To coin a phrase, Arsenal’s next Premier League match away at Leicester City this Saturday is increasingly looking like “do or die” for Unai Emery. And unlike Boris Johnson, who did not manage to get Britain out of the EU on 31 October (despite his promise to do so), Emery may not get another chance after this game to prove that he should still be Arsenal manager.
Do or Die for Unai
Another Lead Surrendered
Wednesday’s 1-1 draw with Vitoria Guimaraes of Portugal in the Europa League continued the truly depressing recent trend for Arsenal of giving away leads. Having gone ahead in the 80th minute with their first real effort on goal (a Shkodran Mustafi header), the Gunners gave that lead away 10 minutes later, when Vitoria’s Duarte somehow escaped the attention of at least five Arsenal defenders to hook the ball home inside the box.
That made it four games in succession in which Arsenal have surrendered at least a one-goal lead. Even more damningly, rather than gaining a morale-boosting victory before the extremely difficult visit to the King Power Stadium, Duarte’s injury-time equaliser meant that Arsenal have won only one of the six games that they have played in all competitions since the last international break, and that lone victory was achieved with literally the last kick of the game (by Nicolas Pepe, from a free-kick) in the home game against the Portuguese club.
It is such statistics that show why Emery is increasingly under pressure at Arsenal, to the extent that his future at the club is being openly discussed by fans and in the media, and there are numerous reports and rumours that Jose Mourinho is being lined up to replace him.
That could happen as soon as Saturday night if Arsenal repeat their last poor performance at Leicester, April’s 3-0 thrashing. And given that Leicester have improved considerably since then under Brendan Rogers, while Arsenal have regressed even more quickly under Emery, such a score-line is by no means inconceivable.
Not Just Statistical Problems
However, there is an even more powerful case to be made against Emery than the statistical one, and that is the style argument. A manager or football team’s “style” does not just refer to how they pass the ball (although Emery’s Arsenal barely seem able to pass the ball at all, in stark contrast with Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal) but to how they do everything; defend; attack; and even deal with internal discipline. And unfortunately for Emery, at the moment he seems to be getting everything wrong.
The worst thing that can be said about Emery is that in his 18 months at the club so far Arsenal seem to have got worse under him, rather than better. All the old defensive problems persist; indeed, they have actually become even bigger with the loss of the club’s two best defenders, Laurent Koscielny and Nacho Monreal, in the summer.
In addition, the club-record signing of winger Nicolas Pepe seems to have disrupted the natural harmony of the one part of the team that did work well last season, namely the Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang–Alexandre Lacazette strike partnership.
And finally the midfield looks utterly unbalanced, with Lucas Torreira mystifyingly relegated behind Granit Xhaka, at least until Xhaka’s meltdown against Crystal Palace, the aftermath of which has still not really been dealt with by Emery.
Emery Must Get a Result at Leicester
All of this shows why Emery simply must get a result away at Leicester, even a draw, if the pressure upon him is not to become utterly unbearable and ultimately overwhelming.
There comes a point in most managers’ time at a club when they have to forget about everything else and simply get a result, even if that means (as if often the case) packing a team with defenders and midfielders and playing a lone striker.
The problem for Arsenal, of course, is that even if they played 10 defenders or defensive midfielders, there seems to be very little chance of them preventing Leicester from scoring.
Leicester Are the Side Arsenal Want to Be
It is, of course, the fact that this vital game is at Leicester that makes the pressure upon Emery all the more acute, because in many ways Leicester in the last few years have become the team and the club that Arsenal would love to be.
It is not only the fact that they actually won the Premier League title in 2016 and then reached the last eight of the Champions League the following season, neither of which Arsenal have achieved in more than a decade, that rankles with Gunners fans so much.
What is arguably even more galling for them is the fact that Leicester have been almost completely rebuilt since their title-winning campaign. They lost many of the major figures from that season (Riyadh Mahrez in particular, but also Danny Drinkwater and Robert Huth), but replaced them with much younger and apparently hungrier players (such as James Maddison, Youri Tielemans and Ben Chilwell).
Arsenal have been crying out for that kind of radical rebuilding for more than a decade, but Leicester have effectively done it within a few seasons, to the extent that they and not Arsenal look likely to finish in the top four this season.
It has been Emery’s complete inability to effect anything like that kind of change at Arsenal, despite having considerable resources to do so this summer (resources that remarkably were spent on reinforcing an already successful attack rather than a dysfunctional defence), that is the final and gravest charge against him.
If he cannot effect some kind of mini-turnaround at the King Power this weekend, such that Arsenal at least avoid defeat, then there is every chance that it will be his last game in charge.
Finding a Replacement in the International Break?
If that happens, the hierarchy at Arsenal will then have the next international break to try and find a replacement. While Arsenal fans would much rather a potentially long-term appointment, such as Max Allegri, Eddie Howe or Nuno Espirito Santos (always assuming that the latter would leave his upwardly mobile Wolves), if the Gunners go down by two or three goals against Leicester, they might even consider the unthinkable and accept Mourinho.
So, whether it is Emery himself, or his replacement (whoever that might be), the absolute priority for Arsenal right now is to start defending properly, show some steel and grind out results, even if it is in the old-fashioned “boring, boring Arsenal” way that many fans thought had gone forever.
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