Arsenal are the visitors to Carrow Road this weekend, and the Gunners will be looking to rectify a run of five Premier League games without a win against Norwich City.
Ahead of the game, canaries.co.uk caught up with James McNicholas, who covers the club’s fortunes for The Athletic.
This interview took place prior to the sacking of Unai Emery.
canaries.co.uk: There’s a lot of talk around the manager’s job at the moment. What do you want to happen?
JM: Personally, I think it’s time for a change. Arsenal started the season with a lot of optimism. They made some really excellent signings, particularly Nicolas Pepe. That energised the fanbase and made people forget about the dismal end to last season where they failed to qualify for the Champions League and were hammered in the Europa League final by Chelsea. There was a lot of unrest in the summer, but the transfer business made people think ‘ok, maybe this year will be better’.
Unfortunately, performances have got worse. If you look at Unai Emery’s record since the Spring, it just seems to be in a spiral in terms of results and performances. They’re in a position now where a change is probably required to arrest the slump.
canaries.co.uk: The board have said they’ll be backing him until the Summer. Do you see that happening?
JM: Spurs have piled a bit of pressure on Arsenal by sacking Mauricio Pochettino. They’re the neighbours, the rivals, and Mourinho has come in and there has already been a little bit of an upturn in performances and results. That inevitably puts pressure on the Arsenal hierarchy, but they don’t want to fall into the same trap as Manchester United.
There’s a sense from the executive team that they are worried about the possibility of getting onto that managerial merry go round. The appointment of Emery was one of the biggest decisions the club had to make in the last 20 years in terms of coaching staff. There’s a reticence to admit they got it wrong.
If they’re holding on, it can only be because in some way they believe the timing isn’t right. Whether that’s because there are other targets who could be candidates who aren’t available at the moment, or whether it’s because – based on performances – it might be more expedient to get rid of Emery later in the season once it’s known they can’t qualify for the Champions League, that’s speculation on my part. I don’t know.
It’s very difficult to discern what they can be looking at in terms of what we’re seeing on the pitch and taking it as a positive sign.
canaries.co.uk: You mentioned Manchester United. The situation isn’t perfect at their club, but is it fair to say the mood among their fans isn’t as bad as at Arsenal, even though United are one more point adrift of the top four than the Gunners?
JM: I think so. For Arsenal, try though they might to avoid what they saw as a failure to replace Sir Alex Ferguson adequately, Arsenal are kind of on that trajectory too. They went for Emery who’s something different to what they’re used to, a bit of a culture shock.
Actually, I won’t speak for all Arsenal fans, but I think for a sizeable portion of them a lot of the things they struggle with regarding Emery are reasons that he’s very different to Wenger. People really felt they wanted something different and new, but the more time goes on, we’ve got this guy who is maybe more negative than Wenger, doesn’t play as attractive football or have consistency of selection, doesn’t have a clear philosophy, worries too much about the opponent – for all those things the inverse was true for Arsene.
If you look at United, they went for Solskjaer. There’s a kind of nostalgia in that appointment harking back to a previous day. I do wonder if a change does come at Arsenal if the fans might find themselves wanting an Arsenal guy in there, be it Mikel Arteta, Patrick Viera or Freddie Ljungberg.
There’s already a nostalgia for the old Arsenal and maybe that’s what keeps United fans a little bit more content. Fundamentally, they identify with their manager more and believe in an upward trajectory, which doesn’t seem to be the case at Arsenal.
canaries.co.uk: Where has it been going wrong on the pitch? We know how good the attackers are, but they’ve been having much fewer shots than previous seasons.
JM: Pepe was the big summer signing and there was hope Emery would put him alongside Aubameyang and Lacazette and that that might be a front three to rival Liverpool or Man City’s front threes. It’s a great front three on paper, but they’ve started together twice this season. That tells its own story.
If you throw Mesut Ozil into that, the other really talented Arsenal attacker, that front four have never started a match together. There has been a reluctance from Emery to use these players in tandem.
The degree and frequency to which they change formation and personnel means there’s just never a sense the Arsenal players have those automatisms you expect or that connectivity. They look like strangers to each other, and in fairness to them, a lot of the time they are because they’re playing in new positions or new systems. There’s no consistency of selection and they don’t really develop any kind of style.
Emery talks about wanting to be a chameleon manager, but a chameleon by its nature ends up looking a bit like its surroundings, or in Arsenal’s case the opposition. They make every game close. If they’re playing Man United, they make a close game of it, but if they’re playing Southampton, it feels like there’s such an emphasis on counter-acting Southampton’s strengths that they end up going into their shells and making that a close game.
I’m sure it will be a close game with Norwich too even though you have to say, on paper, Arsenal have the more talented squad.
When Emery came in, in his first press conference he spoke about wanting to be a protagonist and he wanted his team to press. The stats show the pressing has completely diminished. It’s steadily decreased over Emery’s time in the job and they now sit very deep, partly because David Luiz isn’t quick and doesn’t want to get caught.
They’ve been out-shot in more than half their games this season. Watford had 31 shots on their goal, most of which came in one half. Southampton comfortably out-shot them last week at the Emirates Stadium. They’re playing a really strange conservative game and poor Aubameyang had three shots in three matches prior to the Southampton game.
canaries.co.uk: The first eight games of the season, apart from Watford away, delivered respectable results for Arsenal. It’s only in the last five games, home and away, where they’ve had the kinds of results you wouldn’t expect.
JM: The only thing I would say to that is that even in those games that were going well on the results front, they weren’t playing well. The underlying metrics such as the xG and the amount of chances conceded were not pretty.
There was a sense that they were getting by with the fact they’ve got an outstanding finisher in Aubameyang who takes every half-chance he gets and a very good goalkeeper who doesn’t get enough credit in Bernd Leno. He’s made more saves than any other Premier League goalkeeper this season.
They kept it respectable, but in the entirety of Emery’s time there, the underlying metrics show a mid-table team and not much better. They went on a 22-game unbeaten run at the start of last season, but they were pretty lucky in that run. There was hope that performances would catch up with results but instead the opposite has happened, and they’ve been found out.
canaries.co.uk: It’s a different saga altogether, but do you see any way back into the team for Granit Xhaka?
JM: There’s talk he might play this evening against Frankfurt. It’s a strange occasion because no Frankfurt fans are allowed in the stadium due to a ban. Consequently, Arsenal haven’t been allowed to put tickets on general sale because German fans would buy them.
The expectation is that the stadium, especially given how disenchanted everyone is with the team, will be at best half full. It will be a very weird atmosphere, and that might be an opportunity for them to sneak Xhaka back in.
The crazy thing is, as poor as he’s been, and as much as the fans are done with him over what happened, since he’s come out the team, they haven’t been any better. If anything, they’ve been worse. For all his flaws, he does bring a certain element of strategy to the team, but he has not really apologised wholeheartedly for his actions.
He was stripped of the captaincy and has taken that very hard. My personal opinion is that as soon as the January transfer window opens, irrespective of whether he’s used between now and then, I think he’ll be off.
canaries.co.uk: Despite the results and negativity surrounding the club, which players have been doing well of late?
JM: Aubameyang and Leno, for sure. At both ends of the pitch, there are guys who are making the numbers up by scoring goals and making saves. Beyond that, it’s genuinely very difficult to say. It’s almost at the point where what’s going wrong at Arsenal is so profound that it’s difficult to analyse individuals.
Matteo Guendouzi is a really promising young player and he’s inconsistent, as any 20-year-old midfielder is prone to be, but he’s been the first name on the team-sheet in midfield this season. In a team that is struggling, he shows plenty of character, and that’s maybe not something Arsenal have too much of in terms of leadership qualities. To see that from a young player is really encouraging. You just hope that playing in a struggling side without much shape to it doesn’t dampen his prospects, because I think he’s a massive talent.
canaries.co.uk: What do you think would represent a good season for Arsenal from this point on?
JM: Arsenal have been so concerned with getting back into the Champions League that they didn’t stop to think they might not make the Europa League. That’s what it looks like at the moment. I think that, funnily enough, the Premier League campaign might fade into the background a bit.
The gap between Arsenal and Leicester, Chelsea and Man City is significant. If things stay as they are, I don’t really see them overhauling it. Given that, their best route back into Europe and the Champions League might come from the Europa League. They’ve not been taking it particularly seriously in the group stages, rotating heavily, but it might become their priority.
If Emery stays at the club, it wouldn’t surprise me to see a situation where the stronger teams and the emphasis is going into that competition. If they can somehow muddle their way through to the final, they will effectively be in a play-off for Champions League qualification and that’s probably their best shot.
The only warning you’d add is that they got their last season and got absolutely battered, so it’s difficult to put all your eggs in that basket, but they might not have a choice.
You can follow James on Twitter @JamesMcNicholas.