I’ve never really liked the phrase “that’s what football’s all about”. It’s overused, not very insightful, and can be applied to basically any facet of the game. Here are some examples of things that could claim to be what football is “all about”: results, bringing people together, a good slide tackle, limbs, money, goals, winning the second ball, the fans, the escape from the mundanity of real life, transitions, a boy who works part-time at his mum’s newsagents knocking League 2 Hartlepool United out of the FA Cup, the look on John Brooks’ face when he scored a late winner for the USA against Ghana at the 2014 World Cup. Essentially, it depends on who you ask and how it best supports the point they are trying to make at the time.
For the purpose of today’s argument, football is all about contempt, a point I’m really hammering home by announcing it with a phrase I don’t really like. I came to this conclusion at the exact moment Liverpool’s 18-year-old Curtis Jones slotted home from 12 yards last week to give them a penalty shootout victory over Arsenal at the end of a ten-goal thriller.
Commentator Steve Wilson (Yeh so what if I was watching a stream? It’s 2019. Don’t pretend you don’t.) described it as “two young teams going hell-for-leather in a fantastic advert for the Carabao Cup”. Both the game and the moment that finished it had all the hallmarks of something that could be described as “what football’s all about”.
Yet, at the end of all the madness, there I was focussing on contempt, and the club that is currently absolutely rife with it.
Arsenal football club have been around since 1886. They’ve certainly had to deal with bigger crises in their history than getting surprise Divock Origi’ed, but it’s still probably quite annoying. Whilst all of Liverpool’s scorers on the night may have been older than anybody who found the correct net for Arsenal, it was the Gunners who were fielding the more experienced of the two sides and it was also them who twice led by a two-goal advantage on the night.
My brother, a devout Liverpool fan since Steven Gerrard’s header in Istanbul, professed to have had absolutely no idea who any of the players on the Liverpool bench were. To add even further embarrassment, Liverpool’s progression has probably caused them more problems than it was worth. Klopp’s team go to Doha in December to compete in the Club World Cup, a competition which is scheduled to take place during the exact same period as the next round of the Carabao Cup. This coupled with Liverpool’s extremely youthful line up suggests that last week Arsenal genuinely might have lost to a club who didn’t even want to win.
Flashback to three days before the 5-5: it’s finished Arsenal 2-2 Crystal Palace and manager Unai Emery can perhaps be forgiven for not knowing whether the boos reverberating around the Emirates Stadium are being directed towards him, the VAR system, or the Arsenal captain, who half an hour previously had told 60,000 home fans to “f*** off”.
The Athletic’s Daniel Taylor recently wrote that Arsenal were “a club riddled with doubt and confusion”. It’s hard to argue with this, and I’m not going to because he’s spot on. What’s more interesting to note is where this confusion is stemming from.
Whilst continuously watching your team fail to hold on to leads in multi-goal fests against Liverpool should perplex you as much as Andrey Arshavin’s career trajectory presumably perplexes Andrey Arshavin, for Arsenal fans it’s genuinely something to be expected at this point. It’s not even that weird that their captain has publicly had a go at the club. Just four months ago, previous skipper Laurent Koscielny refused to travel on a pre-season tour to America. Arsenal’s attempts at reprimanding him rubbed off about as well as the bedtime stories Arsène Wenger used to tell “the little boy inside” Robin van Persie about the big bad William Gallas monster, who comes to your club to take your best defender’s squad place, your best creator’s squad number and your best player’s captain armband.
Koscielny was subsequently sold to Bordeaux, who revealed his transfer on social media with a video of him taking off an Arsenal shirt to reveal a Bordeaux one underneath… Arsenal’s on field captain for the best part of four years. So, whilst both are obviously pretty catastrophic, neither Xhaka’s escapades nor conceding five at Anfield are anything new for Arsenal. These are simply continuations of issues that Wenger struggled with for years.
However, what is new, and by far the more endemic problem at Arsenal right now, is the sort of performance that took place three days after Anfield. Arsenal drew at home again to what should have been lesser opposition in Wolves.
Whilst the draw will obviously be the main problem for the Ceefax fans who only want to check the score and then move on with their day, it is the manner of how they drew that is Arsenal’s real issue. Wolves, the away side who do not boast a front three that cost nearly £200m to assemble, registered 24 shots in that game, whilst Arsenal had just 10.
Under Arsène Wenger, the one thing Arsenal were almost always guilty of was not giving their opponents enough respect. Unai Emery seems to be the very antithesis of this. The game that probably best summed this up was when Arsenal travelled to bottom of the table Watford back in September, went swiftly 2-0 up against a team absolutely devoid of any confidence and then decided to sit and play on the counter for the rest of the game.
By allowing Watford to have the ball, Emery almost single-handedly instilled them with the confidence that two of their own managers couldn’t. This inevitably invited pressure and bottom of the table Watford came back to draw 2-2, registering an unbelievable 31 shots. A week later, they lost 8-0 at Man City. Arsenal, in short, now play as if they are the smaller team; a team who go away to Leicester as genuine underdogs and duly live up to that title.
This is fine when you’re playing knockout football in Europe, as Arsenal proved last year. However, domestic football does not give you 180 minutes to work out what the other team is doing and then react accordingly. On top of this, there is a certain level of entertainment that Arsenal fans have come to expect from their team after years under Wenger.
Consistently making increasingly scary passes across the back line, before eventually hoofing it up the pitch to try to win the ball back nearer the opposition’s goal does not meet these expectations. Emery’s style leans exceptionally hard on moments of individual attacking brilliance to succeed, rather than a genuine philosophy.
He is really big on set pieces for example. The other day, Arsenal drew away to Portuguese side Vitoria Guimãraes, and only managed to hobble past them late on a few weeks previously in London thanks to two Nicolas Pépé free kicks. To put it into perspective, Vitoria’s entire transfer spending last summer totalled to 1% of Pépé’s transfer fee from Lille to North London in the same window. In their 1-1 draw in Portugal, Arsenal had just one shot on target and it came as the result of a Pépé free kick.
Confusion is certainly the best word to describe what’s going on at Arsenal right now: from fans to journalists to players. Commentators ranging from The Athletic’s Amy Lawrence to insight heavyweight Emmanuel Frimpong have despaired over Arsenal’s lack of any apparent identity. Meanwhile, Bukayo Saka is reported to have asked coach Freddie Ljunbgerg to translate Unai Emery’s instructions in training to him.
Arsenal fans will look seven miles down the road at Chelsea and see a club and a manager who stand for something, whilst rueing the fact that all their manager seems to stand for is, until genuinely being forced out of the situation, a weird obsession with Granit Xhaka and the use of axle grease as an alternative to hair gel.
For Unai Emery, football seems to be all about reactions: working out what the opposition is up to and then behaving accordingly. Whilst there is always room for this, and it has certainly been something Arsenal have lacked for years, if it can only come at the sacrifice of your own philosophy and tactical identity, then it is by no means going to be enough. It looks like it’s a matter of time before Arsenal’s reaction is to hire a new manager.
by Xavier Bird