Friday, April 30, 2021

The Disaster of Arsenal Past Meets the Disaster of Arsenal Present

It was a weird day. It's hard not to reminisce when it comes to big European nights, and my mind did wander to those hazy days of 2006. The semi-final away against Villareal that year was a tough game, memorialized in one of my earliest blog posts. Looking back, I remember the massive sense of exhilaration and hope that night. The team's progress in Europe that year, plus the imminent stadium move, seemed to herald a new chapter in the club's history - a portent of big things to come. 

Who would have known that this was the peak of the club's performance in Europe. And that the last 16 years have seen us decline from champions league contenders, to European canon fodder, to mid-table also-runs. Put in context, it's a sorry decline, and it's hard not to correlate it to the involvement, then ownership, of KSE. 

The empty stadiums and dismal football have made this a hard season to care about. But a European semi-final is a rare occasion and one worthy of note. What a shame then that Arteta decided to galaxy brain our line-up. It's hard not to see the imprint of his mentor, Pep, in the bizarre team selection for today's game. Too many decisions seem to be made on the basis of short-term patches of form. Xhaka at left-back and Ceballos in midfield appears to still be based on our thrashing of Sheffield United a few weeks ago - one of the worst teams in the modern premiership era. Both were ripe for targeting by a man that we all know is obsessed with video analysis. 

But deciding to, essentially, not play a striker in a game of this magnitude reeked of cowardice and over-complication. I am not sure Odegaard, Smith-Rowe, Saka and Pepe can play in the same team together even if we had a forward on the pitch. That we did not led to some bizarre parody of a false-9 without an actual 10 leading the line. For a team that struggles to score at the best of times, this was a terrible decision. We did not have a shot on goal from open play until after the 90th minute as a result.

The players looked over-awed and confused and we were rightly battered in the first half. Whatever Arteta is doing in training is not working. It's a shame because you can see the raw ingredients of a great coach in Mikel, but he seems determined to shoot himself in the foot. He is scared of starting players that have explosiveness but potentially cost us some degree of control of the game. This could have been the occasion for Martinelli to lead the line on a historic night in Europe. Instead we bothering a vast swathe of the Villareal defence. 

As for Ceballos - again, one great performance against a relegated team does not compensate for a terrible season and, in particular, an abysmally poor season in the Europa League. I can only assume Arteta was too proud to hook Dani at half-time and we paid the price for his stubbornness. 

This is my concern about Arteta. He is completely unproven as a manager, regardless of his success as a coach at City. Many of the attributes that define a great coach in football - essentially helping to put in place the structure for players to realize someone else's plan - are not that comparable to what's needed for a manager. You get little sense that Arteta can roll with the punches and adjust as different scenarios arise. His in-game management is appalling and his tactics barely seem to flex regardless of the various scenarios we're facing. The players appear to have been ordered to build up play in a measured, almost glacial manner, killing the impetus of counter-attacks. I can't tell if this is a stats-driven approach, or simply a desire to dominate possession and hope the win comes from there. Either way, it's boring, results in very few goals, and isn't working. If you're going to be a control-freak perfectionist, you have to be able to make your plan work. 

What luck then that we came up against the disaster of Arsenal's past. I could not imagine a more classic Emery move than subbing an attacker for a defensive midfielder at half-time during a game you're dominating. We were on the ropes and a third goal would've killed us. Instead, Villareal sat off us in the second half and let us back into the tie. Emery's gonna Emery. 

Emery's appointment was its own special kind of disaster, squandering our last, easiest opportunity to return to the Champions League. It remains to be seen where we go from here and, who knows, we may win the Europa League and this whole season will have been worth it. But it's hard not to shake the sense that this season has been a slow-moving disaster for the club, with KSE, yet again, showing little desire to put the club back on the right track. Here's hoping Mikel doesn't overthink the second leg. 


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