The build-up to this game could not have been worse. The atmosphere at Arsenal has been about as toxic as it’s ever been, on par with Arsene Wenger’s final years certainly.
The players have not been performing. There’s been a distinct lack of style and organisation on the pitch and results have suffered. Recent outrage and controversy surrounding Granit Xhaka and Mesut Ozil have left the club reeling inside and out. Arsenal FC are once again a laughing stock.
The blame has largely fallen on the shoulders of one man, Arsenal’s head coach Unai Emery.
The fanbase are almost unanimous in their belief that Emery is no longer the man to take this famous club forward. Everyone has their own method of voicing their opinion but ultimately the belief is the same: Emery is not the man for the job.
Heading into this game, this Saturday 3pm kickoff against Southampton FC, many hoped Emery would be out of the picture but alas the Spaniard is still here, still in charge (seemingly). Our North London neighbours didn’t dither with the uncertainty surrounding their manager; Spurs spent the international break facilitating the release of Mauricio Pochettino and hiring of Jose Mourinho. A match made in heaven.
Arsenal, for some inconceivable reason, are sticking to their guns, stating that Emery has the full support of the board and the club. Results must improve though, because it’s clear he’s on borrowed time. After a string of limp and uninspiring performances, the visit of Southampton had become a must win game – dropping points to relegation candidates is no longer acceptable. It never was.
With that in mind I caught the train into London around midday and met my Dad, brother and nephew for a quick lunch. Central London was in full Christmas shopping mode already, which made finding somewhere to sit down and eat a chore – we settled on a nearby Shake Shack. Good burgers, great fries, and an outstanding milkshake left me a happy man. With our bellies full, Dad and I bid farewell to the others and headed north.
Usually when I go to Arsenal I like to get there early and take in all the sights, browse the shop, go to the pub and all that. It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve been before, it’s still part of my matchday ritual. However, Dad isn’t quite as sentimental, so on this occasion we got to our seats with 15 minutes to spare.
Within minutes of the kickoff, we wished we hadn’t bothered going at all.
I’m not going to do a full match analysis. By now you already know what happened and that’s not really what this blog is for.
I will say that right from the start we could tell Emery’s tactics were wrong. He opted to play five at the back but this did nothing to stem the Southampton attacks. Arsenal were outnumbered in midfield and couldn’t deal with the Saints’ press, especially when they insisted on playing out from the back, something this squad are just not capable of doing. When Danny Ings scored after 8 minutes to give the visitors the lead, it felt inevitable. Arsenal simply could not stop surrendering chances.
Alexandre Lacazette equalised after 18 minutes but despite the fine build-up and finish for the goal, it did nothing to upset the tone Southampton had already set; they continued to press and move effectively through a non-existent Arsenal midfield. The referee didn’t help matters and was generally abysmal in everything he did.
At half time Dad and I discussed changes and I felt one of the centre backs needed to be sacrificed for a substitute, preferably Pepe. Emery must have been listening, as that was exactly the change he made at the break.
Pepe’s introduction initially brought some balance to the side but it was clear to all that the Ivorian’s confidence is dangerously low. He missed what was essentially a one-on-one that could have changed the game entirely, the winger opting to pass instead of shoot, only to see his lame attempt blocked and cleared. Pepe also saw a scuffed attempt ricochet off the bar, after a great run and cross from left back Kieran Tierney. Pepe never recovered from the setback and was largely absent from the action for the rest of the game.
With just under 20 minutes remaining Southampton were awarded a penalty, and I got to experience my first VAR moment in person. I don’t enjoy VAR when I watch on TV and I am firmly in the “VAR is shit” camp when attending games in person. Bernd Leno made a fantastic save to deny James Ward-Prowse from the spot but the ball fell kindly to the Englishman and he made no mistake with the rebound, 2-1 to Southampton.
Things were turning ugly in the stands, and emotions and anger were poured onto the players and manager from all sections of the stadium. Southampton deserved their lead wholeheartedly and should have increased their advantage more than once. Only wasteful finishing saved Arsenal’s further embarrassment.
Finally relief came, and it was Lacazette on hand again to salvage a point in the dying moments of injury time (an astounding 7 minutes, thanks to VAR and Southampton’s endless time wasting). Gabriel Martinelli, on as a late substitute, crossed from the left to pick out Lacazette in the box and the Frenchman made no mistake poking the ball home for 2-2. He didn’t celebrate though, and the team must have known that rescuing a draw at home to 19th placed Southampton is not nearly good enough.
More booing from the fans followed the final whistle and despite Laca’s late goal, there was no joy to be found from it. A 2-2 draw is better than a 2-1 loss of course, but given the circumstances and the expectations, this Arsenal performance was about as bad as I’ve ever witnessed. The heat surrounding Emery continues to rise and surely a decision about his future will be made sooner rather than later.
Dad and I filed out of the Emirates with the other supporters and began the journey home. In the week building up to the game I was seriously considering buying the new Arsenal home shirt, as Adidas have done such a great job with our kits this year. I delayed my purchase though, and decided that if the team played well on the day, I would reward myself with buying the shirt after the match was over. If the team played awful, then I wouldn’t give the club more money they didn’t deserve.
So in hindsight, at least I saved myself £60. You can always find a silver lining if you look close enough. Even, apparently, at Arsenal Football Club.