Sick of It: Another Year as an Arsenal Fan
On 23rd May last year, Arsenal officially unveiled Unai Emery as Arsene Wenger's successor, the new manager of the club. A somewhat left-field choice, with most eyes on Mikel Arteta, but Arsenal fans were quietly content with the appointment – Emery by no means commanded the status of Ancelotti, Zidane, Simeone etc, but having won 3 Europa League titles during his 3 year tenure with the club, Arsenal fans were given a reason to look forward with positivity.
During his first interview with the club, Emery told the Media “I have met Stan and Josh Kroenke and it’s clear they have great ambitions for the club and are committed to bringing future success. I’m excited about what we can do together, and I look forward to giving everyone who loves Arsenal some special moments and memories.” So when will we start to see this success?
If we first rewind a little, the 2015/2016 season ended with Arsenal in 2nd place, 6 places and 11 points above Liverpool; Many points can be made about the significance of the 2nd place finish – it was somewhat a case of who would fall over the line first, but it did certainly signal that Arsenal were closer to achieving a Premier League title than a struggling Liverpool side.
Since then, Liverpool have done exceptionally well in the transfer market and executed their plans with ruthlessness and only one thing in mind – progression. Mane, Wijnaldum, Matip, Van Dijk, Salah, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Robertson, Alisson, Keita and Fabinho have come into the squad, whereas Karius (who came and went), Benteke, Ibe, Allen, Skrtel, Balotelli, Bogdan, Sakho, Coutinho, Leiva, Solanke, Klavan, Can, Flanagan and Ings have all been sent packing.
Arsenal’s transfer business has been far more underwhelming; Xhaka, Mustafi, Perez, Asano, Holding, Aubameyang, Lacazette, Mkhitaryan, Mavropanos, Kolasinac, Torreira, Leno, Sokratis, Guendouzi, Suarez and Lichtsteiner have joined the club, whereas Podolski, Debuchy, Gnabry, Szczesny, Sanogo, Wilshere, Campbell, Flamini, Arteta, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Alexis, Walcott, Giroud, Coquelin, Gabriel, Gibbs, Perez, Cazorla, Mertesacker, Ospina and now Ramsey, Cech and Welbeck have all now left the club.
Except for Karius, each of those Liverpool players have been brought in to improve the squad from the point they were at, whereas Aubameyang, Lacazette, Torreira, Leno and Sokratis have been the only Arsenal players in that time to make any kind of difference. Arsenal paid more for an ageing and quite frankly terrible Petr Cech than they received for Gianluigi Buffon successor and new Juventus number one Wojciech Szczesny – that should put things into perspective.
That being said, Emery can’t be held accountable for the sins of his predecessors, but he can be judged by the way he manages them. This squad is clearly incapable of challenging for a title any time soon, but the mentality is even more disappointing than the ability. Things are clearly changing at the club, Arsenal recorded their best record against the top 6 in years with wins against Tottenham, Chelsea, Man Utd and a draw with Liverpool, however, it’s when the pressure really piles on that the frailties highlight themselves yet again.
Arsene Wenger conned us for years that you couldn’t compete without the money that the Manchester clubs are able to spend and thus created a losing mentality at the club. How often have we seen an Arsenal side crumble in recent years? Too many times to count. This year after an average campaign that showed signs of improvement to last year, we still fell apart when it mattered – with 4 points from a possible last 18, including losses to Leicester, Wolves, Crystal Palace and a draw with Brighton. Show those quotes to Spurs Manager Pochettino this morning and he will laugh, he has made Arsene Wenger look like a joker.
Sure, it will take time to eradicate the players from the club that contribute so largely to the lack of spine in this squad, but how long will that take? We’ve already seen the lack of fire from the board and powers that be to get a grip of this club. An ageing Monreal will likely be given a new contract this summer and we’ll be told that the left back position remains covered for another year – it is simply a blessing from above that they appear to have not offered one to Lichtsteiner. We’ll be sold stories of a ‘war-chest’ this summer, no doubt. We’ll be told that big changes are coming this summer, told to trust the process and told that ‘we’re entering the season with goals of competing with the very best’, but all fans can see through that by now.
We’re guaranteed to be losing a minimum of 4 players this summer in Cech, Ramsey, Lichtsteiner and Welbeck, with one or both of Ozil and Mkhitaryan likely to be joining them; with those all to be replaced and a potentially restricted budget if we’re in the Europa League – is Unai Emery the right man to carry the club forward? If this is the result with the current squad, then how much worse could it get with even less resources.
I didn’t go into the season expecting much; as mentioned before I considered it almost a write off where Emery could assess the team, instil his brand of football and get the fans smiling again. I think the fact that top 4 was so easily accessible if the club had maintained composure does work against the Spaniard but this year, I’ve endured some of the worst football in my time as a fan. The defending is just as bad, if not worse, and the goals have dried up despite possessing two of Europe’s top marksmen in the squad and a consensus pick for one of the best playmakers in world football.
Commitment, pressing and aggression seem to be the buzzwords put together to describe the football Emery wanted to instil as the season began, so where did it all go wrong? A proactive, pressing approach sounds good on paper, but that certainly hasn’t manifested itself – in fact Arsenal have actually allowed the opposition to complete slightly more passes on average (9.61) before making a defensive action than they did last season (8.96) and Arsenal’s average defensive positioning is actually deeper on the pitch than it was last season. The board must decide whether it’s a personnel issue, and if it is then the manager must be given the funds to buy the players that can do the job properly, or the board must decide if it’s a coaching issue and if that’s the case then they must blow the whole thing up, sack the manager and start again. For too long as Arsenal fans we have had to put up with mediocrity as the norm and it’s time for that to change.
It feels like Emery sets Arsenal up to play like a ‘small-team’. You can isolate the Leicester, Liverpool and Tottenham games at home as times when Arsenal played attractive and exciting football this season, the rest have felt slow, turgid and repetitive. It’s as if the team is set up to try and steal the game, rather than go out and take it. It would be more understanding to be hesitant and less probing away from home, but the balance still has not been found there and the disastrous form outside of Islington has continued. You can go back and insist that Emery still does not yet have ‘his team’ but that’s no excuse for the constant schoolboy defending and complete inability to do anything more than cling on away from home. This side was dominated by a 10-man Watford side – there’s literally no excuse for that. Say what you will about the Arsenal sides of 5-10 years ago and the lack of trophies that were brought into the club, but at least those teams were fun to watch; there’s a time to be expansive and there’s a time to shut up shop, but at present it seems the team is incapable of doing both.
Arsenal could very well go on and win the Europa League to secure Champions League football next season but that would do little more than paper over the cracks; the main reason Liverpool have kicked on so far past Arsenal is complacency on the part of the Gunners board. If you can secure a top 4 place without spending any more than is necessary, then why would you from a business perspective? We have an owner who hasn’t attended a game all season, so why would he care about the results until they start hurting his bank account. If anything, a Europa win is likely to increase complacency further next year.
Aaron Ramsey will be leaving this summer, the best player at the club again will leave a huge hole in the team and there will be no financial gain to make up for his absence – a story we’ve seen play out countless times in recent years. It’s believed that he asked the club to match Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s £200,000 a week figure and the club refused. He will have the last laugh, as he moves with his family to Turin to play in front of a backline dominated by Chiellini as opposed to Mustafi. Staggeringly, Emery told the press recently that his replacement could come from ‘within the club’ as opposed to being found on the transfer market - a terrifying thought.
Allowing Ramsey to leave while paying luxury players like Özil £350,000 a week to coast through games and produce the odd moment of magic in a home game with little significance is insane. The German has phoned in sick more times this season than he has produced on the pitch and still fronts on social media and in games like the problem is everyone around him, rather than being a part of it. Mkhitaryan is in the same boat and seems to shirk responsibility on the pitch and simply drop his head when it’s time for someone to stand up and be counted. Ramsey has impacted more games than the pair combined this year and still he is the one leaving the club.
I understand the need to be patient with young players but how long should they be given? Aside from a bright early few games, he has never shown any consistency at all, looks like his legs have a mind of their own and has an abysmal end product. We’re still instructed to be patient, while players like Sanè are at opposing sides showing how it’s done. After initially bursting into the team, a spell of injury and a drop-in form caused Wenger to drop Gnabry and send him out on loan to a West Brom side with minimal attacking prowess and wondered why he didn’t want to sign a new contract. He’s now gone on to set both the Bundesliga alight with Bayern Munich and the German National Team while Arsenal are left with a downgrade from Gervinho.
Guendouzi has performed above initial expectations and the signs are that we could have a player on our hands, but these levels of responsibility shouldn’t be placed on the shoulders of a lad that was playing in the second tier of French football only last year.
Looking to the summer, you can probably expect one player to be signed that excites fans and is there to keep people off the boards back, but in the long run it won’t be enough. A huge overhaul is required, the likes of Mustafi, Xhaka, Elneny, Iwobi, Monreal, Mkhitaryan and many others simply aren’t good enough for Arsenal football club but get by on ‘what we know they can do’ rather than what they actually do. It’s a damning indictment on how far the club has fallen and big changes are required asap before the mentality spreads further. The likes of Aubameyang don’t have long left in the prime of their careers and before you know it, they’ll be gone and we’ll be told that patience is required again, continuing the cycle until someone is big enough to step up and make a difference. It’s been another painful year as an Arsenal fan.