Perhaps it was unfair to accuse Unai Emery of having no vision for Arsenal. On the contrary, he had dozens of them. Three at the back, four at the back. Two up front, one upfront. A diamond midfield, three in midfield, nobody in midfield (or Granit Xhaka, which very often amounted to the same thing). Pressing, not pressing. A high defensive line. A low block. And, of course, their signature tactic: gormlessly gawping while a spirited opposition team cut straight through them before standing with hands on hips, deciding who to blame.
There is a particular pathos to Arsenal in the seconds after they have conceded a goal. It’s like a scene from an Alan Ayckbourn play: all wounded looks and outstretched arms, wild accusations and smoldering treachery. In a way, this is a trait that long pre-dates Emery, and on this early evidence will outlast him too. As Teemu Pukki and Todd Cantwell imperturbably slotted home Norwich’s two goals, the cantankerous debrief could begin in earnest. What was that? And where were you? Me? I was over there, covering for him. Hang on, is it our kick-off?
On the touchline the interim coach, Freddie Ljungberg, eyed the unfolding farce with pursed lips. Ljungberg has been appointed as caretaker largely on the strength of his familiarity with the club: a decade as a garlanded player, 18 months as a quietly-admired coach. “Freddie has Arsenal DNA,” the director Josh Kroenke explained this week. To Arsenal fans mourning their decline and loss of identity under Emery this all feels cosy, reassuring. Nobody really bothered to ask the obvious question. What is Arsenal DNA, exactly?
In the popular imagination, it’s probably synonymous with dominant, attacking, visionary football: some offspring of Herbert Chapman and the Invincibles, gene-spliced with Liam Brady and violently adulterated with some mutant Martin Keown. What is more telling, in a way, is the idea that club DNA can somehow be physically implanted into a host body, as if by teat pipette. At the very least, the Ljungberg interregnum represents a sort of palate-cleanser after the unfolding Emery nightmare: a reset, a refresh, perhaps even a bump in results that will buy Kroenke and his board a little time.
Those who have worked with Ljungberg describe him as curious, cerebral, free-thinking: a quiet improver rather than a messianic genius, the sort of character who likes to tap into a player’s subconscious and discover what motivates them. A sort of bald Freud, if you will. And since being promoted from the under-23s to the first team in the summer, he will have had plenty of time to peer into the eyes of this squad and assess their mettle. What he saw here, as Arsenal flailed and thrashed their way to a seat-of-their-pants draw against the Premier League’s 19th-placed side, may have dismayed him. But it will not have surprised him.
It’s striking, for example, how rarely you see an Arsenal player genuinely sprinting at full pelt. Occasionally you will see them running, but it is very much a going-through-the-motions, leave-your-desk-at-5pm sort of running. It’s striking how few second balls they win. And as Norwich caught them on the counter time and again, it was striking just how hesitant they seemed in the jaws of contact: dainty tackles, squeamish blocks, toes tentatively offered in the general direction of the ball. Arsenal players defend like every part of their body is their face.
And so there was the skittish Onel Hernández, allowed to saunter deep into the Arsenal penalty area from just in front of the dugouts, with not a scintilla of resistance. There was Pukki, utterly hoodwinking David Luiz for the first goal with the old pro’s trick of changing direction. There was Shkodran Mustafi, meanwhile, pointing vaguely in the direction of where he himself should probably have been going.
Talent is not really the issue here. Arsenal fans may like to complain that their squad is not good enough, but when you compare them to the likes of Wolves and Leicester, let alone Sheffield United or Norwich, that’s always felt like something of a cop-out. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s two scruffy equalizers neatly proved the point: this is a team who will always have the individuals to dig them out of trouble.
Rather, it is better understood as a failure of commitment, of which the defensive blame game is just one symptom. In many ways, it’s an ethos that will chime with many London residents: get Uber to drive you around, Just Eat to make your dinner, Ocado to deliver your shopping, Calum Chambers to do your marking. Were it not for the inspired Bernd Leno, Norwich might easily have burgled a win on the weight of their second-half chances. And so here we were: a seventh draw in 14 league games, and the foreboding sense that Arsenal were still slightly fortunate.
None of this, of course, felt very new. This, perhaps, is the most alarming element of all. The shambolic defending, the sloppy goals, the disjointed passing, the soft-pedaled running. Insofar as the modern Arsenal have an identity, this is it. Perhaps, on reflection, Ljungberg’s real task isn’t to embody Arsenal’s DNA but to change it.