As Thomas Müller stroked in Bayern Munich’s 5th goal of the night, it seemed familiar and practically routine. In what world are we living in when it is considered more inevitable than a shock when a top German side beats a top English side 5-1 in the first leg of a Champions League knock-out tie. I remember Premier League flying the flag valiantly a few years back, with epic European nights at Old Trafford, Anfield, Stamford Bridge and even at the Emirates. Now we’re grateful to even have a team in the quarter-finals. For a league invested with such a mountain of capital, it’s frankly a disgrace that we’re in this position – it’s a shambles. With relegation candidates Leicester City and stuttering Manchester City still to face off against two of Europe’s most in-form sides in Sevilla and AS Monaco respectively, it’s not out of the question that the English flag will soon be withdrawn from the Champions League turf.
That’s not why we’re here though. Why we’re here is to discuss the cowering disappointment that is Arsenal Football Club. I can only feel sorry for their fanbase because season after season the same scenario is played out. Promising start of the season up until November brings talk of a title surge and the fate-sealing ‘this is our year’ chat. One or two weeks from hell either side of Christmas push Arsène Wenger and his side away from the leading pack. Then the rest of the season is played out in a lukewarm rollercoaster of form that is just about sufficient enough for a top 4 finish and maybe a cup win. No league progress and certainly no European progress. Summer arrives, Wenger pledges his future, tepid transfer window and repeat. Unfortunately it’s reached a point where it’s less of a talking point and more of a running comedy.
Any team that loses the same European fixture 5-1 in consecutive years has a deep-lying problem. We’ll witness the classic, outraged song and dance from pundits, journalists and fans alike but they now know this routine like the back of their hand. The spitting eruption of anger has been replaced with cries of pure frustration and deflation. The infamous ArsenalFanTV interviews now invoke an increasing sense of sympathy from fellow fans (after the initial humour of it all). Everyone can sense that something toxic and weak is ingrained in the club’s DNA and, without a doubt, it’s time for something to change. Fingers will all point to Wenger, rightly or wrongly, but even if he does go there’s major work to be done by whoever takes the reigns.
Between 2001-2005, I was a football sponge. I had learnt that the sport was something I was interested in and I was living the life of an addict. Whether it was going to Stamford Bridge, watching Sky Sports News, reading MATCH Magazine or statistic yearbooks or even watching Liverpool and Manchester United season reviews on VHS. I was absorbing it all and crafting my love for football. This was a period was a strong one for the Gunners. The likes of Sol Campbell, Patrick Vieira, Robert Pires, Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry made up a formidable outfit. So good in fact, that they didn’t lose a league game in their 2003/04 title-winning season. They struck fear into their opponents and were a reliable bet to win any competition that they entered. They were winners.
A mere 12 years has passed since the end of that period and yet the word ‘Invincibles’ is seeming like a historical artefact. It seems crazy to say that considering that some of that 2003/04 squad is still playing, and even worse when you realise that the same manager is still at the helm. Now I’m not here to bash Wenger, his impact on Arsenal Football Club will forever be remembered and appreciated. Three titles, a stadium change, constant Champions League football and the development of both youth players and an attractive playing identity. He’ll always be an Invincible, but it now sits on his CV as a past achievement as opposed to an active qualification.
Many will argue how long the situation has been this way, but it’s clear now that, with Wenger driving, the club is very much in reverse gear. The Frenchman has survived more punches than arguably any manager in history, and every crisis has been overcome (at least temporarily). The monkey can never quite cling on to his back for long enough. A 9 year wait for a trophy was broken with back-to-back FA Cup wins and a smiling, surviving Wenger. Critics of his methods in the transfer market were left impressed by the big-money acquisitions of Mesut Özil and Alexis Sanchez. Every summer brings new calls for his head after yet another disappointing league finish. Every August he arrives as Arsenal boss. You start to get the feeling that if there was an apocalypse, the only survivors would be cockroaches and Arsène Wenger in the Emirates dugout.
This season appears to be different though. Defeats to Everton, Manchester City, Chelsea and Watford within two, individual weeks either side of Christmas really set the fuse on a red and white pack of dynamite. This new 5-1 defeat to Bayern Münich will only drag us closer to detonation. As we are seeing a stronger voice for football fans via social media, there’s no escape from the rage and fury when their side loses. We’re now in a world where players and club personnel are faced with questions regarding fans’ comments on YouTube. A few years ago that would have sounded absurd but it’s the development path that football is going down. As hilarious as people might find it, ArsenalFanTV is leading this charge and their regulars really do have a voice and can put pressure on their club. It’s a new era that doesn’t bode well for Arsène Wenger.
What’s frustrating about Arsenal is the constant mistakes and the lack of an efficient solution. Since the likes of Campbell, Vieira and Henry left the club, every criticism of Arsenal has led down one route of opinion – the club lacks leaders. This was epitomised at the Allianz Stadium when captain Laurent Koscielny went off through injury and the whole team went to the dogs. There’s no-one to give their teammates a kick up the backside and demand more. The running spine of the team is mentally frail and everyone seems to be looking to rely on somebody else to lead them forward. Furthermore, they say leadership starts at the manager; and the dejected, muted figure of Wenger on the sideline every time the team is down can’t do any sort of good for morale. The only time he is active is when he’s berating (or pushing) an official and for someone with his experience and knowhow that’s not good enough.
So what’s next? Well first things first the club needs a change at the top. Wenger has to overcome his sense of pride and resign in the summer. The fans can say goodbye to a club legend with grace and respect and the departing can be more amicable than a mid-season witch-hunt. Next up is to appoint a successor. As Manchester United found out that is not the easiest task, although Arsenal can’t go further wrong than David Moyes. There seems to be an abundance of managers out there that could mould into the ‘Arsenal Way’.
The likes of Thomas Tuchel (Borussia Dortmund), Leonardo Jardim (AS Monaco) and Ronald Koeman (Everton) all possess philosophies that value a combination of playing attractive football whilst bringing through the best talent from their clubs’ youth systems. Bigger, more established names such as Diego Simeone (Atletico Madrid) and Massimo Allegri (Juventus) (below) would be harder to prise away but would be more trusted in the short-term. The outsiders in the race would likely be Eddie Howe (AFC Bournemouth), Joachim Löw (Germany) and potentially even the return of a playing legend such as Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira (New York City FC) or Dennis Bergkamp (currently leading Ajax’ youth system). What we do know is that Arsène Wenger will have his say in whatever recruitment process that the club takes and the chosen candidate will have to fit his vision for the club.
Next up is squad evaluation and player recruitment. Now much of this will rely on the futures of contract rebels Sanchez and Özil, with the former looking more and more frustrated and the latter looking less and less bothered. Assuming they stay, there’s obvious areas to invest in:
Recent months have suggested that Petr Cech’s time could be up as a world-class keeper with visible issues with both his distribution and near-post shot-stopping. It’s clear that Arsenal should start looking at a long-term replacement who can spend 5-10 years in goal for them. David Ospina is not of sufficient quality to hold the role full-time.
If they’re looking to go big, then the club should try their luck with world-class Jan Oblak (Atletico Madrid) but he could prove difficult to prise away from Madrid. More realistic targets would be Samir Handanović (Inter Milan), Bernd Leno (Bayern Leverkusen) or Ralf Fährmann (Schalke 04). Personally due to age and longevity, I would go all out for Fährmann or, more so, Leno (below) who has won his stars as a leader in Leverkusen and is at the stage of his career where a bigger move is beckoning.
Whilst not the crying, screaming necessity that it once was for so long, I dont think many Arsenal fans would tell you that a selection of Koscielny, Shkodran Mustafi, Per Mertesacker or Gabriel as a set of centre-backs is good enough to win the league. Whether the club invests in a world-class partner for Koscielny or puts faith in Mustafi and goes for a better back-up than Gabriel or Mertesacker, it’s up to them, but I think an addition is certainly needed if they want to compete for the title.
Again, this depends on the club’s faith in Mustafi as a starting centre-back. If they want a new starter, then I think they need to go for someone of a different profile to Mustafi. The likes of Kostas Manolas (AS Roma), Kalidou Koulibaly (Napoli) and Omar Toprak (Bayer Leverkusen) will come up as targets but there’s the risk that they will take too long to adapt to the league or won’t adapt at all. For me, although slightly left-wing, signing Pepe (below) on a free signing would tick the boxes. A leader and a winner who can still play at a world-class level. Would be a short-term fix but, in a fragile time of transition, he could be the perfect lynchpin to stabilise the defence and on a free transfer is the best value out there (but China are coming…).
Eden Hazard exposed Francis Coquelin in the recent loss at Stamford Bridge and Granit Xhaka has looked like an untrained bull terrier since arriving from Borussia Monchengladbach. He’s not a bad player but he needs a true ball-winner next to him so he can focus on his distribution – which is where he’s strongest. Coquelin can have a good game and is solid against average opposition, but will never surpass this level of quality. Similar can be said of Mohamed Elneny. This should be the priority.
The likes of William Carvalho (Sporting Lisbon) and Steven N’Zonzi (Sevilla) should be looked at and prioritised immediately in the way that N’Golo Kante should have been last summer. Carvalho (below, left) is maturing into both a top-quality destroyer and a leader at Sporting Lisbon but will be looking to further his career in the near future. Whilst slightly older, N’Zonzi has developed phenomenally at Sevilla and is a different beast to the one we saw at Stoke City, especially in terms of technical and tactical ability.
Again, on paper this may not seem necessary but, again, most Arsenal fans would say a new striker is very much needed. This time it’s all or nothing. The club has bought enough second/back-up strikers over the last few years to prove that it’s not a season-changing move. Does Olivier Giroud score goals? Yes. Will he win Arsenal a title? It’s got to be a no. Everyone has a soft spot for the Frenchman but he’s not in the league of Diego Costa, Zlatan Ibrahimovic or Sergio Aguero (or Harry Kane he says quietly). Alexis Sanchez can be a 20 goal a season striker, but he can be 20 goal a season left winger too so why not combine him with another proven goalscorer to share the burden?
This is when Arsenal need to show their financial muscle. However satirical that may seem, we all know they have the cash and a new manager might be offered with slightly looser pursestrings. With the season he’s having, Edinson Cavani (PSG) (below) has stepped himself into the world-class category and would be a fantastic signing for Arsenal. His movement against Barcelona was electric and intelligent, and bringing this into the side would surely complement Mesut Özil. Other options could be Alexandre Lacazette (Lyon), Javier Hernandez (Bayer Leverkusen) or Mauro Icardi (Internazionale), who would all represent strikers in that sub world-class category but would certainly contribute minimum 15 goals a season. I would also throw money at AS Monaco for new-kid-on-the-block Kylian Mbappe, who looks the real deal and would rival Gabriel Jesus for hottest young talent in the Premier League.
And 2,206 words later, we are at the end of this dissection. I realise that I am analysing the situation from a purely outsiders perspective and those Arsenal fans that watch every minute of every performance will likely have their own opinions that will differ to mine. What won’t vary (unless Ty from AFTV is reading this) is that change is so desperately needed, and that needs to start at the top. As much of a legend he is at Arsenal Football Club, it’s time for Arsène Wenger to step aside and to do so at the right time before his relationship with the fans becomes too toxic to cure.
It’s time for a new start at Arsenal with a new man in charge. What is positive, and is proved by their constant top 4 presence, is that the team is only a few big, intelligent acquisitions away from really going for the title (so long as they keep Sanchez/Özil). It doesn’t take much. If they win one title, get to a final in Europe, or even start performing consistently against their rivals, that losers mentality will be chipped away. With the club in the right hands, we could be looking at a new generation of success for Arsenal Football Club.
Thanks for reading (sorry if I offended any Arsenal fans by writing as a Chelsea fan or if I offended any Chelsea fans for writing so much about Arsenal. Spurs fans, you probably won’t have read past the first paragraph.)