It’s a six-day stretch that could make or break Arsenal’s season and prompt renewed scrutiny into the machinations of a club that appears to have issues at every level.
A home game against Chelsea in the English Premier League on Saturday, soon followed by the visit of Manchester United in the FA Cup.
Lose both matches and Arsenal’s bid for domestic silverware will be over for another season. Finishing in the top four of the league, and thereby qualifying for the Champions League, would also be highly unrealistic.
And it won’t even be February.
It wasn’t so long ago that Unai Emery was making a mockery of any fears he would struggle to oversee a smooth transition from Arsene Wenger’s 22-year reign.
The team was on a 22-match unbeaten run in all competitions. Emery’s high-energy pressing game was working and the goals were flowing, even if there were some slight concerns about the defense. Tottenham, Arsenal’s big rival, was trounced 4-2 in the North London derby.
“We’ve got our Arsenal back,” chanted gleeful Arsenal fans.
Then came the slide.
The first worrying signs came in a 3-2 loss at lowly Southampton on Dec. 16 that ended Arsenal’s four-month unbeaten run. Then there was the elimination at the hands of Tottenham in the English League Cup quarterfinals, before a 5-1 mauling by Liverpool in the league at Anfield on Dec. 29 which revived memories of the defensive horror shows from the darkest days in the final years of the Wenger era.
More recently, there was the timid 1-0 loss at West Ham on Saturday when Arsenal had two shots on target.
If Arsenal loses to Chelsea, it will drop nine points adrift of the top four and probably into sixth place — the position it finished in Wenger’s last year. Arsenal will be left relying on winning a cup competition — the FA Cup or, perhaps more likely, the Europa League — to salvage anything from its season.
Mesut Ozil is the club’s marquee and highest-earning player — reportedly getting 350,000 pounds a week ($450,000) — yet is regularly left out by Emery, just as he was against West Ham on Saturday. Ozil, a mercurial player with a languid approach, doesn’t fit Emery’s preferred style and so is proving to be a very expensive commodity.
Another midfielder, Aaron Ramsey, has also been in and out of the team this season and is reportedly close to signing for Juventus.
“At certain times, you have to provoke friction with footballers,” Emery said this week, perhaps with a nod to his relationship with Ozil. “From that friction, you can get something more out of them, something from inside.”
Without its two most creative attacking midfielders, and with Henrikh Mkhitaryan currently injured, Arsenal lacks any playmaking ability or balance behind the two strikers, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette. Meanwhile, Emery’s team has kept only three clean sheets in 22 league games.
“There are times,” Emery said, “when defensively we have not been very solid but we have still won because offensively we have created a lot of chances. So, at the moment, I am still leaning toward making sure the team doesn’t lose what it has.”
Emery doesn’t have the option of buying his way out of trouble. He said last week that there is no money available for permanent signings, only loans, with Arsenal having spent 70 million pounds on four players in the offseason and a club-record 56 million pounds on Aubameyang last January.
In an attempt to formalize a structure to the technical staff above the manager, Arsenal created the positions of head of football relations (Raul Sanllehi joined from Barcelona) and head of recruitment (Sven Mislintat joined from Borussia Dortmund) in 2017. No way was Emery going to have the same power as Wenger.
Yet sections of the British media are reporting this week that Mislintat is on his way out as part of a power struggle in the wake of the departure of chief executive Ivan Gazidis, who left for AC Milan in October.
So, potential upheaval behind the scenes. No money to spend. Apparent rifts with key players. And a defensively suspect team that has lost four of its last eight games.
It’s a huge week coming up for Arsenal and Emery, for whom the enormity of the task in replacing Wenger might finally be sinking in.
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