This is the monthly post from Jonathan Blaustein. Make sure you follow him @JblauPhoto
I’m laying in bed on Christmas Eve, hiding from my kids.
The holidays have just begun, and I’ll be on stay-at-home-Dad-duty for the next 15 days, so I’ve got to catch the quiet when I can.
Outside my window, snow covers the tops of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, and the dead, brown grass in my pasture looks like something from Vincent Van Gogh’s last painting. (I announced last night that the raven was my current spirit animal. I suppose everyone’s entitled to a mid-life Goth phase.)
It’s winter, and Unai Emery was appointed in May. That means we have half a year to judge him on, and the state of the Arsenal rebuild in general.
In my last two columns, perhaps I’ve gone light on the analysis and heavy on the humor. Everyone’s always ready to have a laugh, but this month, I decided it was time to dig into what I’m actually seeing, in bigger picture terms.
Why now? Why Christmas?
Well, yesterday was the 21 year anniversary from the day I met my wife in a coffee shop here in Taos. (It’s still there, and in business, but has changed names and hands 5 times since.)
It got me thinking, we’ve been together since we were 23 years old, and now we’re 44. We have two children, one who’s soon to be a teenager.
It’s the entirety of my adult life.
And still, it’s not as long as Arsene Wenger was in charge at Arsenal.
Arsene’s methods won him titles, fans and acolytes over his term, and though it was before my time as a fan, by all accounts he was once incisively sharp.
I knew him in the 2011-18 phase, when like an old boxer, he could still summon the random haymaker to win a big game, (Bayern, Manchester City away) or shoot a tight window to take home a trophy, (3 FA Cups,) but it was clear the ruthless hunger to win it all had left his belly.
Because if he’d still had it, still been willing to look hard at himself in the mirror and change, he’d have put more work, innovation and resources into the defensive part of the game.
And he just couldn’t be bothered.
In my time as a fan, I watched one genuinely competent, really high level Center Back pairing, and that was Koscielny and Mertesacker, in the one year plus that they were both healthy.
From the decline of Thomas Vermaelan to the dim-bulb that was Gabriel, there was not much quality back there, beyond the French-German pairing.
Fullbacks would play high up the pitch, and few were defensively sound, save Nacho Monreal. (Who’s now succumbing to Father Time.)
What I’m saying is, neither the philosophy nor the players were particularly attuned to defensively sound football.
And it went on like that for years.
Unai Emery inherited Wenger’s squad, and the only real addition has been Sokratis, who has clearly been our best central defender by a fair margin. (Rob Holding being #2, before he got hurt.)
As a rebuilding parable, I should say that I’m a life-long fan of the (now) Brooklyn Nets.
The Nets are in Season 3 of a full-blown re-build, and are finally on the way up, winning games and getting attention. They have the right kind of athletic slashers and sweet shooters that are crucial in today’s NBA, in particular for their ability to play defence. (3 and D)
Two years ago, I read a quote by Coach Kenny Atkinson that said that while he’d love for his team’s defense to be better, it was impossible as he didn’t have any good defensive players.
No excuses. He just said, we’ll be better on defence once we churn over the roster our way.
They did. And now the Nets can play defence.
So what has Arsenal’s obvious problem been under Unai Emery? And why did we blow that game to bogey-team Southampton? (Another regular occurrence in my time as a fan.)
If you accept that Emery knew he was dealt a bad hand, and is doing the best he can until reinforcements arrive, it makes his preferred systems and choice of players a bit more obvious in hindsight.
If you know your defence is crap, and you want to win games and succeed in your first year, then you employ systems that make the entire team defend from front to back.
You utilize pressing, or in our case, a lot of counter-pressing.
You want forwards who are athletic, hardworking, and will track back and tackle.
Has he used players like that?
Of course he has.
Danny Welbeck when he was available, and Alex Iwobi and Henrikh Mkhitaryan throughout the season.
Who didn’t make the cut?
Mesut Ozil and Aaron Ramsey, who don’t play defence. (Or in Ramsey’s case, haven’t in 5 years.)
If you have a shitty defence, and need to employ team defence, how can you include players like Ozil and Ramsey, who either get pushed off the ball and don’t win it back easily or often, or are so obsessed with getting forward that they forget to track back consistently?
In midfield, you’d want to have steel to balance the precarious backline.
And what have we seen? The emergence of Matteo Guendouzi and Lucas Torreira.
Why does everyone love them? Because for all their youth, energy and skill, they’re both obviously tough-as-nails.
Where does Granit Xhaka come into this equation?
Well, let’s say that Mkhitaryan and Iwobi are the two model wingers so far this year.
They provide graft, pressing, energy, good pre-assists, and the very occasional piece of end-product.
But there is little clinicality, and even worse, no genuine master-level creativity, a la Ozil or occasionally Ramsey, with his flicks and headed assists. (Let’s put a player who offers both aspects of the game on our shopping list, right fellas?)
Xhaka, for all his mistakes and slowness, is a regista-style pass master, and he’s big and tough to boot. So Xhaka’s passing in general, and long-passing in particular allows for another method of advancing the ball quickly to the strikers.
That’s right, the strikers.
I don’t care if you call them forwards, center forwards, strikers, or number 9’s, Arsenal have two goal scorers in good and great form in Alexander Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
Not only are they clinical match-winners, (as I’ve written previously,) but they are also willing to press, and in Lacazette’s case, harry like a bastard. (All props to PEA, he does the work too, but I might include Lacazette on our growing bastard list.)
Right, the bastard list.
That’s another thing I’d do, if I were Unai Emery, and I knew my defence was crap. (Athletically, technically, etc.) I’d bring in a bunch of bastards to help toughen up the team, stave off physical beatings, and protect my offensive players since we’ll need them to outscore our opponents.
We all saw the Burnley game, and over the course of the season, it’s been well-documented that Emery has removed the pushover label from the Arsenal official uniform.
2018-9 Bastard List: Lichtsteiner Sokratis Holding Torreira Guendouzi Xhaka Lacazette The spent husk of Laurent Koscielny Kolasinac
That last name, the Bosnian Tank, brings me to my final point about Emery’s strategy in his first six months: make use of a 3-man back line more often that we might have expected.
The injury bug hasn’t been kind of late, and it has hit the center backs worst of all, if you consider the general unavailability of Kos, Mavrapanos, and now Holding for big chunks of time.
Given that Nacho has also been crocked, (and now Hector,) that has forced Kolasinac into a larger role than he’s had perhaps his entire Arsenal career. And everyone knows he’s a better attacking wingback than he is a defending fullback.
So to empower/develop him, and help him become an important part of the Emery machine, (he’s been gangbusters lately,) we’ve seen some funky-ass combinations of 3 non-natural CBs, including the backlines at Southampton and Burnley.
Oh yeah, I’d have one last trick up my sleeve: bring in a sweeper keeper. Bernd Leno.
So there you have it. My long-winded analysis of how we got here, when HERE is level on points with Chelsea for 4th on Christmas Eve, and undefeated in the Europa League qualifying round.
As I wrote in August, making the Top 4 AND winning the Europa League will be a tough ask. It’s still possible, which is exciting, but I wouldn’t change my prediction that it’s a long shot.
Right now, I’d say the question is, can we beat Chelsea either in a Europa League Final, in the race for fourth place?
Can we do one or the other?
And to that question, I’d say yes. It’s certainly possible. We might have a direct path to the Champions League this season.
But then again, most rebuilds take years, not months. Just ask my fellow NY Giants fans, who just saw that going from 3 wins to 5 wins, instead of worst to first, is the normal way of things.
We may have lost our unbeaten streak, and will probably lose in Liverpool next weekend. (I’m not worried about Brighton.)
With our current defensive lineup, I don’t think it’s realistic to win at their place. Top defenders, like what they have in Virgil Van Dijk, have size, athletic ability, technical skill, and toughness.
Arsenal have Shkodran Mustafi.
So for now, I say, Trust the Process. Let’s see where this season ends up, and give the Swen/Raul/Unai team a few transfer windows before we see the true incarnation of Emeryball.
I wish you guys a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, and I’ll see you again in January.
- I forgot to make fun of Jose Mourinho, now that he’s been sacked. RIP Jose. Hope you have fun managing in Scotland. I hear the winters are brutal up there.