For more than 20 years, Arsenal has been known for its attractive brand of passing and possession soccer. It’s the style Arsène Wenger brought with him to North London in 1996 and has become engrained in the club’s DNA in the decades since. Under the tutelage of Wenger, tremendous players such as Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp, Robert Pires, Cesc Fabregas, Mesut Özil and many, many more made Arsenal world-renown for its exciting soccer.
But this wasn’t always the case. Under George Graham in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, the club was often derisively referred to as “boring, boring Arsenal.” Club supporters, being the smart alecks they always are, adopted that mantle—along with the song “One-Nil To The Arsenal,” a frequent scoreline during that period—and used it to thumb their nose at rivals during what was a rather successful era of the club despite the boring brand of soccer being played on the pitch.
Under Wenger and in the years since, both the “boring, boring Arsenal” chant and “One-Nil To The Arsenal” were wielded ironically by Arsenal supporters. They would chant “boring, boring Arsenal” during a spell when they were creating chance after chance after chance. They’d sing “One-Nil To The Arsenal” after the first goal and expect many more to follow. And oftentimes, they did.
Now in the second season post-Wneger, Arsenal has reverted back to being “boring, boring Arsenal,” and I don’t mean that in any kind of ironic way. Under Unai Emery, the Gunners have played some of the most listless, lifeless soccer in the English Premier League this season. And this reversion back to the club’s boring roots is a major reason fans are losing trust in Emery, and a major reason why Emery’s time in North London may be nearing its end.
Through 11 Premier League matches this season, Arsenal has score 16 goals, tied for seventh in the league. In the grand scheme, that’s not terrible. But it ranks Arsenal closer to clubs such as Bournemouth, Brighton and Aston Villa than it does the top four teams in the league—Liverpool, Manchester City, Leicester and Chelsea—all of which have scored more than 25 Premier League goals this season.
The main culprit for this lack of goals is Arsenal’s seeming reluctance to shoot. The Gunners rank eighth in the Premier League in terms of shots per game with 12.9. Wenger was often criticized for his teams’ propensity to pass the ball around the box too much and wait for the perfect shot, but Emery is somehow worse. It’s not that his players are working around looking for a perfect shot. They’re looking for any shot. The way Emery deploys his team around goal isn’t conducive to creating clear chances, which leads to long stretches of Arsenal holding the ball around the box without even a shot to show from it. It’s every bit as ineffective as it it frustrating to watch, and that’s saying something.
Arsenal supporters should be thanking their lucky stars for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, because without him, they’d be in an even worse predicament. Of the club’s 16 Premier League goals, eight have been scored by Aubameyang. It’s an indictment of Emery that a team so rich with attacking talent is so devoid of attacking threats.
Emery’s system is also predicated on passing out from the back at almost all costs, which makes Arsenal sitting ducks to teams that like to press high. (Almost every team in the Premier League presses high now.) Arsenal players pass from side-to-side, up to the midfield, back to defense, to the keeper, back to the defense, side-to-side and so on and so on. There’s some logic to this approach. If you can draw in the defense, it creates openings at the other end of the pitch. But Arsenal does it poorly and it leads to boring soccer. Even worse, it leads to more chances for its opponents. Arsenal is allowing 16.2 shots per match this season, third-worst in the Premier League. The combination of an inability to create shots and an inability to stop shots has led to some dreadful, disastrous performances this season, and there’s no reason to expect it will change.
At his first press conference as Arsenal manager, Emery made a point to say under his system, Arsenal would be “protagonists.” There’s a language barrier, but most fans took that to mean Emery wanted to continue to be an attacking, adventurous side that would take games to it opponents. In his second season, it’s become clear that Emery is an inherently conservative coach who is often fearful of putting too much pressure forward.
That doesn’t square with the ethos of Arsenal, and fans have began turning on Emery en masse as a result. It would be one thing if he was playing this style and winning. That’s not what’s happening, though. He’s playing dreadful soccer and dreadful results have followed. There’s a lack of both style and substance. Emery could likely survive the season if he had one or the other. But with neither, he’s lost the trust of the supporters. The only question now is how many more boring Arsenal matches they’ll have to sit through before Emery finally gets the sack.