Parting ways with a legacy manager will take some getting used to for Arsenal fans- particularly during the summer months in the absence of Arsenal fixtures. Games keep the news cycle tumbling on like a penny rolling down a hill. But with a new coach whom we have yet to see in action, we have entered a kind of hinterland of speculation.
It wasn’t just the length of Wenger’s legacy that has invited focus, but the lack of consensus during the last decade or so of his reign. His spectre framed every single debate, which caused a rift in the fan base. Opinions on the job he was doing differed and, within that, many fans who felt he was no longer doing a good job maintained a great deal of affection for him and held their tongues.
So the genesis of the debate moved from whether or not you thought Arsene was doing a good job, to how precisely you expressed the fact that he wasn’t. Wenger became more than just a symbol for the football club, he became an umbrella for it too. With the band aid ripped off and the benevolent dictator removed, suddenly, it seems difficult to properly analyse Arsenal separate from one dominant personality.
There is a total lack of consensus on how good the Arsenal squad actually is, for instance. Is Shkodran Mustafi David Luiz on roller skates? Or is he a genuinely talented, World Cup winning centre half let down by one of the most wide open defensive systems in world football? Most Arsenal centre halves develop a footballing equivalent of PTSD and have their careers, if not killed off, mortally wounded by association with Arsenal.
Sebastien Squillaci’s “YOU DON’T KNOW! YOU WEREN’T THERE MAN!” interview from a seasons back is revealing in this regard. As such, it has become genuinely difficult to assess the ability of Arsenal’s centre halves. As decline took hold in Wenger’s final seasons, the same questions apply to other players.
Is Granit Xhaka a top class deep lying playmaker in need of a more destructive partner? Or is he inherently flaky? What is the level of Alex Iwobi’s potential? Has he plateaued under Arsene’s laissez-faire guidance? Has his development suffered in a meandering squad in the midst of a mass rebuild? Or is he just not quite Arsenal standard? It’s difficult to judge.
With the Wenger blindfold ripped off and Arsenal fans blinking in the dark, it’s difficult to understand how far the flaws in the current squad are down to individual ability and how far they have been down to lax coaching. Emery will give us a better indication soon enough, but given the current lack of clarity, it is hard to understand what success would look like in Emery’s first season.
Well, obviously winning the Treble and tossing Jose Mourinho face down into a nearby skip would represent success, but let’s dabble closer to the margins of reality for a second. Having lost the usual table at Chez Champions League, blagging their way back onto the guest-list ought to be Arsenal’s foremost priority. Upon Emery’s unveiling, Ivan Gazidis preached patience with the new coach.
Emery has spoken of transitioning Arsenal to a high pressing style, which will inevitably take some time as players learn new habits. Mauricio Pochettino and Jurgen Klopp took a season to coach their players into a similar modus operandi. (Clearly, they needed a few transfer windows to buy the sort of player required to implement such a style too). Liverpool finished 8th in Klopp’s first season, Spurs were 5th in Pochettino’s maiden voyage.
So it stands to reason that it might take Emery twelve months or so to alter the team’s muscle memory. That said, Arsenal’s most recent acquisitions are all short term projects. Aubameyang and Mkhitaryan are 29, Sokratis will be 30 by the time the season starts and Stephan Lichsteiner is 34. In January, the Gunners sunk a large slice of their wage bill into 29 year old Mesut Özil.
A lot of these players will need to be refreshed in 2-3 seasons’ time. If not quite a “must win now” squad, this is not a team that can wait around for a couple of years until Arsenal reprogramme their DNA. It seems fairly obvious that the strategy is to plan short term, initially, to get the club back into the Champions League. From there, Arsenal ought to be in a position of greater strength to rebuild for the medium to long-term.
What people don't understand is you DO NOT rebuild a squad when you've just finished 6th. It makes it almost impossible (if not risky) because it might get worse. Esp with young players. The vision is clear. Get back into the CL using ready made experience and then rebuild.
— Tebogo Mothusi (@motwocee) May 28, 2018
Essentially, Arsenal have to chase their losses a little and the best way to do it is with experience. Also, I think there has been an acknowledgment that the transfer window is tough in a World Cup summer and certain deals have been easy to do earlier on. In the meantime, a more cerebral aspiration will be for the experienced professionals to help develop the likes of Chambers, Holding, Mavropanos, Nelson and Maitland-Niles.
So while Emery probably deserves the clemency that the likes of Klopp and Pochettino enjoyed, he doesn’t really have a squad built for patience. You don’t really want to waste Mesut Özil and Pierre Emerick Aubameyang’s peak years marooned in a transition project, playing Europa League football and finishing 6th. So, by hook or by crook, it seems pretty straightforward that all roads point to Champions League re-qualification as the immediate target.
Personally, I think Arsenal’s squad, if a little imbalanced, is better than people give it credit for. A quick glance at Liverpool and Tottenham’s substitutes benches on any given matchday show that talent wise, the Gunners are not lagging behind their immediate rivals. I would say the same of Chelsea. There are some immediate marginal gains that ought to be within Emery’s grasp. Even an average away record would have given Arsenal a good shout of 4th place last season.
I am certain that Emery’s Europa League record was a significant factor in his appointment and I am sure the Arsenal board would tolerate a transitional domestic season, if the Spaniard can take home his favourite piece of silverware and qualify Arsenal via that route. It is always a little dangerous to make a cup competition central to your ambitions, given the variance they throw up (Arsene Wenger, 7 time winner of the FA Cup, lost a 3rd round tie at Nottingham Forest in January).
But I would imagine his Europa League record was considered a marginal factor as opposed to the central tenet of his employment. Reports suggest Emery has a 2 year contract with an option for a 3rd year, I would be enormously surprised if that 3rd year option were triggered if the club is not dining at Europe’s top table come 2021.
Emery probably wouldn’t be sacked for finishing 5th or 6th next season, but the recruitment strategy shows that a swift return to the Champions League is priority numero uno for the new coach. Given the amount of domestic cup success the club has tasted in recent years, I doubt this will be any sort of consideration when Gazidis, Sanllehi, Kroenke(s) and Mislintat assess Emery’s first season.
The recruitment policy and the (reported) structure of Emery’s contract point to the objective; get Arsenal back into the Champions League- by either available route- with one strike permitted. Unai, in the meantime, is basically bidding to be the person to oversee a slightly more medium to long term rebuild in 2-3 years. Buena suerte, Unai.
Renowned Arsenal historians Andy Kelly and Mark Andrews and I have written a book about the tumultuous early years of Arsenal Football Club covering the period 1886 – 1893. ‘Royal Arsenal- Champions of the South’ is available for pre-order here.