In hindsight, the recipe for things to bubble over were obvious. It had been leading to a boiling point since the end of last season and as soon as the new one started, it was starting to become clear that not much had changed. Dissatisfaction starting on forums slowly spread to the ground. Compound this with the shortcomings of the new VAR system, and mix it together in the cauldron pot that is the Emirates, and it’s no surprise that sooner or things would come to a head.
That ire on Sunday, though, was placed less at the coach, or the referee – though that was also pretty severe; it’s just that with the new review system, it’s hard for fans to know that he’s wrong – but on Granit Xhaka, the Arsenal captain, who in some ways is meant to embody the Unai Emery on the pitch.
First it began with cheers which, from where I was sitting in the East Stand (though not necessarily emanating from there), they were loud and humiliating, and then after culminated into boos as Xhaka, his dignity suffering an affront very publicly, decided to goad the fans further.
It was an extraordinary and distasteful moment, one which I admit left me feeling a little emotional and almost ready to walk out of the stadium in solidarity if there wasn’t a match to win. And this The Gunners somehow threw away, undone in the end by VAR twice, sandwiching the Xhaka incident, and raising the Arsenal fans indignation even more.
The capitulation felt inevitable even if Arsenal started strongly, scoring two goals in 10 the first minutes. They were both from corners and although Alexander Lacazette forced a good save shortly after, the team laboured to create any real good openings from open play. By contrast, Crystal Palace dominated and probably deserved their penalty to pull one back. Arsenal sat back, though this was also part of their plan because Emery chose to use a 4-4-2 and as such, with the system could dovetail between being compact and defending deeper, with still having having possession deeper but with the potential of playing the forwards in quickly. A chameleon system. It was unexpected to see him make this compromise because so far this season he has practiced a variation of a three-man midfield.
However, a few things haven’t quite gone to plan. The alienation of Mesut Ozil means there is a lack of link player in advanced midfield and whilst he necessarily doesn’t play with a playmaking no.10 – rather they are valued more for their physical attributes – he still expects that player to get into pockets of space.
He began the season with Joe Willock and then recently brought him back to the fold. The result has been a disastrous example of man-management, particularly of a young player, as he has hauled him off the last two times at half-time, almost scapegoating him for the fact that his system makes it almost impossible for the number 10 not to be peripheral.
Indeed, the way Emery sets out his midfield means they tend to play in a straight line, whether that’s if he uses his favoured double-pivot, or more recently, experimenting with a 4-3-3 stretched across the pitch. With (one) less player(s) stepping into the final-third, between-the-lines, it’s no surprise that most of the attacks are funneled wide, though it’s unarguable that he wants his side to attack down the flanks, and the no.10 marginalised.
The topic of creativity was spoken about pre-Crystal Palace with Emery giving a impassioned defence on how he can help Arsenal improve in this aspect.
“Sometimes we forget the memory and we need remember,” he said. “When I arrived here, this team needed to improve being more competitive. This team in the history was winning 1-0 and being very competitive, but it wasn’t enough. Then one process being competitive and with improved creativity.
“When I arrived here, the creativity is more or less good, but being competitive was worse. It was not enough.
“I think last year I started to improve being competitive, also more or less creativity with some very good matches playing with that creativity. This year we are in that process if only we change one step more, but also with patience because our strategy as a club is some new players, young players, we changed 10 players who were leaving and continuing being competitive.
“We are being competitive. Creativity, maybe we lost some thing a little, but I know we are going to recover that and my point of view is, the matches we played against Nottingham, OK Championship, Standard Liege, OK Belgian League, Frankfurt, these are the matches.
“In the Premier League, we won at home, we play some moments with very good creativity and spirit, for example the second half against Tottenham, and this is the next step I want to give the team and also to show our supporters our energy, our intensity because I think that is one thing we improved last year and this year, intensity, energy. I remember a lot of matches at home we won playing with a big connection with our supporters.”
So Emery thinks creativity can be improved by increasing intensity, but how can his Arsenal under him, known for painstakingly meticulous, slow, and flawed build-up with the ball deep, do this higher up the pitch? In a sense, moving to the 4-4-2 against Crystal Palace was the first step to achieve this, because he chose a system that still retained the deep build-up style of having two central midfielders behind the ball, but he hoped, by deploying Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang together, that the team would be able to hit the two strikers quicker.
Creativity by definition, then, is plural. It doesn’t just come from line-splitting passes, but also by runs that open up the defence; from players that can dribble with the ball, and like Matteo Guendouzi and Pepe, players who are able to take the game by the scruff of the neck. Emery further explains this in his pre-match conference.
“We have players to improve our creativity,” Emery said. “But we can analyse and explain different matches this season, less and more, less than we want but with a big creativity. For example on Monday in Sheffield in the creativity in the first build-up we did better than in a lot of matches. In the last attacking third it was the most difficult because they had a lot of people there.
“But It’s the not the issue for one or two players, it’s for all. Sometimes it’s going inside, or doing 1-2, sometimes it’s going for right or left side, sometimes it’s to go behind with passes. We have players to do that but not just one.”
Still, Arsenal failed to be truly threatening until they had to chase the win. The start was encouraging as they started with a good intensity, and forced the two early goals – both from corner-kicks. But Crystal Palace were able to get back into the game and dominated the first-half. Arsenal found that they couldn’t really press their opponents and Luka Milojevic, playing holding midfield in a 4-3-3, was able to dictate play. The 4-4-2 worked mostly fine with the ball, but out of possession, lacked the required intensity. It needed at least one of two changes; for one of the strikers to drop off and get close to Milojevic, or for a more mobile midfielder alongside Guendouzi to step out and harass.
This last part is probably one of the reasons why fans grew more irked at Xhaka because in this game, he seemed a little redundant. Guendouzi took ownership of possession deep, and even when the Frenchman didn’t immediately get the ball from the back, David Luiz would look to step out into midfield and provoke the opponents to come out. Xhaka still offered himself as much as possible on the ball, but found that he was forced to pick up the ball in advanced areas as a more natural number 8 would be expected to. He was also a bit clumsy chasing opponents, and in the end, was a bit slow to react to Crystal Palace’s equaliser when James McArthur ran beyond him.
The change in formation, then, didn’t produce the desired impact Emery wanted. His final attempt to bring creativity to the line-up was to start Dani Ceballos left-midfield, the position he plays for his national team. The Spaniard began promisingly and actually brought a bit of fluidity to the set-up, helping the two man-midfield to bring balance in possession, and then using that ambiguity to get into pockets of space to create. His final ball, however, was underwhelming, and looked even more suspect when he moved centrally in the second-half, under-cooking a few passes. It’s clear that Ceballos is lacking confidence and doesn’t even appear convinced himself what is his best role.
It seems as if Emery signed him initially to use him as a mix between an 8 and a 10, but the more he has played, the more unconventional he has looked as a central midfielder, usually favouring the left side to pick the ball up rather than necessarily the middle. Left-midfield is probably his best role as it allows him to move into pockets with freedom and indeed, using him in this way is almost an Arsene Wenger type of move from Emery, to help balance a top-heavy attack. It remains to be seen whether Emery will persist with this set-up – whatever he uses is usually opponent-dependent anyway – but the draw to Crystal Palace left an unsavoury taste in more ways than one.