By Gaurav Partap Singh | Edited by Kabir Ali
For Arsenal fans, the Europa League final at Baku was an all too familiar sight. Seeing their attractive football and determination push them for so long, only to fall short of the finish line. Serial Europa League winner Unai Emery was left rubbing his chin multiple times on the night, indicative of his confusion and disbelief at what he was watching.
While it was a new sight for Emery, it was the same old for most Gooners. Since most senior figures departed Arséne Wenger’s Arsenal locker room in the years between 2004 to 2008, Arsenal have simply failed to deliver, failing to replace players that departed the club during that phase, including but not limited to former club-captain Patrick Vieira. Since then, Apart from Cesc Fabregas, The Gunners have not had a single central midfielder to play the position consistently for 3 consecutive seasons. Neither have they had a midfielder who could elicit the same fear from opponents. This loss of winning mentality and personality has not only affected the midfield but has plagued Arsenal’s dressing room since.
Looking to recover debts from their 2006 stadium move to the Emirates through the sale of players, one would expect a football club of Arsenal’s stature to be wise in the market. Failure to replace most of their talented men with like for like replacements, coupled with the fact that not one player in the 12 years since had served as captain for three consecutive seasons, often departing the club during their captaincy, just about sums things up at the moment.
Where the players have been physically strong, they have lacked mental strength. Where they have been technically gifted, they have lacked physical strength. What is worse is that unlike the best football teams in the world, the North London outfit has never had a strong football spine to aid its technical players. When one looks at teams that are serial winners – Real Madrid and Barcelona, Manchester United under Ferguson, Liverpool of yesteryear, and now Manchester City, there has been a clear spine with a toughness that complements the technically gifted artists from each team. The group of Casillas, Ramos, Kroos, and Ronaldo at Madrid; Bravo, Pique, Busquets, and Messi at Barcelona; Van der Saar, Vidic, Scholes, and Rooney at Manchester United – the list goes on. This spine is crucial to football-winning DNA. No team without one has ever won anything.
Off the field developments have added to Arsenal’s poor performances – at this point, it is just difficult to ascertain whether the stench flows top-down or bottom-up. It all comes down to ownership, personnel changes, contract negotiations, and transfers.
Multiple personnel changes off the field that have served to destabilize the club even further if that were possible. The biggest change was the end of Arsene Wenger’s 22-year reign at the club. Despite his contributions to The Gunners and English football, the Frenchman’s departure announcement was met with more relief and happiness from most Arsenal fans, who believed it was clear that “Le Professeur’s” best days were behind him. Wenger failed to win a single Premier League title since his famous Invincible season of 2003-04, the three FA Cups in four seasons between 2013 and 2017 his only silverware since the move from Highbury. Some claimed that problems arose from a conflict between Gazidis and Wenger. The two were at odds regarding Wenger’s responsibilities, especially from the business side, with the former pushing for the adoption of the “continental model” adopted by a host of other top clubs. Enter Unai Emery. The famed Spanish tactician known for winning 3 straight UEFA Europa League titles with Sevilla was employed as head coach by The Gunners in the Summer of 2018.
Next, CEO Ivan Gazidis left the club for sunnier pastures in Milan. Arsenal’s sporting director at the time, famed for his ability to find promising talent, Sven Mislintat was forced to terminate his contract due to differences in his vision for the club. He was behind the transfers of Lucas Torreira and Matteo Guendouzi. Two more talking heads were appointed in Vinai Venkatesham and Raul Sanllehi in the Director of Football and Managing Director roles, respectively.
Since Wenger’s tenure, Arsenal have often found themselves with their backs against the wall in the contract negotiation room, developing a bad habit of allowing their best players’ contracts to run down to its final year. They then have to either cough up a large wage for the new contract or risk letting the player walk for free. Despite the multiple chances Arsenal had to learn from their mistakes, they continued the trend with Aaron Ramsey in 2018, who departed to Juventus on a free transfer. Meanwhile, the club focused on giving contracts to players who bring in money off the field, but seldom deliver performances on it. Case in point, Mesut Ozil.
Ozil joined The North London outfit from Real Madrid in September 2013 after an impressive showing in the La Liga with 16 assists in his final season. After helping to bring back some silverware to the Emirates in his first few seasons, Ozil’s performances in big matches have been largely underwhelming. Still, the German was rewarded with a contract extension in February 2018 till 2021 worth a whopping £350,000 per week, making him the highest paid player at the club. Fans are naturally upset that a player like Ramsey who gave his 100% for the club every game, fought back from a broken leg to help The Gunners win 3 FA Cups over four years was shown the door while Ozil, who has the coolest of trick-shots and even cooler heat maps, was given an extension.
Due to Kroenke’s lack of investment into Arsenal, the club is forced to run on a “sustainable model” based on revenue generation. In other words, the club can only spend from its earnings. This also means that Arsenal has one of the most expensive season ticket prices, second only to neighbours Tottenham. The situation means The Gunners often have less money to spend than their direct rivals, most of whom have squads with more senior players. Arsenal’s failures in the market can not only be put down to their available funds, but also the largely poor scouting prior to Sven Mislintat’s short tenure. For the players that Arsenal does splash the cash on, few have come good. In an era in which The Gunners have had to sell many of their best players, they have failed to replace them well in the market.
Arsenal’s 2018/19 season has been considered a failure by many due to them not qualifying for the UEFA Champions League through either finishing in the top four in the Premier League or through winning the Europa League. Losing the final has left a bitter taste in the mouths of Arsenal fans, many of whom direct their ire towards new manager Unai Emery. What most fail to grasp is the significant impact the manager has had.
Emery spent his £50million budget on Bernd Leno, Lucas Torreira, Sokratis, veteran Stephan Lichtsteiner and promising youngster Matteo Guendouzi. Out of the five, three comfortably make Arsenal’s best eleven, while Lichtsteiner provides defensive cover and Guendouzi a burst of fresh energy in the midfield. During Emery’s tenure, Arsenal have also seen the likes of Alex Iwobi and Maitland-Niles improve considerably, while strikers Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang have found beautiful compatibility unseen in this era of the Premier League.
While Emery’s league performance was below par, fans must understand that it was below par by only one point, a considerable improvement from last season in which Arsenal were twelve points off the Top Four. Furthermore, they have marginally improved in away matches, a big Achilles heel for them in previous seasons. Arsenal finished the season with 25 points from away matches as compared to last season’s 16. Further, they reached their first European final in 13 years. Emery finished in a higher league position with higher points than Wenger did in his final season, despite some statistics indicating their performance in the league has regressed. Many who were part of the ‘Wenger Out’ bandwagon have faced the stark realization that everything going wrong at the club might not have only been his fault. The same stands for Emery.
It is clear that for Arsenal to reach their goals in the most competitive football league in the world, there is a need for change. While most had believed that a change in management would do the trick, the fact of the matter is that issues from the Wenger era will plague whichever coach is employed at the Emirates. Changing the coach should be one of the lower priorities for the moment at Arsenal, where issues such as a lack of mentality and personality in the locker room, and a lack of support in the boardroom must take precedence.