When Arsenal’s legendary manager Arsène Wenger left north London 14 months ago, it was widely thought that this was what was needed for the Gunners to progress as a club after a disappointing few years under Le Professeur’s control. Despite Wenger shouldering almost all the blame for Arsenal’s recent shortcomings, improvement since he left has been extremely minimal at best, with the club in a similar situation to that which they were in under the Frenchman.
When determining what is preventing Arsenal from progressing as a club, it is now clear that there can no longer be a single scapegoat and accountability must be shared across different departments of the club. Wenger had an almost autocratic reign for 2 decades and it was going to take more than 1 man to replace him. Have Arsenal hired the right men?
The natural place to start is with Wenger’s direct successor, Unai Emery. When Arsenal announced the appointment of the Spaniard, the press release described his role as ‘head coach’, perhaps indicating that he wouldn’t have the same influence on matters such as transfers as his predecessor did and his role would be more focused towards on-pitch matters. From a results point of view, Emery improved Arsenal’s points total and league position by 7 points and 1 place respectively, although it wasn’t hard to improve on a season in which Arsenal lost a staggering 11 away league games.
After 2 difficult games to open the season, Arsenal had a strong first few months in terms of results, although the performances weren’t on par and stars Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Özil were noticeably less influential than they were during the Wenger years. As of yet, Emery has failed to maximise Özil’s ability. Since he moved to north London in 2013, the German world champion has regularly topped the stats for assists and chances created as he operated as the fulcrum of Wenger’s side, however there was a sharp decline in his output last season. Whilst Özil himself must shoulder most of the blame, he was sometimes bypassed by Emery’s system which saw a more direct way of chance creation. This was often through long passes to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette up front or through Bosnian wing-back Sead Kolašinac getting in behind the back-line, though his end product was often found wanting.
Meanwhile, the reliance on Kolašinac as an attacking outlet caused problems at the back as Arsenal’s left side of the defence was often left exposed by his attacking charges. This contributed to a season where Arsenal conceded just as many league goals as they had the season prior, ending up with a worse defensive record than the likes of Newcastle and Everton despite Emery’s reputation as a pragmatic, defensive minded coach. After years of attractive attacking football under Wenger, it did seem as though a lot of the Arsenal fanbase were more than prepared to trade that off for a more conservative style if it yielded better results. Diego Simeone and Massimiliano Allegri were often (optimistically) touted as possible Wenger replacements, both men having league titles from the top 5 European leagues and multiple Champions League finals under their belts.
However, it was Unai Emery who eventually filled Wenger’s boots. The Spaniard came with a reputation as a Europa League specialist and as impressive as his 3 successive tournament victories with Sevilla were, they themselves are a sign of what an uninspiring appointment he was. Sevilla only had the chance to participate in the Europa League by virtue of not being good enough to get into the last 16 of the Champions League. Emery’s Sevilla won the Europa League in 2014 but finished 5th in La Liga, missing out on Champions League qualification and allowing them to win the Europa League the following year. That 2015 triumph guaranteed them qualification for the following season’s Champions League due to a new rule whereby the Europa League winners automatically qualified for Europe’s premier club competition the next season. However, Sevilla could only scrape 3rd in Group D, dropping down back into the EL and winning the competition again, beating Liverpool in the final. Emery was firmly established as a quality second tier manager, cemented further by a mediocre spell with a star-studded Paris Saint Germain team, making him a questionable choice. He was a known quantity; he wouldn’t be a disaster, but neither would he get more out of the squad than expected.
With a transfer policy that doesn’t seem to be prioritising youth, the club have signed experienced players such as Aubameyang, Sokratis, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Stefan Lichsteiner in recent years. Arsenal are currently stagnating with little sign of improvement unless drastic changes are made. Having said all of that, the outlook on Arsenal as a whole would be vastly different if the club had managed to secure a top 4 place over a heavily criticised Maurizio Sarri-led Chelsea or Tottenham, who were distracted by their European run but still managed to stumble over the finishing line. In the end, Arsenal finished just 1 point behind Chelsea and 2 behind Tottenham. Arsenal’s failure to win any of their 4 games against Brighton, Leicester, Wolves and Crystal Palace in the final run-in proved to be the sticking point.
Having seemingly prioritised the Europa League, Emery’s chance at salvaging the season went up in smoke as he was outclassed by Sarri and Chelsea in a humiliating defeat to the London rivals in Baku. With Unai Emery at the helm Arsenal are seemingly treading water and for that reason serious questions have to be asked about whether he is the man to take the club forward or whether a change is required.
For all of Emery’s faults, the majority of the blame has to lie within the higher echelons of the club. If we rewind a year (give or take), back to when it was announced Arsène Wenger’s tenure in north London would be coming to an end, Chief Executive Ivan Gazidis and Head of Recruitment Sven Mislintat were primed to be the figureheads of Arsenal’s rebuilding process. Gazidis made himself vocal around this time and spearheaded the search for a new manager, reportedly considering former Arsenal captain Mikel Arteta before settling on Emery. However, he departed for A.C Milan in September 2018, a puzzling decision that was soon followed by Mislintat leaving after barely 12 months in his role, having recruited the likes of Aubameyang, Matteo Guendouzi, Lucas Torreira and Bernd Leno.
Arsenal felt Gazidis was so influential that he couldn’t be replaced by one man, thus Vinai Venkatesham and Raul Sanllehi were brought in. The pair featured in a lengthy interview conducted on Arsenal’s social media platforms, a PR exercise in which they looked to assert their positions as the key directors at the club.
Mislintat, meanwhile, has been replaced by former Arsenal midfielder, Edu. The invincible left his role as general coordinator of the Brazilian national team following their Copa America triumph, being brought in as Arsenal’s first ever technical director with less than a month of the transfer window left. Arsenal’s window, so far, has been disappointing; pursuits of the likes of Kieran Tierney, William Saliba and Wilfried Zaha have been unsuccessful as of now. Once news broke that Arsenal reportedly had a transfer budget of just £45 million, expectations were lowered. With the season fast approaching, Edu will have to quickly re-accustom himself to his old surroundings and set off bargain hunting.
Arsenal owner Stan Kroenke has been extensively criticised for his frugality which, along with Arsenal’s high wage bill and their inability to maximise their assets, has led to this paltry budget. In recent years, the club has let key players such as Mesut Özil, Alexis Sanchez, Aaron Ramsey, Danny Welbeck, Jack Wilshere and Santi Cazorla run their contracts down to the final 6 months, with the latter four having left for free meaning Arsenal did not receive any money to help with finding replacements.
Despite those inconveniences, the most crippling examples of poor asset management came with Arsenal’s 2 star players as they swapped Alexis Sanchez for (then 29 year old) Manchester United flop Henrikh Mkhitaryan in an attempt to extract some kind of value for the Chilean, reportedly giving Mkhitaryan a 4 year, £180,000 a week contract. Meanwhile, Arsenal retained the services of Özil for the small price of £350,000 a week over 4 years, with the club desperately trying to dump him just 18 months later. Furthermore, with big contract extensions reportedly being lined up for 30-year old Aubameyang and 28-year-old Lacazette, the club must decide whether they want to risk a situation where they again overpay players as they exit their prime. Conversely, the alternative could be to have a repeat of the Sanchez and Ramsey situations if they choose to let the attackers run down the remainder of their contracts, which expire in 2021 and 2022 respectively. It is a somewhat unenviable position for Arsenal management to be in as it must also be considered that any decision to sell either of these two fan favourites will be widely lambasted by the Arsenal faithful, not to mention the impact selling a star player would have on the team’s success. Signings such as 18-year-old forward Gabriel Martinelli represent the player profile that Arsenal should be targeting; young players with potential to improve and be sold for profit. This was the approach Arsenal took following their move to the Emirates Stadium when funds were restricted. Players such as Cesc Fabregas, Emmanuel Adebayor, Robin Van Persie and Alex Song put in years of good service before recouping high transfer fees. Arsenal are currently not in a position to contend for the Premier League or Champions League but could be in 5-8 years if they are patient and have a long-term plan.
When a club has undergone such drastic change in such a short period of time, it is important that it has a clear vision about how to achieve its goals. When a club’s Chief Executive and Head of Recruitment leave in the same season, it makes said club look like an aimless mess. Arsenal’s transfer plans look to be uncreative to say the least. When former Borussia Dortmund scout Sven Mislintat was at the club, Arsenal signed 3 former players that he knew from his time at the German club in Aubameyang, Mkhitaryan and Sokratis. Interestingly, despite this, he was reportedly ‘dismayed’ when Unai Emery requested the signing of one of his former players, Denis Suarez, with the German leaving shortly after. There seems to be a worrying pattern here with several former Emery players such as Ever Banega, Christopher Nkunku and Thomas Meunier also being linked with a move to the Emirates. Furthermore, widely reported targets Kieran Tierney and Wilfried Zaha come with a premium added to their price due to their home grown statuses which isn’t optimal for a club with limited funds. The future looks bleak and will continue to look so until the club commits to a full scale rebuild where they prioritise the future.
Arsenal should be hiring a young manager that has a clear footballing philosophy with the potential to win major honours; Julian Nagelsmann and Mikel Arteta are possible options. The club must come to terms with the fact that the current squad is not close to being good enough to challenge for the league title and youngsters like Reiss Nelson, Hector Bellerin, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Alex Iwobi, Guendouzi and Torreira should be considered the key to future success, along with any signings that have potential to grow into quality players. This is likely to be a slow process, but, due to the mess the club has gotten itself into, it is a necessary one.
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