What should’ve been, and what almost was, a desperately needed victory instead became more reason for acrimony and turmoil. A floundering Arsenal hosted Crystal Palace on Sunday, and after jumping out to a 2–0 lead early on, the Gunners threw away their advantage and wound up settling for a draw. From the result itself, to the context in which it came, to the fans’ reaction to what is shaping up to be yet another disappointing season, things at Arsenal are going from bad to worse.
No moment from Sunday’s match better encapsulated the current state of Arsenal than when team captain Granit Xhaka was subbed off in the 61st minute. As Xhaka made his way off the pitch, the team having given up the demoralizing equalizer about 10 minutes earlier, the home fans serenaded their captain with a chorus of boos and jeers. Hearing this response, a defiant Xhaka cupped his ear to the crowd, and mouthed “Fuck off” in the fans’ direction a couple times before ripping off his shirt and heading straight down the tunnel:
The boos might’ve been targeted at Xhaka, a player Gooners have never taken a shine to, but the sentiment of frustration would be best applied to the whole club. Arsenal don’t seem to know who they want to be right now. Despite having what looked like an excellent summer at the time, the Gunners have made no appreciable improvements on the pitch. The Arsenal squad, outside of an incredibly weak central defense, is on paper very strong—too strong to be gagging up a commanding lead at home against Palace, and too strong to be playing such unremarkable soccer.
It’s becoming increasingly clear that the fault for Arsenal’s stagnation lays in large part with manager Unai Emery. Emery was supposed to be the modern, pragmatic coach who would finally fix the issues that continually plagued Arsenal during the last few years of Arsène Wenger’s tenure. And to be fair to Emery, this is a new Arsenal. Wenger’s team was defined by flowing, free, gorgeous attacking synchronicity and an almost comic defensive frailty. Emery has tweaked that and created a team that is rigid and restrained, with zero fluidity in the final third, and with similarly weak defending. So, new, but worse.
If Emery were coaching any other team in the Big Six and had the record he has at Arsenal—a collapse at the end of last season that frittered away a golden opportunity to grab an all-important Champions League spot; a ho-hum start to his second year with a squad more than talented enough to claim a top-four finish, especially with down seasons from Manchester United and Tottenham; the complete erasure of the attractive and attacking style of play the club has become known for—then he would likely already be fired. Arsenal fans, probably because they are unfamiliar with managerial change, have yet to fully turn on the manager, and instead have made Xhaka—a damn good player whom Emery does no favors with the team’s playing style and line-up decisions—the focus of their ire. The players, however, are less blind and reportedly are more angry.
Emery said after the match that Xhaka “was wrong” to stick up for himself after catching hell from the fans, and the Evening Standard reports that Arsenal are considering possibly stripping Xhaka of the captaincy because of the ordeal. This does not seem to have endeared the manager to his players. The Athletic has a report that says the Arsenal locker room backs Xhaka, in contrast to Emery. According to the Athletic, “three senior players went to visit Xhaka at home on Sunday evening to offer support.” Another report in the Evening Standard says the players were “shocked by the level of vitriol aimed at the 28-year-old, believing he has been made a scapegoat for criticism of Emery.”
Arsenal’s transition from the Wenger era to whatever came next was always going to be a difficult one. For more that two decades Wenger offered Arsenal stability, a coherent vision, attacking excellence, success, and a sense of calm that can only come when a club, its players, and its fans have implicit trust in the leadership of the man in charge. Wenger was Arsenal, Arsenal were Wenger, and both entities were good; maybe not as good as everyone would’ve liked, but good nonetheless.
Now that Wenger’s gone, the club has yet to find a new identity or a manager capable of defining and achieving this new identity. The only thing that’s certain is that Emery is looking less and less like the man for the job. The results show it, and, judging from the reports, the players themselves are starting to realize it, too. Next is for the fans and the club to come to this conclusion, and to decide whether the best course of action is to trust that Emery can become that person or to try someone new sooner rather than later.