Sunday 16 June 2019

Jason Burt: 'Emery in firing line as Arsenal season threatens to fall apart at the seams'


Arsenal manager Unai Emery. Photo: Steven Paston/PA Wire
Arsenal manager Unai Emery. Photo: Steven Paston/PA Wire

Jason Burt

No other club in the top six are on the cusp like Arsenal. Manchester City and Liverpool will be up there again when the Premier League restarts in August. Likewise, Tottenham Hotspur, who also have the huge boon of a new stadium on which to capitalise.

Those three are head and shoulders above the rest. Strong, coherent clubs heading in the right direction.

With Manchester United and Chelsea, the fault lines are exposed.

Whether either finish in the top four, or qualify for the Champions League, the task is already clear.

United need a major overhaul and have the finances to do it.

There is a bigger picture going on at Chelsea, which stretches beyond what happens on the pitch, which competitions they play in and who the head coach is - and that is whether Roman Abramovich will continue to own the club, something that should be resolved in the coming months. Until then, they are just ticking over.

For Arsenal, it is in the balance. If it goes one way, then they have made progress since Arsene Wenger finally left and they can herald that; if it goes the other, then familiar failings in the dog days of his era have not been dealt with and there will be a sense of inertia.

A maximum of five games will decide it. No manager should be judged on a handful of results and the general consensus is that Unai Emery has done a competent job.

But that has turned in recent weeks. Bad defeats do that and since the impressive Europa League quarter-final win over Napoli, Arsenal have lost momentum and Emery has to take responsibility.

Defeats at home by Crystal Palace - ending that formidable run of results at the Emirates - and away against Wolverhampton Wanderers and Leicester City have blown the wheels off finishing in the top four, it seems.

It is the first time that Arsenal have lost three consecutive league games while conceding at least three goals each time since May 1966. So, it is just not the defeats but the manner of them.

At the same time, Emery has changed his team, changed his tactics and confused everyone - not least some of his players.

Seven changes were made from the line-up who beat Napoli to the team who faced Palace and then a further seven to the side who started at Wolves. Four more changes were made to play Leicester.

In that chopping and changing, 20 players have started at least one of the past four games, which is the kind of mass rotation which suggests this squad are not fit for purpose and are much of a muchness as Emery searches hard for a solution.

But it could quickly look a lot rosier. Last season, Arsenal finished in sixth place with 63 points, 12 points off a top-four place, and lost in the semi-finals of the Europa League.

This season, Arsenal have already acquired 66 points with two games to go, are two points off a top-four place and are again in the semi-finals of the Europa League.

As with last season, they face Spanish opposition, but with arguably a more winnable two-legged tie in playing Valencia, starting on Thursday, rather than Atletico Madrid, who knocked them out to end Wenger's hopes of leaving with a trophy.

So, it is still in their grasp to have a good campaign.

They have two shots at qualifying for the Champions League, which would make a significant change to their outlook and, crucially, give Emery further funds.

He needs the money. Like United, it appears Arsenal will finish outside the top four and there are parallels with the squads at both clubs: highly-paid players who have underachieved and exist in a comfort zone, lacking appetite but maybe just not good enough.

Emery would not say it, but there are probably very few in the squad that he would really want to keep and he needs the extra funds from qualifying for the Champions League to strengthen his hand.

It is understood that Arsenal, still to appoint a director of football, to add further uncertainty, are only budgeting for around £40 million to spend this summer without the Champions League.

That sum is extremely low in today's market and especially with work needed in every area of the team and pressure already on a wage bill which is overinflated and is, on average, more than £1m-a-year per player (£4.85m) higher than Tottenham's (£3.5m) and just behind Liverpool's.

The problem for Emery is that recent results have also cast doubts on him.

He works the players, although there have been grumblings about his tactics and team selection - familiar, in fact, to when he was at Paris St-Germain when he was accused of worrying more about stopping the opposition than playing to his team's strengths.

Emery needs to arrest this and that will be far easier to achieve if, by one means or the other, he gains a place in the Champions League.

Otherwise the discontent, and that sense of inertia, will grow. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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