Arsenal stand to squander all the hard work that has earned them success this year unless they find a way to turn around their miserable away form.
The stark reality is, if Unai Emery can’t happen upon a quick fix in the next fortnight, we could find ourselves out of the Europa League and out of the running for the Champions League too.
If that’s not pressure, I don’t know what is.
In amongst all the usual post-match blandishments on Thursday night, however, Emery offered up a few interesting insights into his battle with the team’s away form and how he sees the shortcomings that seemed to have bamboozled everyone, including many of his players who simply say ‘I don’t know’ when quizzed about the home versus away conundrum.
“Each match is going to be very difficult. We are winning here because we feel very strong with our supporters and our confidence, with each player giving all they can. Away, we are fighting against teams.
They feel the same when they play against us. For example, Watford on Monday is a very difficult match, because they are a good team and they are going t feel stronger at home with their supporters. It’s the same next week in Naples, they will feel different to today.
We need to be competitive, we need to be strong in our mentality to try to do the same situation we are doing at home.
Sometimes when we have the ball with the first action, when we have space, we need to attack the space. Sometimes away, we’re a little more [cautious], losing the speed we have at home. This is our challenge to find our success in this season. We need to be consistent like we are at home, maybe in a different way, with different ideas, players or systems. But [we need] the same mentality when we play away.”
I suspect a lot of what goes wrong on the road is to do with confidence and the self-fulfilling prophecy of Arsenal’s poor form on the road that the players must find a way to snap.
Most interesting in what Emery had to say was his reference to caution. His suggestion is that his players are, subconsciously or otherwise, dropping the pace and playing too safe on the road – a problem they clearly don’t have.
While I would wholeheartedly agree with that assessment, I wonder if in some way Emery contributes to that subconscious constipation by selecting ‘safer’ teams. I think of the matches at West Ham and Everton as prime examples. On both occasions, Emery played what you could describe as defensive systems, featuring players not renowned for their passing and playmaking ability.
On a subconscious level, is that selection impacting the players? Do they place too great an emphasis on the message the manager is sending in his selection and act accordingly? In the aforementioned matches, the Gunners played exactly as the team selections suggested they would: turgidly.
So when Emery mentioned playing in a “different way, with different ideas, players or systems”, it seems to be tacit admission that his side have simply been too conservative on the road.
In part, I’m sure that has been a hangover of the Arsene Wenger era, where the club’s away form descended into an open joke in the first half of 2018, and high on Emery’s agenda was righting that wrong.
In trying to do so with largely the same group of players, however, it would seem he has gone too far in the opposite direction, and Arsenal’s key strengths have been nullified.
With that epiphany, it will be interesting to see how Emery sets up on Monday night; will he stick with the cautious approach and hope for a break early on, or will he stack his side in the same way as he does in home fixtures and hope the attacking power can offset the defensive vulnerability?
One thing is certain, whatever he decides to do, it will need to deliver and do so straight away.