Arsenal’s Long And Winding Road to Mediocrity
Arsenal fell to their twelfth loss this weekend when Liverpool ran roughshod over the Gunners. Depending on the view of Arsenal right now, you either felt a sense of melancholy or abject anger. You either railed against the state of the club or called for the manager or anyone’s head or you just sulked away avoiding football altogether.
The question has to be asked though – what did people expect? In one of many interviews, the Arsenal leadership have talked about the long term view that it would take a few seasons of rebuilding the squad and changing how things were done in order for Arsenal to be challenging for Champions League qualification again. Many level-headed Arsenal supporters were talking about it being a 5-year process post-Wenger for Arsenal to rebuild the squad.
Arsenal are where they are not because Mikel Arteta is a first time manager. No, Arsenal find themselves on this road to mediocrity because of years of mismanagement and in particular really poor squad building over the last few years of Arsene Wenger’s tenure.
So how did it all come to this? How did one of England’s more storied clubs find itself sliding down the table with a real chance of missing out on Europe for the first time in 25 years?
The Wenger Decline
No, Arsene Wenger wasn’t declining, his mind as always is/was as sharp as a tack but with all things, time changes, so too did football. But perhaps Arsene Wenger did not.
When he came to England, Arsene not only changed a lot at Arsenal but he changed a lot about the game in England. His squads for the first half of his tenure ran rampant through the Premier League with the constant battles with Alex Ferguson and Manchester United being the highlights of every season.
Then two things changed. The first was the influx of money into the game. “Financial doping” as Arsene would call would turn Chelsea from a near-administration club to Champions and perennial challengers for the Premier League.
That was soon followed by Manchester City and their oil-dripped money. Now squads could be built by dropping a cool billion over time. For Arsenal that couldn’t be done. Why?
For a few reasons, Arsenal prided itself (and still does to an extent) on being a self-sustaining club and the hierarchy was intent on sticking with that and not seeking out the services of a sugar daddy.
Second even as more money came into the league, tactical innovation came into the league and Arsene, known for his preferred approach of letting players have the freedom to play, soon was finding himself easy to play against as teams tactical exploited our weaknesses and game planned to deny Arsene and his Arsenal of the space they loved to operate in.
When the financial constraints loosened by an improved financial picture (post-Emirates move) Arsenal were suddenly in the market to buy talented players, rather than focus on youth development. It was hoped at the time that Arsenal would now be able to compete again.
But nothing really changed. Sure, Arsenal were buying players but the players they seemed to be buying, and Arsene seemed to bring in were less about strengthening Arsenal’s weak areas than they were about still playing in a way Arsene wanted to play.
Sometimes it worked. In 2014 of course it led to us being able to challenge and win the first silverware in years, the FA Cup, which was won back-to-back in 2014 and 2015 and once again in 2017.
But cracks started to appear.
After years of Arsenal supporters crying for him to fill in the cracks we needed and “spend some f**kin’ money, his last full summer at Arsenal he goes and pays high amounts for Shkodran Mustafi (£40m) and Alexandre Lacazette (£50m).
Those two players were the perfect example of the decline in Arsenal’s recruitment at the time. Signed not because of how they fit into the squad but because they appeared at the time to be two of the most well-regarded players at the time.
These two players would wind up being the poster children for our decline with each of them being somewhere between “absolute crap” and “not good enough for Arsenal” depending on which day of the week you caught them.
That summer was followed by the January signing of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang from Dortmund.
The signing of Aubameyang was on a slightly lesser level of excitement than the day we signed Mesut Özil from Real Madrid. But it would be the first two signings the summer prior that would.
Again, it was a signing that was welcomed more because of the stature of the player than meeting a need for Arsenal.
Over the last few seasons and quite pronounced in his last, the technical quality Arsenal had been known for was gone. The quick and fluid passing looked laboured and off and Arsenal no longer looked the creative force we had come to appreciate.
Players looked lost on the pitch, not giving a full effort, lacking the understanding of the team around them that had for so long been a hallmark of Arsene’s Arsenal teams.
In the end in Arsenal’s last season, it seemed like Arsenal would never win on the road again as they struggled to close a season with any sense of consistent play.
The Emery – er, Raúl Spanish Nightmare
Unai Emery came to Arsenal replacing a legend. He left, regarded as a stain on a once-proud club. In truth he was a total mismatch for the club but short of his poor tactical preparation, the building of the squad wasn’t anything he had much of a part in.
Raúl Sanllehi, the former Head of Football at Arsenal was brought in by former CEO, Ivan Gazidis (he also of dubious background.) Ivan in a moment of clarity sought to bring in what he considered bright talents to oversee Arsenal’s transition into a more continental model. And it looked like, for a short time that it may work out.
The problems began when shortly after hiring these great minds, Ivan left town as quickly as he could to set up shop in Italy as AC Milan’s new President.
That meant an internal struggle that would see Raúl emerge as the driver behind the on the pitch product and highly regarded talent-identifier Sven Mislintat leave after less than 18 months at the club.
Truth be told Raúl wouldn’t last much at Arsenal either and his recruitment was viewed as a mixed bag of results. But when viewed with the rumours of financial incentives to make deals, it would seem that Raúl thought less about building a squad and more about building up his own bank account balance.
Again, players who were brought in, were at some level talented players in their own right. But when looking at them all you wonder if they were the right signings for the squad.
The imbalance in the squad continued to be evident and while Emery managed to see Arsenal finish 5th in his first season, the end of that first season was worrisome as the Gunners were unable to get the one point they needed for Champions League qualification in the final three matches and they were routed in Baku in the Europa League final.
The poor results would continue with Arsenal managing to go 7 matches without a win in the fall and after losing to Eintracht Frankfurt 2-1 in the Europa League, Emery was shown the door.
There is an argument that his tactics were a problem and that is a different discussion but Arsenal’s biggest issue, its squad imbalance hadn’t been addressed – even after appointing Edu as a technical director.
It would be easy here to place blame on Edu because that is his role, to bring players in but let’s remember Raúl ran things. So the squad at this time still falls squarely on Raúl’s shoulders. And it was again more personality and player, than actually going into building a squad that needed a rebuild.
Arteta Right Coach, Wrong Time?
A month or so after Emery’s dismissal, Mikel Arteta would be appointed its head coach. Coming in he said all the right things about his expectations and where he thought Arsenal needed to be. But he also spoke of something else.
Arteta also spoke of a significant amount of work that needed to be done to transform Arsenal into competitors and challengers again.
He also talked about the kind of players he wanted and what he was looking for. And for those paying attention, it’s a recurrent theme when he’s interviewed and asked about things like transfers and his squad.
Before signing Gabriel, he talked specifically about Arsenal’s needs for a left-footed centre-back (Mari was injured). He started talking about specific pieces rather than broad terms.
The problem for Arteta may have been that expectations were raised when he managed to start winning games against big teams, implement structure and end with an FA Cup.
What we won’t know is how much of that was down to the fact that the season was affected by the pandemic and it was just a mad dash for whoever could get to the end.
Since then the Gunners have tried to bring in new players with a focus first on fixing the defending of the team as Gabriel was brought in, Mari was signed on a permanent deal and Thomas Partey was famously signed to offer cover in the midfield.
Even with those moves, there was still substantial work to do and this January saw Arsenal move to get rid of contracts of players that would no longer have a role in Arsenal going forward. It ended with the signing of a creative outlet, Martin Odegaard from Real Madrid.
Through it, Arsenal have endured a Jekyll and Hyde season. The poor run of form in the fall, the improvement post-Boxing Day, and lack of consistency through the spring continue to prove the point, that is still work to do.
Sure, Mikel Arteta should be criticized when he gets his tactical setup wrong, but honest evaluation should also look at how much of it is getting the tactics wrong versus whether or not the players can deliver on the tactical setup.
There is a lot that goes into that last bit too, do they have the right mental makeup, does the group work well as a collective, etc.
Squad building is trying to find all the right pieces to work together. It’s why clubs like West Ham and Villa have done well this year. The clubs have used the influx of money wisely to buy the right players for their clubs.
Also, think about the last pieces in the puzzle for Liverpool when they were starting to gel under Klopp, they added two very important pieces, Van Dijk and Alisson. It was then and only then that Liverpool really took off.
The problem for Arteta may be that he is as talented a coach as everyone supposes him to be and that’s all well and good. However, the project at Arsenal may be too big for him to have taken on right now. You wonder had Arsenal already shifted half of the squad and were actively bringing in more players to replace them if that would’ve been a better time
Or was the time right AFTER Wenger the right time? The problem there is that Raúl was still controlling the transfers so the build would’ve likely still stalled.
But we’re here and Arteta is our manager and this is a process that is going to take some time. With Arteta as manager, Arsenal and by default the fans have to stick with him. Because even if they decided to move him on, the rebuild still needs to happen and while there might be the new manager bounce, as with all things that bounce, it comes back down and so would Arsenal.
Arsenal and Arteta have to get through this. Arteta has to use every power of persuasion he has to coerce the players to perform. He could stand to be more ruthless with players who aren’t performing. Then if we were losing or stuttering with youngsters and reserve players, there’d be an excuse. Sadly though, he does seem intent (wrongly so) on having his stars play themselves into form. It’s an admirable trait but its adding to the growing frustration of the fan base.
Arteta still deserves time, for many reasons. One reason is that given the need for a rebuild and the players’ overall mental makeup, Arsenal may not be the most attractive job in the industry right. He also should deserve time to work on building a squad when he’s not hampered by a global pandemic and when he can really move out and bring in players he needs and wants. Then if we’re still looking at a mess then we can talk about his dismissal.
It’s understandable that Arsenal fans are frustrated but this was something that was always going to happen. Did anyone expect it to be to this extent, probably not but even Liverpool went substantial years out in the wilderness before they started to slowly creep back up to where they are now. To think that there still isn’t substantial work to do with this squad is to admit that you haven’t been paying attention to how it was all put together and how poor players, poor contracts and a lack of transfer structure led us to the point we find ourselves in.
However, there is hope and it does appear the Arsenal hierarchy have a plan for recruitment and for the most part the additions that have recently been brought in point to a considered approach and building a squad rather than putting band-aids on the squad. It’s going to take patience of enormous levels for a fan base that had a diet of competing and winning for 20+ years.