It’s a bit of a surreal time to be an Arsenal fan. Just a handful of months ago, you could cast your gaze towards the Emirates and find Arsène Wenger still conducting proceedings from the sidelines, continuing to strive for that elusive divine trifecta of on-pitch success, economic stability and the art of being able to zip up a coat at the first time of asking. Cue our worst season for over two decades, a second year without Champions League football and Le Professor has left the building.
Rewind a little further and you’ll also find a host of players that we’d all come to associate with modern Arsenal: Jack Wilshere, Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Olivier Giroud, Alexis Sanchez, Wojciech Szczesny, Kieran Gibbs, Per Mertesacker, Tomas Rosicky, Santi Cazorla, and more (some of which I daren’t ever mention again). They’ve all now departed from the team, for one reason or another. As have much of the backroom staff, with many being moved on following Wenger’s departure.
And it’s not just at pitch-level, either, with club chief exec Ivan Gazidis recently announcing his decision to move to AC Milan – not that many Gooners have been losing sleep over that one. Perhaps more worryingly, however, is the news that Alisher Usmanov has decided to sell his stake in the club to majority shareholder Stan Kroenke, allowing the American billionaire to buy up fan-held shares and take the club private.
But where are we now? We’ve got a new head coach in Unai Emery, a largely-new backroom team and a fresh, new ethos within the club. Power has been spread out, with “Diamond Eye” Sven Mislintat roped in last year as head of player recruitment, as well as Raul Sanllehi moving into his new role as Director of Football following Ivan’s departure.
This brave new world has also seen the club attempt to patch up some major holes in the team over the last six months or so, with Leno, Torreira, Sokratis, Guendouzi and Lichsteiner joining the January acquisitions of Aubameyang, Mkhitaryan and promising youngster Mavropanos. That, in itself, has been a breath of fresh air after several transfer windows largely made up of disappointment.
On the whole, the changes seem to be pushing us in the right direction so far. The opening day loss to Man City was expected, all things considered. We’re nowhere near their level right now. The follow-up at Chelsea we should have put away our chances but didn’t. Shock, I know. Since those, however, we’ve ground out a few wins and are slowly but surely looking more confident in adapting to Emery’s style.
Lacazette appears to be flourishing with Aubameyang to his left, whilst Torreira has looked a breath of fresh air when he’s come on. In terms of other new players, Guendouzi has impressed hugely for a 19-year old plucked straight from Ligue 2 and we’re all hopeful that Sokratis can recapture some of his imperious 16/17 Dortmund form. We should also begin to see more of Bernd Leno in goal as the season progresses, with Emery favouring a modern, ball-playing keeper (we won’t mention Petr’s nifty footwork).
However, the old defensive frailties are clearly still there and we simply don’t have a squad to rival the best in the league right now. But so many years of gradual decline, dated tactics and transfer market stagnation is never going to be fixed in one summer.
Instead, patience is the order of the day and we’ll know far more about our progress this time next year (eh Rodney?). Of course, the big task is getting ourselves back into the Champions League as soon as possible. Will it happen this season? In truth, I just don’t know.
Top four is certainly not out of the question – but it’ll be tough with so many changes and we’ll need to raise our game in those big ties. City and Liverpool are miles ahead right now, while Chelsea look rejuvenated under Sarri and could be on for a decent year with Hazard. Tottenham and United haven’t had the most consistent of starts either but you’d certainly wager that both will improve.
The Europa League is our other route, of course – but you simply cannot bank on winning that tournament with so many variables and matches to be played. However, we’ve certainly got the right man for the job in Emery should we go deep into the competition, with the Basque coach having masterminded Sevilla’s famous hat-trick of Europa League wins.
You wouldn’t put your money on us making it right now with any degree of certainty – but a strong season from the likes of Mesut, Aubameyang, Lacazette, Ramsey and co could put us right in the mixer. On top of that, some much-needed improvement from the likes of Mustafi and Xhaka would really strengthen our chances (what can I say? I’m a dreamer).
If we do it, maybe then we can look at the next step towards getting back to The Arsenal of old and fighting for the big ones. Champions League money partnered with a new Adidas deal (starting next season) will go a long way to improving the transfer budget, for starters.
Right now, though, it’s just nice to have something different, free of all that toxicity and negativity that was so prominent over the last couple of years. For want of a better phrase, it’s a “project”. And if it fails, it least we’d have failed trying something new.