Saturday produced a surprisingly comfortable 2-0 win for Arsenal, and one that keeps it above Manchester United in fifth, albeit only on goal difference. Unai Emery had said that if Arsenal lost, it would effectively end its hopes of a top-four finish; victory at least keeps alive the possibility of Champions League qualification. Chelsea now has a cushion of just three points from Arsenal and a United resurgent under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
This was as well as Arsenal has played for some time. It rode its luck at the back at times but equally could easily have scored far more than the goals scored by Alexandre Lacazette and Laurent Koscielny.
But there remains a clear sense at the Emirates that the revolution has stalled. That run of 22 games unbeaten from the third league game of the season onwards looks illusory now. It’s not just that Arsenal’s form has stuttered – although perhaps not as much as results suggest; that run was inflated by a number of straightforward games in the Europa League and Carabao Cup and there was rarely a sense of it controlling matches – but that the entire project is beginning to fall apart.
Before Arsene Wenger’s departure, the CEO had put in place the structures to replace him. Sven Mislinitat was appointed as head of recruitment with Raul Sanllehi as director of football. Mislintat had a fine record of unearthing young talent on a relatively restricted budget at Borussia Dortmund. Already Arsenal is beginning to see the benefit of that with the arrival of Lucas Torreira and Matteo Guendouzi. Mislintat was also involved in identifying a number of older stop-gaps and in the signing of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who had become a misfit at Dortmund but has flourished in the Premier League.
But Gazidis has left for AC Milan and Mislintat, apparently frustrated by the way Sanllehi and the managing director Vinai Venkatesham have seized power since his departure, reducing his chances of becoming technical director, looks set to depart, with Bayern Munich his likeliest destination. That’s two of the three principle prongs of Arsenal’s new hierarchy gone.
At the same time, there’s no sign that the austerity is going to end – despite it being declared over by Gazidis in June 2013. A certain frugality had been necessary, it was widely understood, to help pay off the debt on the new stadium, a project entered into to help Arsenal compete financially with the elite, but undermined long before completion by the entry into club ownership of mega-rich oligarchs and sheikhs.
When Arsenal signed Mesut Ozil at the end of that summer, it seemed the future would, indeed, be different. But Ozil now remains at the club only as a burden, an unnatural fit with Emery’s style of play, his vast wages a deterrent to potential buyers. There were a smattering of further glamor signings after him, but there is no money is available for permanent transfers this January, despite a reported £137m in the bank (not including the £23m reserve for servicing the debt), despite Arsenal making a profit before tax of £25.1m last year. Aaron Ramsey will leave when his contract expires in the summer, at least in part because of a sense that the club does not wish to meet his salary expectations.
There are mitigating factors. The profit was in part conditioned by player sales and by the sale of a development property near the Emirates on Holloway Road. The bank balance, the club stresses, represents a snapshot and may not be representative – there are large sums going in and out to do with the day-to-day running of the club. A lot of the players are on Champions League wages when Arsenal is in its second successive season in the Europa League. But still, the bald fact is that Arsenal, financially, is not competing, and nor can it when moored to a strategy of only spending what it earns.
Yet Chelsea too is battling with constraints unthinkable in its heyday, which may be further exposed if Eden Hazard chooses to join Real Madrid in the summer. His continued deployment as a reluctant center forward continues to baffle, just one of a number of Chelsea players who don’t quite seem to fit the roles allocated to them in Maurizio Sarri’s system.
Like Arsenal, despite a better than expected start to the season, Chelsea remains unconvincing, most kindly described as a work in progress. It may be that the main beneficiaries of Chelsea’s defeat end up being Solskjaer’s United.