On Sunday afternoon, a little over 50 hours since Unai Emery was sacked as head coach of Arsenal Football Club, his former assistant Freddie Ljungberg took charge for the first time in an away fixture against Norwich City. And the result wasn't very different from those achieved the last two times the Gunners faced off against sides in the Premier League's relegation zone (2-2 at Watford on 15 September and 2-2 at home against Southampton on 23 November).
In fact, the result was exactly the same.
Goals by Teemu Pukki and Todd Cantwell were countered by a slightly fortuitous brace by Arsenal skipper Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in a contest that never saw Norwich City trail their opponents. Before we get into the plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose of it all, it's worth examining the f-word in the previous sentence. After all, had it not been for a bit of good luck, Arsenal may well have been left mulling over yet another away defeat.
Five minutes or so after Pukki put the hosts ahead, Aubameyang stepped up to take a penalty and tamely hit it slightly to the right of a frothing and fuming Tim Krul (his efforts earned him a yellow card). A lengthy VAR break showed that the penalty would have to be retaken on account of a Norwich City player encroaching upon the 30-yard box before the kick had been taken. The Arsenal captain did a much better job the second time around and slotted it low and in the corner to Krul's right. The second goal, had the referees not been equally alert, could have been invalidated due to the mysterious presence of a second ball on the field of play. As it turned out, the ball was not directly affecting players and the goal was allowed to stand.
Midfielder Lucas Torreira had a searing shot blocked by Ibrahim Amadou in the dying seconds of the game, but aside from that, there was little joy for the Gunners. On the other hand, given the number of chances spurned by the Canaries, they ought to be ruing two lost points that could so easily have been theirs.
After a woeful defeat to Eintracht Frankfurt on Thursday, the Sword of Damocles dangling over Emery's head, for a few weeks at least, finally came down and the Swede with 216 Arsenal appearances to his name took over. Right off the bat, it should be clear that 48 hours is nowhere near long enough to be able to incorporate new ideas, tactics and strategies in a struggling team and be able to execute them perfectly.
The Norwich game was always going to be a case of winging it and hoping for the best until Ljungberg had a little more time to put his own plans into practice. That isn't to say, however, that he didn't try. The formation deployed — a narrow 4-3-3 with Joe Willock at the heart of the midfield — was a throwback to his time coaching Arsenal's Under-23 side. His decisions to bring on Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli as substitutes underlined his apparent belief that youth is the way forward. And for a while, it seemed to work.
Fullbacks on the day Sead Kolašinac and Calum Chambers showed some amount of ambition in getting forward, while Willock displayed the sort of inventiveness that saw the hosts overrun in the opening five minutes. Slick passing, intelligent through-balls and a sense of intent and purpose saw the Gunners marauding into the Norwich box and causing all sorts of mayhem. The sort of free-flowing football on display was a far cry from the conservative and tentative sort seen over the past few weeks under Emery.
While under the Spaniard, obvious passes were eschewed in favour of the safer option — an approach that typified the head coach's apparent fear of losing, Sunday saw some glimpses of the Arsenal of yore. The away fans seemed to have found their voices and used them to sing praises of the man tasked with reviving red-and-white fortunes. For a while.
The centre-back pairing of David Luiz and Shkodran Mustafi had raised some eyebrows when the lineup was announced, but those concerns had been temporarily sidelined by the Gunners' solid opening. Pukki's goal in the 21st minute, however, brought everything crashing back down to earth. It wasn't so much the fact that a goal had been conceded or that it had come despite Arsenal's start that had promised so much, or even that it was going to be yet another match without a clean sheet that was so disconcerting. The manner of concession brought the enormity of Ljungberg and his eventual successor's task into sharp focus.
It all began with a forward push by Arsenal, with Willock accepting a pass from Mustafi and taking the ball over to the right of the Norwich box. Looking for a cross into the box and a way to keep the hosts' Onel Hernández off his back, the young midfielder accomplished neither and was swiftly dispossessed. Having left Willock in his dust, Hernández ran along the touch line and pushed the ball across towards midfielder Kenny McLean who ran through the middle untouched. The latter stroked a gentle through-ball past Matteo Guendouzi and Granit Xhaka to the waiting Pukki. The Fin ran around the Arsenal defence and fired a shot off the hapless Mustafi and past goalkeeper Bernd Leno.
If it wasn't the almost-reluctant Gunners' defence — particularly in the manner Luiz and Mustafi seemed to melt away from Pukki, it was the 'escorting' runs by Guendouzi and Xhaka (happy apparently to run alongside the ball and/or the player in possession, rather than trying to disrupt matters) that demonstrated the size and scale of the coaching job ahead. The far more frightening prospect (for Arsenal fans, at least) is the transformation from a little over three-and-a-half months ago.
In the opening fixture of the season, Arsenal travelled to Newcastle United and eventually won one-nil. However, it was this response to being shoved off the ball that truly caught the eye:
Think you can just shrug Joe Willock off the ball? Think again.
— Arsenal (@Arsenal) August 12, 2019
That it was one of the youngest players on the field demonstrating this grit and never-say-die spirit wasn't just a revelation, it was bloody exhilarating! Gooners are long-accustomed to false dawns, but this time — yes, this time — it was all going to be different. There had been some shrewd business conducted in the transfer window, the (potentially) second-most lethal front three (after Liverpool, that is) in the Premier League played for Arsenal and there was a surge of goodwill around the Emery way.
Without meaning to unnecessarily and unfairly pick on Willock, the downward spiral in Arsenal's fortunes is on display — in spirit if not in fact — in the clip below (2:33 if the embed doesn't load):
The way his shoulders drop and he decelerates before letting the others deal with the situation exemplifies where it's all gone south for the club.
Performances had been down for a while, attendances were dropping and the atmosphere at the Emirates (and beyond) was growing as toxic as back at the height of the Wenger Out era. The three wise men (Raul Sanllehi, Vinai Venkatesham and Edu) were expected to do something... anything... to stem the rot. And so days after expressing their backing for Emery, they decided that a change of head coach would mean a change of fortunes and the former PSG and Sevilla gaffer was asked to leave.
While there's no argument that Emery may not have been the right man for this job, it's important to recognise that the change of head coach is a symbolic change at the very most.
The Arsenal ship may well have sprung new leaks under Emery — the inability to find his best XI, not knowing what to do with Mesut Özil and Lucas Torreira, the whole captaincy kerfuffle and so on. But these, it can be argued, would have either taken care of themselves or faded into the background had he been able to plug the gushing and gaping hole in the ship that began as a leak and grew larger under the charge of Arsène Wenger: Defence.
Le Professeur inherited Britain's finest set of defenders when he began his job in North London back in 1995-96. With the likes of Sol Campbell, Lauren, Kolo Touré et al seemingly appearing as if by magic, it's somewhat understandable that he took defence for granted, choosing instead to focus on attacking flair, finesse and style. Over the years, Arsenal have never boasted a defence that could even be called the best in London, never mind Britain.
The end of the inflow of dogged and efficient defenders has seen a rash of quick-fixes (cases in point: Sokratis Papastathopoulos and Luiz) to paper over the cracks rather than a concerted effort to reimagine playing out of possession. The fading away of defenders when faced with an opposition onslaught, the reluctance to put in that extra effort and retrieve the ball and quickly turn it around and the absence of grit and determination are mere symptoms of the greater malaise.
Unfortunately, there's no quick solution to this ailment that has become chronic to the extent that it is now inextricably linked with the Arsenal identity. Several overhauls may be required: Ranging from a handful of players who are far too great a luxury to be carried along to coaches who may not be imparting the right lessons from defensive standpoint to even the decision-makers who may not be taking the defensive crisis as seriously as they should. But the biggest overhaul that is needed is in the approach and spirit.
And that begins with acknowledging that there is a far greater problem at hand than the simple sacking of a manager can fix. After all, cracks have a way of emerging through even the best paper.
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Updated Date: Dec 02, 2019 13:15:18 IST