season. However, the Spaniard must shoulder a large portion of the blame for the way the Gunners have faltered in recent weeks. His poor management has been a primary factor in their struggles.
When Emery took over last summer, one of the deficiencies he was charged with addressing was Arsenal’s atrocious away record. It was one of the reasons Arsene Wenger was pushed out the door at the end of last season and had to be one of the things at the top of Emery’s fix list. He has done nothing to fix this, though.
In fact, Emery has only exacerbated the issues Arsenal faced away from home under Wenger. More than ever before, they lack an identity on the road, neither seeking to control games nor trying to hit out on the rapid counter attack. The Gunners have the squad to do either, it is one of their strengths as a team, and yet Emery has them stand in philosophical no man’s land.
His recent rotation of the Arsenal squad has also been questionable. Ainsley Maitland-Niles’ red card against Leicester might have been harshly awarded, but was it really wise for Emery to throw such an inexperienced, raw player into such a high pressure game? Wouldn’t a tactical shuffle have been a better option?
Far too frequently, Emery stands by players who have done nothing to warrant such faith. To those who believed Wenger was too tolerant of mediocracy in his final years at Arsenal, that is a familiar sounding criticism. Take Henrikh Mkhitaryan, for instance. The Armenian was among Arsenal’s worst as they slumped to a 3-1 loss to Wolves. Yet just a few days later, Mkhitaryan was back in the side for the defeat to Leicester. Once again, he floundered.
“We want to get with this club to the point where we are the best club in England and the world,” Emery said in a recent interview. “But it is a long process. Sometimes, like today, we need to talk about patience.” The problem for Emery is that he has already been shown patience, with Arsenal suffering a slow start to the season. Now, he needs results, meaning Champions League qualification, to justify the continuation of his project.
Indeed, while restoring Arsenal as a force will be a long process, in Emery’s own words, there are some yardsticks along the way he must measure up to. Now, the Gunners are at risk of falling short of such expectations and if fingers are to be pointed, Emery should be targeted more than anyone else. Not even a Europa League triumph would truly excuse him.