One year after Arsene Wenger’s reign ended, Arsenal's progress evident but Unai Emery’s side still lacks distinctive style
In the one year since Arsene Wenger was replaced by Unai Emery, Arsenal have shown signs of progress. But the club still lacks a distinctive style and their capitulation at the business end of the season was extremely disheartening.
On 13 May last year Arsenal's 22-year-long Wenger era finally came to an end.
Thanks to the length of Arsene Wenger’s tenure, a good number of Arsenal fans have not experienced life with any other manager.
This season Arsenal have looked like a Europa League side with Champions League strikers.
On 13 May last year Arsenal's 22-year-long Wenger era finally came to an end. Thanks to the length of Arsene Wenger’s tenure, a good number of Arsenal fans have not experienced life with any other manager. A lot of us fans consider him an inspirational figure. A father figure of sorts. But as is often the way with parents and children, children grow up and don't agree with their parents on all counts. And while there might be disagreements, the respect never fades.
Even the most ardent Wenger supporters will find it hard to disagree with the fact that in the last couple of seasons, things had gone a bit stale, the players didn't seem to be responding to his methods and the need for change was quite evident. Even the club’s transfer and contract renewal policy seemed to have lost its way. Not signing any outfield players in the summer of 2015 feels like a colossal blunder in hindsight. Almost as big a blunder as shelling out £35 million for Shkodran Mustafi the following summer. One that was partly mitigated by the signing of Rob Holding who looks like he could be a permanent and reliable fixture in Arsenal’s back line for years to come.
Arsenal’s then CEO Ivan Gazidis responded by ushering in a new management structure. Former Barcelona Director of Football, Raúl Sanllehí, was appointed as “Head of Football Relations” — a designation that left a lot of people scratching their heads. Borussia Dortmund’s highly regarded Head Scout Sven Mislintat was appointed Head of Scouting. Wenger would eventually be replaced by now Head Coach Unai Emery. Mislintat helped in the Alexis-Mkhitaryan swap deal and by all accounts was a major factor in the Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang signing as well. He also helped scout Matteo Guendouzi and Lucas Torreira in the summer. The future looked bright at the time.
Until Gazidis decided to tear up the script and move to AC Milan, thereby causing a power vacuum at the club. The management was once again restructured. Saniellhi was appointed Director of Football and Vinai Venkatesham the Managing Director. Mislintat had hoped that his role would eventually evolve into that of a Technical Director. But with Saniellhi in charge, the chances of that happening had greatly diminished. He eventually left the club in February 2019. After a failed attempt to reunite Emery with Monchi, his Director of Football at Sevilla, the powers that be at Arsenal have zeroed in on former Invincible Edu Gaspar for the role of Technical Director — a role he will officially take up in July after the summer’s Copa America tournament. While it’s always good to see a former player return to the club, one really wonders if Edu will be as effective as Mislintat. His probable propensity for signing South American players could pose a slight problem on the work permit front.
After going through a whole load of names, Arsenal appointed Emery as their new Head Coach on 23 May, 2018. To put it mildly, Unai’s first season at the club has been eventful. After a predictably bumpy start in his first two competitive games against Manchester City and Chelsea, two fixtures that nobody expected anything from, Arsenal won their next 11 matches and went unbeaten for 22 matches. That run ended with a 3-2 loss at Southampton in December. During the time, Emery was praised for his double training sessions, his tactical flexibility, his ability to make decisive half-time subs, most of which he got right. To be fair, Arsenal rode their luck during this period. Aubameyang converted chances at an unsustainable rate. The opponents helped Arsenal’s fortunes as well by missing a fair few easy chances.
Injuries to Rob Holding, Hector Bellerin and Danny Welbeck compounded Emery’s problems and slowed down Arsenal’s momentum in the second half of the season. Holding and Bellerin in particular have been a huge miss. With both Nacho Monreal and Laurent Koscielny on the wrong side of 30, an extremely error-prone Mustafi and with Sokratis Papastathopoulos’ propensity to pick up bookings and suspensions, Emery has struggled to rotate his defenders and keep things tight at the back. Koscielny has been magnificent since his return from injury, but at his age he cannot start every single match. Especially at the business end of the season, where fixtures come thick and fast. Since the departure of Alexis Sanchez and Theo Walcott, Arsenal have sorely missed a goal-scoring wide forward. Welbeck, while not being a particularly prolific goal-scorer, would have at least added more goals than Henrikh Mkhitaryan or Alex Iwobi.
Emery confounded the fan base by not picking Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Ozil on a regular basis in the first half of the season. Rumours abounded about Ozil not training hard enough, being too sickly, etc, etc. After a long spell on the sidelines, Ozil seems to be back in favour and the player and manager have appeared to have reached a temporary truce. But with the management trying to whittle down the wage bill, the German’s long-term future at the club is still very much up in the air.
A couple of months into the season, for reasons that are still not fully clear, Arsenal pulled out of contract negotiations with Ramsey. The most likely explanation is that the club were not willing to sanction a significant pay raise for a player who at the time was not part of Emery’s regular starting XI. Ramsey has since agreed to a pre-contract with Juventus. One wonders why a player who is considered good enough for a side that has won Serie A eight seasons in a row was not part of Emery’s starting XI. That changed in the latter half when Emery finally decided that he needs to start Ozil and Ramsey more to salvage the season. This tactic seemed to work for the most part. Until Ramsey suffered a hamstring injury against Napoli. Since then the club’s league form has been absolutely dire.
This season Arsenal have looked like a Europa League side with Champions League strikers. If the strikers had an off day, then the team seemed bereft of ideas. Ramsey’s runs into the box would pull opposition defenders, thereby creating chances for his teammates and added a new dimension to the club’s attacking play. Arsenal’s handling of his contract situation has been absolutely shambolic. It’s almost criminal to let a player of his talents leave on a free transfer. Like Santi Cazorla before him, it’s impossible to find a player that can replicate his unique skillset. With two FA Cup-winning goals to his name and with him ending up as the club’s highest scoring central midfielder, it’s safe to say that Ramsey will be considered a club legend. The fact that the club is letting him go for nothing just makes his departure all the more infuriating.
Besides Ramsey, Arsenal have decided to let Welbeck leave on a free as well. One can’t help but question the sanity of this decision. Especially with the amount of rebuilding work that needs to be done. As I have already mentioned, Koscielny and Monreal are both 33 and have to be replaced soon. A backup/upgrade for Sead Kolasinac is needed too. While Ainsley-Maitland Niles has done a reasonably decent job in Bellerin’s absence, right back is not his most natural or preferred position. With Welbeck gone, a wide forward is badly needed. As is a creative midfielder who can dribble past opponents and shoulder some of the goal scoring responsibilities.
Arsenal have definitely made progress over the last 12 months. Having beaten Valencia in some style, the club finds itself in the Europa League final. Winning the Europa League would be a huge boost on all fronts. A European trophy is long overdue. And the added Champions League revenue will be very welcome.
Arsenal ended the 2017-18 season at 63 points — 12 points behind Liverpool who finished 4th. This season, that gap has significantly reduced. Considering the long-term absence of Bellerin, Koscielny, Holding and Welbeck that can be considered a job reasonably well-done. One of the biggest expectations of Emery was that he would shore up Arsenal’s porous defence, but in hindsight considering the players he had at his disposal and the various injuries throughout the season, it’s no wonder that the Arsenal defence looks as shaky as ever.
And yet there is a sense of disappointment with the way the league campaign has ended. The capitulation at the business end of the season was extremely disheartening. Yes, the club’s away form has been patchy, but one expects them to not make such heavy weather of home games against the likes of Crystal Palace and Brighton. The other thing that might concern the fans is that after a year at the helm, we still have no real idea about the kind of football Emery wants to play. Despite saying that he wants Arsenal to be “protagonists” at the start of the season, his style seems to be highly reactive and focusses more on countering the opposition’s strengths. This comes with the unusual side-effect of the team making a meal of things against not-so-formidable opposition. Under Emery, Arsenal’s performances against the bigger sides has drastically improved. And that is a sure sign of progress. Even if Arsenal fail to win the Europa League, Emery deserves another season in charge. In the summer transfer window, he will have an opportunity to bring in players that are more in sync with the kind of football he wants the club to play. However, all good sides have a style of their own and Emery and Arsenal need to figure out their own ASAP. Even Leicester’s league-winning side had a distinctive style.
Personally, I miss the free-flowing football of the Wenger era. An era where midfielders were lining up to score goals and no one could predict where the next goal could come from. In Wenger’s final years, Arsenal’s playing style had become a shadow of its former self. The roots of that stylistic change probably lie in the signing of Oliver Giroud in the summer of 2012. At the time, Giroud was meant to be the Plan B. Wenger has always favoured the pacy, intelligent forward as opposed to the ‘big man up top’ approach.
That’s not to say that Giroud lacked intelligence. His hold-up play was excellent. But a man with pace, he wasn’t. Over the years, Wenger tried to replace Giroud with multiple centre forwards. Namely Walcott, Welbeck and Alexis. But none of them could replicate his consistency in front of goal. Effectively Giroud was the Plan B who became Plan A and was only replaced by Alexandre Lacazette. Playing Giroud up front effectively meant that Arsenal could not break with pace as often as they’d like, thereby impacting their overall style. That along with failing to successfully replace the likes of Cazorla and Tomas Rosicky in midfield ensured that Arsenal were not as potent going forward.
In the last couple of seasons, Arsenal had become overly reliant on Alexis conjuring a goal out of nothing, especially in tricky away fixtures. Emery’s conservative “safety first” approach has just made Arsenal’s lack of creativity in midfield even more apparent. A situation that can hopefully be rectified in the summer transfer window. If Emery can restore the club to its former glory and get us back to playing in the Champions League on a regular basis, most of us fans will consider that to be an acceptable compromise.
Fans who have an extremely short-term memory might be tempted to blame Wenger for the mess the club is currently in. And yes he shares a portion of that blame. But so do Gazidis and the Kroenkes. The new management structure was implemented a few seasons too late. Ideally it should have been implemented in 2012 or 2013. As CEO of the club it was down to Gazidis to convince Wenger that he needed help on the transfer and recruitment front. And while Wenger is partly culpable for the decline of the fortunes of the club in his final years at the helm, let us not forget that he revolutionised Arsenal Football Club and English football in general. He also made sure that Arsenal regularly competed in the Champions League after the move to the Emirates. Under his stewardship Arsenal won two doubles, three league titles, seven FA Cups and of course the Invincibles season of 2003-04. For that alone he will be remembered fondly by the Arsenal faithful.
The author is a cruciverbalist by profession. His crosswords and puzzles feature in many of India’s leading publications. He tweets @yazad_d
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