Take a deep breath Arsenal fans; it’s panning out just like it was supposed to. And it could get even worse.
Any last hope of Champions League qualification for Arsenal was snuffed out by Neal Maupay’s injury-time winner for Brighton and Hove Albion, as Mikel Arteta’s side lost their second match in three days since ‘Project Restart’ commenced.
This loss also ensures that Arsenal will not participate in the UEFA Champions League for the fourth straight year, after being part of that competition for the best part of the previous two decades. Not only will this be a body blow for the club’s pursuit in getting their captain and star striker to commit to a new long term deal at the club, this will also dramatically affect the summer transfer kitty for the club which was already quite stretched as it is.
So where did it go all wrong for Arsenal? To understand, let’s go back to the summer of 2015.
In stark contrast to the roller coaster of a final a year ago, Arsenal strutted around the Wembley turf as the likes of Santi Cazorla, Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil were too slick, too sweet and quite obviously too good for Tim Sherwood’s men.
After a decade of second-best performances, two consecutive FA Cup wins meant Arsene Wenger’s men finally looked good enough to make a serious tilt at the Premier League crown next summer, provided they plugged a couple of holes in the squad.
But alas it was not meant to be.
The 2015 summer window was one of the worst in recent memory. We made just one signing, a goalkeeper in Petr Čech and failed to add a single outfield player. To exacerbate this even further, the club decided to let go of Wojciech Szczęsny on loan (and eventually permanently) who has since gone on to develop to become one of the best goalkeepers in the world.
15/16 was the season when Santi Cazorla’s injury issues started. Cazorla was a vital component of Arsenal’s cog. The partnership with Francis Coquelin gave us a real spine in the middle, which allowed us to finish the 14/15 season strongly. Unfortunately, 2015/16 was also when Coquelin’s injury issues began.
Despite not signing a single outfield player in 2015, Arsenal had a fantastic start to the season, and with other teams also slipping up, we were favourites for the title on New Year’s Day. This was a great time for Arsenal to add quality in January. As much as Olivier Giroud was underrated, he was never the striker to lead us to a title. So what did the club do? We signed Mohamed Elneny for around £5m. When you combine both windows, we spent a total of £15m, a total lack of ambition.
Tellingly enough, star players Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Özil were offered long term contract extensions during the season. Former Barcelona and Real Madrid stars themselves, did they sense that the club was not showing the necessary thrust in the transfer window to back their claims of taking the club to the very top? Possibly. Or maybe probably.
Let’s be real, Arsenal had the money to spend that season – Wenger deserves the blame partly because he was too loyal to certain players. On the other hand, we weren’t decisive enough in the transfer market. Too many transfers dragged on and collapsed in the end. The lack of good squad depth in critical areas cost us the title. Sure, we finished 2nd on the last day of the season and celebrated St.Tottertingham’s day, but it papered over the obvious cracks.
In the summer of 2016, Arsenal showed more ambition than the previous year – we spent close to £100m on signings, bringing in Shkodran Mustafi, Granit Xhaka and Lucas Perez. While Xhaka has been a mainstay in the team, the other two have been far from distinguished, Lucas even less so then Mustafi. Francis Cagigao had spoken to an agent about the fact that Lucas was a ‘mid-table player’ and Mustafi hadn’t featured in the scout’ list of recommendations. Both these signings were through Stat DNA, and while we shouldn’t look down at something this revolutionary, the men behind decisions should be held accountable – Wenger, Ivan Gazidis and Jason Rosenfeld all culpable.
After a good start to the season, the frailties of the squad were exposed. Cazorla was ruled out for the rest of the season with a serious injury. What started as a potential title race against Chelsea became a battle for top 4, only this time we even failed to achieve that. While the famous FA Cup final win against eventual Champions Chelsea papers over the cracks, Gazidis said that our failures would be the ‘catalyst for change.’
In the summer of 2017, we brought in Alexandre Lacazette for over £50m. However, we failed to back this up by bringing in a central defender or a long term Cazorla replacement and whilst there were games this season we played some really pretty stuff at the Emirates, the away form went to bonkers – just 4 away league wins all season.
It is a culture that has continued since – it goes beyond personnel, the players just stopped believing they can see out these games. Just think about it, the same team beat Milan away from home comfortably in the Europa League and in the subsequent season beat Napoli and Valencia who are both as tricky as most Premier league away games.
From 2015, Arsenal have been crying out for a world-class striker to play with the likes of Mesut Özil, Alexis Sanchez and Aaron Ramsey. The fact of the matter is Lacazette failed to live up to it. While there are some admirable qualities in him, Lacazette is still yet to even touch 15 goals a season in the league which is something Olivier Giroud who took a lot of stick managed to do consistently. We need to cut out the sentiment.
Sven Mislintat, Huss Fahmy and Raul Sanllehi were all hired later that year as Ivan kept his ‘catalyst for change’ promise. In January of 2018, we lost arguably our best player in Alexis Sanchez and replaced him with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. As part of the exchange deal for Alexis, we brought in Henrikh Mkhitaryan who was on an exorbitant wage himself.
Paying Özil £350k per week has become one of the worst decisions the club has made. It was a consequence of the club’s culture of not dealing with contracts in time. Fewer teams play with conventional number 10’s and that coupled with Özil’s decline meant that a huge portion of our wage bill was committed to a player that subsequent coaches haven’t backed anywhere close to Wenger did.
One more point here to note is that Arsenal did not have any first-team wingers. We committed well over £100m on Aubameyang and Lacazette, while losing Serge Gnabry, Theo Walcott and Oxlade Chamberlain between 2016 to early 2018. There is a big difference between signing good individual players and building a squad. I felt in some instances we could have integrated youth better as well. We lost Serge Gnabry, Donyell Malen and Ismael Bennacer, three absolutely top talents today for virtually nothing.
The rest of the season was marked by a lot of anger from fans on Wenger and much as I love and respect him, I wanted change, and we did get it. Amidst all the farewells, Arsenal were without Champions League football for two years in a row. In 2018, the team led by Ivan Gazidiz made the wrong appointment in Unai Emery. Let’s not get it twisted, we did not do too bad in his first season, but he was not the right man for several reasons.
People are very quick to jump on Raul Sanllehi’s back, but we signed the likes of Sokratis Papastathopoulos and Stephan Lichtsteiner under Sven. Signing Sokratis for £17.6 million was a dreadful decision. He was 30 and had a huge decline the previous season at Dortmund. While Matteo Guendouzi and Lucas Torreira are good buys, they are still to establish themselves as guaranteed first-team starters.
When you look at it, bar Bernd Leno who was an excellent buy, not one player from that window is a first-team starter, and that is an issue. With Gazidis leaving the club, Sanllehi became the main man, which led to Mislintat leaving. Personally, as much as everyone created hype for Sven, in hindsight, he was more a miss than a hit
It was in January 2019 that for the first time Sanllehi had a big say in transfers, so those saying that Raul is the reason we’re in a mess aren’t looking at things objectively at all. In February, Arsenal were set to finish 7th/8th, but Unai brought back Ramsey into the team which made a massive difference in how we played.
Let’s also give Unai some credit for those wins against Napoli and Valencia in the Europa League. The truth about Emery was that he was a good coach for cup competitions – when it came for planning individual games, his pragmatism worked. But in the league, changing system and style of play, every other game destroyed us and sucked the life out of our players.
Truth be told, we had lost our identity of playing good football in 2017, a few beautiful team goals at the Emirates will not change anything. With Ramsey leaving the club, coupled with Özil’s decline, we lost that X factor in the middle. I still backed Emery even after the Europa league loss as I genuinely believed that the squad had too many holes.
Last summer, on a ‘Europa league budget’ under Sanllehi – we managed to sign Kieran Tierney, Nicolas Pépé, Gabriel Martinelli, William Saliba and David Luiz. Four of these five are set to become mainstays in our squad. I highly doubt we would have even moved for Luiz if not for Laurent Koscielny’s tantrums, but we wanted to sign an experienced defender, and we did so even if it came at a pretty exorbitant price. Dani Ceballos was brought on a loan, and while he hasn’t established himself, Arteta seems to favour him over certain others.
Let’s not rewrite history, Arsenal were on a steady decline under Emery which started end of April last season and continued into this year. We were conceding way too many shots (30 against Watford for example), and while I am not a fan of looking too much into xG for individual games, it always catches up with you over time. Emery had to go.
We find ourselves where we are today not because of one individual. It is a combination of poor decision making from Wenger to Gazidis to Mislintat, Emery, etc. Everyone has had a role to play in the mess we are in today. There is also some bad luck with injuries. Failure has become inbuilt in the culture of this club, that is the reality – it will not vanish overnight.
I am not a fan of Stan Kroenke either, and ultimately he is the man hiring everyone else. However, he isn’t going anywhere no matter what. So we need to focus now on better decision making from the footballing side of things. They have wasted the club’ resources over the last years without a clear plan. It is time to work with what we have and look for a viable solution.
Most of Arsenal’s issues this season stem from defense and midfield. I want to make one thing absolutely clear, there’s a lot of players in this Arsenal squad I like, but my issue is with the composition of the squad. The lack of variety in midfield is really concerning. There’s ‘playmakers’, too many of them who are ‘okay’ defensively and ‘okay’ at creating.
What we need are specialized profiles. A top defensive-midfielder who can play alone, a specialized number 8 / number 10 hybrid who can impact in the final third and solid ball-winning box-to-box player. We have absolutely none of these. The midfield is what holds the team together. We also need a top centre-back, someone to partner Saliba and take this team up a level. Sometimes as a centre-back you can blame the system, but certain errors have been so blatant.
Arteta hasn’t been here anywhere near long enough to instil his ideas in. Sure, you can constructively criticize him for poor in-game management, but he needs time. We saw how he used Bukayo Saka as a central-midfielder to great effect. I’m 100% certain he has a lot of great ideas, but needs time, transfer windows and backing from us fans to implement them.
We cannot be a hire and fire club like Chelsea. They have had a really good group of players that new managers can come in an make an immediate impact. Arsenal need to build. There is no point looking at the past now and regretting. We have to focus on the now. It will likely take at least two years for Arsenal to get back and build a complete squad. Arteta has a clear vision – if you think it is too soon to call him a great coach, it is also too early to write him off. Managerial change isn’t getting us anywhere now.
We have an excellent set of youngsters. I wouldn’t be against the club selling Lacazette and Aubameyang to invest in other areas and balance out the squad. We were doing well before the lockdown – the injuries coupled with contractual uncertainty hasn’t helped our cause. There is going to be some pain, but intuitively I feel confident that Arteta knows what is to be done and will get it right. Everyone says ‘Back the process’ but flinches at the first sign of defeat.
It’s just the start of a long and bumpy ride, and anyone who is telling otherwise is kidding themselves.
In Arteta, Raul and Edu we trust (or Hope)!
Written by Siddharth Nair | Feature Image by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images
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