Even in the immediate aftermath of Arsenal’s Europa League final defeat by Chelsea in May, this season felt decisive for Unai Emery. The Spaniard may be under contract at the Emirates Stadium until the summer of 2021, but a break clause inserted in his deal gives the club the right to pull the trigger at the end of the current campaign. Having failed to either win Europe’s junior tournament or finish in the top four of the Premier League last term, it is absolutely pivotal that Emery does one of the two this time around.
To put a positive spin on the season so far, Arsenal are above Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur in the standings and just four points adrift of Chelsea in fourth. Beat Wolverhampton Wanderers at home this weekend and the Gunners could narrow that gap to just a single point. The table alone does not scream ‘crisis’.
There are, however, plenty of worrying signs for Emery – both on and off the pitch. Arsenal have won four of their 10 top-flight assignments so far this term, but it is possible to argue that each of those triumphs was the result of individual acts rather than a collective process. Manchester City and Liverpool may have superior players to Arsenal, but they have also shown the value in blending individual talent with a coherent strategy. After more than a season in the job, it is damning that Emery has yet to inculcate a decipherable attacking identity at the Emirates.
Overall performances make for concerning reading too. Arsenal began 2019/20 with back-to-back triumphs over Newcastle United and Burnley, each by a single goal. Since then they have emerged victorious from just two of their last eight Premier League encounters, and both of those – against Bournemouth and Villa – were also narrow wins. And while an away defeat by Liverpool is understandable, and draws with Manchester United and Tottenham respectable, Arsenal were extremely poor in a 2-2 draw with Watford and a 1-0 loss to Sheffield United, and not much better in Sunday’s 2-2 tie with Crystal Palace.
Events off the field have also conspired against Emery. His handling of Mesut Ozil has been divisive; some back the German’s exile and have praised the former Sevilla boss for not blinking, but others believe he is cutting his nose off to spite his face. Emery insisted last week that the decision to ostracise Ozil is backed by the board, but it is difficult to support the exclusion of such a creative force from a team often lacking such a quality. The former Real Madrid man may not deserve to be an automatic starter, but refusing to even select him as a substitute is a bold move which is not currently paying dividends.
Emery has also had to deal with the fallout from Granit Xhaka’s extraordinary reaction to Arsenal fans’ jeering in Sunday’s clash with Palace. The home crowd were not shy in giving their verdict on Xhaka’s performance and his failure to leave the field quickly while the Gunners were seeking a goal, and their reaction prompted Xhaka to swear at them, cup his ear and head straight down the tunnel.
The episode is especially significant given the Switzerland international’s standing within the dressing room. Xhaka was elected club captain by his fellow players last month, but Emery’s decision to delegate such a choice has come under further scrutiny following Sunday’s events.
A straightforward-on-paper EFL Cup tie would have been welcome in such circumstances; instead, Arsenal head to Anfield for their fourth-round clash on Wednesday. Emery will know that another bad display will only increase the pressure on his shoulders.