On a manager’s journey to losing his job, the fans turning against him is a major staging post. For the majority of Arsenal loyalists that moment has arrived with Unai Emery. This is effectively the point of no return.
It is rare to hear a manager speak so candidly about a disconnect between himself, the supporters and their team as Emery did after this, the latest result which drove them that bit further apart.
In some ways you have to admire his hope this is a relationship that can still be repaired. However, that suggests he has totally misjudged the mood and situation. Not for the first time, either.
It did not take long against Southampton before the invective started flying his way.
Five times in the first five minutes, his players either gave the ball away or read its flight incorrectly. Firstly Kieran Tierney, then Hector Bellerin, David Luiz, Sokratis and Lucas Torreira. Cue outrage.
Part of the anger was directed at the team but much of it was aimed at Emery for not having sufficiently sharpened his players’ minds before kick-off. It was a sign of things to come, on and off the pitch, as two Alexandre Lacazette equalisers earned Arsenal an undeserved draw after Danny Ings and James Ward-Prowse had twice put struggling Southampton ahead.
Whether Emery was a standing target in his technical area or out of sight in his dugout seat — a position Arsene Wenger appeared to assume more and more during the dark final days of his reign to avoid antagonising the ‘Wenger out’ brigade — the Spaniard was the lightning rod for the fans’ fury.
There was a little respite at the interval when he shared the fans’ ire with unpopular referee Stuart Atwell, but after the final whistle, seconds after his side had rescued a point that nobody in Arsenal colours celebrated, it was all his.
One young supporter, just before he trudged out of the ground, sent a high-pitched message down to Calum Chambers which he hoped the defender would pass on to Emery after his warm down. It was not a plea for the manager to stay.
Emery said: ‘We know, and I know, that we need to connect with our supporters. I know the key is to take confidence, to achieve the points, the good performances at home and then to take that away.
‘Our target was to win this evening but above all, to connect. We didn’t do that. We lost a very big opportunity and now we will analyse and work on a solution for the next matches.’
A key criticism of Emery is the difficulty he has getting his point across, an issue that has certainly caused problems for some of his players even if the quality of training has been praised. Southampton’s visit provided more examples of his mixed messages.
When he addressed the media ahead of Arsenal’s trip to Leicester earlier this month, Emery, perhaps unwisely in the circumstances, had a little pop at the supporters, claiming ‘in some circumstances they did not help us’.
A fortnight later, the boot was on the other foot and it was Emery and his players at fault for the tense atmosphere inside a ground that, it won’t have gone unnoticed by the powers-that-be, was far from full.
On the pitch, there was more evidence of the muddled thinking that has become a feature of his reign. Eighteen months in, we are no clearer about what an Emery team are supposed to look like or play like. Well, a good Emery team.
Having abandoned his three-at-the-back set-up after last season’s Europa League final hammering by Chelsea, he had reverted to it for the last three games... only to scrap it again at half-time against Southampton.
Emery claims Arsenal’s best period of the season followed the change of formation but, with the same set-up, they were repeatedly carved open by Southampton.
Emery’s confusion has been reflected by his team, whose recent performances have done little to back up his explanation that ‘we play with three centre backs to feel stronger defensively’.
Arsenal’s goal continues to come under fire with alarming regularity, while the attacking unit is not functioning with fluidity despite the array of talent Emery has at his disposal.
‘Now we are going to analyse it and find solutions as to whether we are better with three or two centre backs, the balance, and then work out how we can be stronger defensively and offensively,’ Emery said.
Across north London, Arsenal’s bitter rivals Tottenham have made a headline-grabbing managerial change to try to revive a season that was heading nowhere. Meanwhile, Arsenal are led by a man still trying to work out a preferred approach after all this time.
Arsenal’s hierarchy might be reluctant to make a change until they are left with no alternative, but the growing fury in the stands and the growing gap to the Champions League places are becoming harder to ignore.