In our ‘Clash of the Correspondents’ Episode I featured on previewing this fixture, I confidently stated Arsenal would concede a goal at the hands of ex-Gunner Danny Welbeck. Little did I know it would be a current Arsenal player that would have me pulling my hair out, as Sokratis brought shame upon his intellectual namesake by passing the ball to Deulofeu, before Tom Cleverley scored. At 2-1, I have seen many people say Arsenal lost control of the game. I’m not so sure the Gunners ever had a firm grasp of the match to begin with. The fact that Watford had over 30 shots but scored from a penalty and an ‘individual error’ speaks to that.
Opting to start Mesut Ozil for the first time this season away from home was surprising enough, but the choice to play the diamond midfield was another ‘interesting’ tactical decision from Emery. Like in the Liverpool game, by narrowing the scope of the midfield you are reliant on winning the central battle as you effectively cede all control of the flanks. We saw how well that went at Anfield. The reason it confused me was that Watford are another side who threaten mostly from the flanks; you shouldn’t need to flood the midfield to outplay Tom Cleverley and Will Hughes, but you might want to provide cover for Maitland-Niles against the tricky Deulofeu. This became apparent in the opening stages of the game, as the Spaniard had a decent curling effort saved inside 5 minutes, Cleverley tested Leno after 10 minutes, and Holebas proved the only thing he can do is receive yellow cards by wasting a guilt-edged chance. The opening salvo indicated Arsenal would ship goals – but they didn’t. A concerning element that echoed the Liverpool match was the repeated nature of Sokratis’ ‘corner pass’: under pressure, with no options presenting themselves, the Greek international was forced to hook the ball around the corner aimlessly to relieve pressure. This drew the ire of the crowd and gave the ball back to Watford. But its arguably not his fault. The lack of connection between the defence and midfield has been a through-line of the worst of Emery’s Arsenal, and it reared its head once more.
Thankfully, Aubameyang continues to demonstrate how truly exceptional he is. It took just 15 minutes for his world-class striking talent to lull me into a false sense of security, convincing me this could end in a comfortable 4-1 (because Arsenal always concede) victory. Ceballos’ tenacity pinched the ball back, before Kolasinac fired a ball into the centre forward, who in one turn both took the sting out of the pass, pirouetted into position, and dispatched the ball ruthlessly. Soon after, excellent work from Ozil freed Maitland-Niles, whose delicious delivery found Aubameyang with the goal gaping to prod home for 2-0. Suddenly everything appeared to be fine. Yet, even before the close of the first 45, the problems persisted as the midfield diamond continued to create more issues than it solved.
Guendouzi, after a MOTM performance against Spurs, had a day to forget. Thanks to his naïvely ‘meme-able’ gloat to the Watford fans when substituted, football twitter will make sure he doesn’t. Sloppy in possession, he played a similar pass to that which Ceballos did at Anfield, committing the ultimate Sunday League Sin – NEVER pass the ball across your own box! Whereas in a midfield three Guendouzi’s habit of a loose touch to shift the ball out of his feet is permissible, when you aim to flood the centre there are fewer escape routes on the flanks. The result is a loose touch, no “get out of jail free” card, and lost monopoly on possession.
Ceballos tried his best, which may sound like a patronising comment but reflects the toiling afternoon he had. Ironically, simply by trying he may have worsened the problems he tried to fix. Drawn to the ball in an attempt to regain control of the game, he created more gaps in the disconnected midfield. When it worked, the Spaniard would win possession back or balletically spin away from an opponent, and still find himself short of real options to progress the ball. When it didn’t, he was even further out of position, leaving the onrushing Watford to amble across Vicarage Road at the increasingly perplexing Granit Xhaka.
Speaking of Xhaka, which unfortunately we must, I fail to see what it is Emery thinks he brings to the team as the single pivot. You could argue – I’m not sure why you’d want to, but you could – that as part of a midfield 3 his progression from deep allows the ball to get into the final third quicker. When you’re not playing any wingers however, where’s the space to do this? Where are the options for him to spray a 30-yard pass? If Emery is expecting him to ping it to Aubameyang to hold up then that is a worrying misunderstanding of both the players and the tactical system he’s setting up. The result is a player who can’t cover ground, surrounded by players trying to make up for his immobility which only worsens the problem. I describe him previously as a metronomic midfielder because his role should be to do just that – keep the play ticking along. However, his dalliances on the ball too frequently saw him robbed, and he registered the 3rd lowest pass completion for Arsenal. As the main conduit for passing to flow, that is far worse than it may read to be.
Eventually the midfield issues arose one too many times, as Sokratis failed to find Guendouzi, Deulofeu capitalised and Cleverley made it 2-1. Ironic the goal-scorer should be named to the antithesis of the passage of play, but the idiotic mistake is only half the story (alright maybe it’s everything but the blurb and the acknowledgements section, but I’ve got a point I promise). It came about from the main defining ‘style’ of Emery’s Arsenal, and the one consistent flaw in Emery’s Arsenal – building from the back. The change in the laws around goal-kicks allow passes inside the penalty box, so Leno played a short 5 yard pass to Sokratis who, immediately pressurised, tried to find his midfield. As I mentioned previously, and will go on to lament later, the disconnect between the two areas of the side meant that he couldn’t. Rather than ‘get rid’ as the very loquacious gentleman wearing an ‘Arsene Never Forget 22’ shirt sat next to me ‘encouraged’, he still tried to stick to the tactical plan. THAT was the mistake. THAT was the error. As drunk as the Wenger-loving tactical prodigy sipping his 4th Guinness to my right was, he had a point.
It looked as though once more an individual error had cost Arsenal as David Luiz gave a penalty so textbook, I’m surprised the Brazilian hasn’t been called in front of a disciplinary panel for plagiarism. Another ‘individual error’ leading to another goal conceded took Arsenal’s total since the start of Emery’s tenure to a staggering 14 – 3 more than Liverpool, Man City and Chelsea combined. In fact, I think you could easily argue the number is much higher. Aside from Burnley’s goal resulting from a unfortunate deflected pass, I think every goal Arsenal have conceded this season is the result of an individual error. Liverpool, Spurs, now Watford – a common theme emerged, and I think I know why.
The idea with building from the back is to progress the ball forward. This means the defence sits too deep in possession because they are instructed to take the ball from the goalkeeper. So, with the defence sat deeper, you either have to position the pivot in midfield (which, remember, is GRANIT XHAKA) deeper – disconnecting him from his midfield companions – or leave the midfield as is, which gives the defence no passing option. This leaves aside the fact that, regardless of which mouse trap you choose to place your finger in, the attackers get cheesed off because they are left isolated. What you are left with is a gap bigger than that between Suarez’ teeth in the hub of your side, with Xhaka responsible for trying to cover it (trying was typed with the heaviest of air quotes). Compound this with players who repeatedly demonstrate an ability to just not do moronic things, and you have a formation with more holes than a slice of Leerdammer filled with ill-suited and ill-equipped players desperately trying to solve problems created by the system. The individual mistakes don’t create the issues. The set-up does. The mistakes are just disgusting icing to top the bizarre cake Emery is baking. It feels like he is following a recipe for a dish he doesn’t like, in a language he doesn’t understand, and trying to add his own spin to it. For the famed ‘arch pragmatist’ (words I’ve used to describe him), it is extremely concerning that these issues continue to recur. Obviously he can’t legislate for terrible individual errors, and I’m not blaming him for them. However, I do think he is culpable for putting these players in those positions.
Emery is described as the chameleonic antidote to a dogmatic manager. But the problem is, nobody buys chameleons as pets. They buy dogs. Sure, if you have a chameleon you won’t wake up with a turd on your carpet, and you won’t have to pay exorbitant vet bills when it gets ‘the runs’ after eating a kebab off the street, but they don’t really do anything (other than change colour). Don’t get me wrong, changing colour is exciting occasionally, but it is also unpredictable and hard to identify with. I suppose what I am trying, in an extremely roundabout way, to say is that this chameleon (Emery, I hope you kept up with me on this metaphor) might not be changing colour fast enough for some.
In Summary, I could have saved 10 minutes of your time, fewer glimpses into my fragile sanity, and about 3 cups of my Yorkshire Gold by simply condensing this article into the hashtag of the match it summarises – #WATARS