On Saturday, Arsenal plays at Manchester City. It’s entirely possible it could lose even if it plays well, and there’s been nothing so far to suggest it is likely to play well. If it does lose, that will be three defeats in a row to start the Premier League season before heading into the international break. The cycle is repeating again.
It has been 20 months since Unai Emery was sacked as a figure of widespread derision. Players, we were told, struggled to understand his tactical instructions. His record at Spartak Moscow and Paris Saint-Germain was held against him. Here was a manager, it was said (not entirely unreasonably), who was fine for an upper mid-table Spanish side but struggled everywhere else. And yet he has a higher win percentage at Arsenal than Mikel Arteta, the manager who replaced him.
After 88 games with Arteta on the job, patience is beginning to run out. The return of fans to the Emirates on Sunday meant the return of booing—and the nature of modern football being what it is, that discontent will soon be directed to Arteta. The problem is, there is so much going wrong at Arsenal that working out who is to blame and what might bring an improvement is almost impossible.
Arsenal, really, has been in decline since 2005. The move from Highbury to the Emirates was supposed to increase the club’s commercial potential, almost doubling capacity and offering greatly enhanced corporate facilities. It has done that, but the problem is that while the stadium was being built, investment in the squad was squeezed, and at the same time the economics of the game changed, so that what was required was investment from an oligarch or the sovereign wealth fund of a state.
By the time some money was available for transfers, Arsene Wenger was in his dotage and the decline went on. When Emery got there, the satiation was chaotic. Football had moved on and Arsenal had not. Recruitment was chaotic, and with regular stories of scouts being laid off, that has not improved. This is a club whose four most expensive signings before this summer were an orthodox center forward (Alexandre Lacazette), a No. 10 (Mesut Ozil), and two players at their best starting wide and cutting infield (Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Nicolas Pépé). How were those four ever expected to play together? What was the plan?
And as so often happens, decline leads to panic. Ozil and Aubameyang were both given extended contracts after the age of 30. Both then fell dismally out of form. Lucrative deals were given to David Luiz and Willian. Emiliano Martínez was sold to Aston Villa for $20 million last summer, leaving Arsenal short of a backup keeper, and forcing the club to spend $33 million on Aaron Ramsdale. None of it makes any sense.
At least young talents like Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe offer hope, and the $150 million invested this summer has gone toward players ages 23 and under who can reasonably be expected to have resale value. Yet how much better, for all the obvious talent of Martin Ødegaard and Ben White, they have made Arsenal, though, is debatable. White thrived in a back three at Brighton, but in his first game for Arsenal, away at Brentford, he was part of a back four, where his comparative weakness in the air was brutally exposed. Was no thought given to how he might fit in?
It’s true Arsenal was without nine players against Chelsea on Sunday, but still, its display was limp in a way that was simultaneously inexplicable and entirely characteristic. Defeat felt preordained. The opening goal was the result of dismal defending, the sort of lack of organization that can only expose Arteta to criticism. Pablo Mari got far too tight to Romelu Lukaku so he could be spun easily, and he was then hopelessly outmuscled. Kieran Tierney had clearly been told to tuck in to cover, but nobody moved to protect the channel he had just vacated, leaving Reece James to accelerate forward and cross unhindered. And even then a well-drilled line might have drawn an offside, had Cédric Soares not been loitering four yards behind the rest of the defense.
But these are professionals. They must know such basics. This was more than a failure of organization. It was a failure of spirit. There is a sickness about Arsenal. Minds seem perpetually scrambled. There is no sharpness, no confidence, apparently no willingness to take responsibility.
And while Arteta as manager has to take some of the blame, the problems stretch far into the past and way beyond him.
More Soccer Coverage: