Arsenal, destined to repeat the same cycle over and over again, have regressed in every way under Unai Emery.
As we get closer to 2020, the inevitable Best of the Decade columns are hitting screens everywhere. Which player was the best, what team dominated, who scored the greatest goal? But if there was an award for the most frustrating club of the past decade, the frontrunner would have to be Arsenal.
The North London outfit are one of the most successful clubs in the history of English football, they have incredible pedigree that few others can match, a massive worldwide supporter base, a reputation for attractive football, a fabulous stadium, and have been financially secure for a long time. They have just about everything you could want in order to achieve continual success.
And yet, they never come even close to doing so. The past ten years for Arsenal have been defined by missed opportunities and mediocrity. They have had their moments, namely three FA Cups and some scintillating football at times, but they have always fallen short in the important moments.
They haven’t even experienced the kind of glorious failure that makes some clubs so captivating, like Leeds United in the Championship or Liverpool (when it comes to the Premier League title anyway). It’s been deeply boring and predictable: top four finishes without ever challenging for the title, exiting the Champions League at the hands of Barcelona or Bayern Munich, and that’s your lot.
The feeling with Arsenal was that if you replaced Arsene Wenger, the architect of their most recent success but well past his peak in football management, then you could unlock that potential with a new manager who could get the most out of the talent at his disposal. That finally happened in 2017, when the Frenchman made way for Unai Emery. But if anything, the Gunners are still stuck in the same time loop they have been for the longest time, but at a lower level; just replace Champions League with Europa League and top four with top six.
On a micro level, Emery is a huge part of the reason for this. This season we have seen his team sit back in every game in order to soak up pressure and presumably hit the opposition on the counter. But they do it incredibly poorly, conceding tonnes of shots (third most in the league behind Aston Villa and Norwich City) and great chances, without compensating for it with enough attacking output. It reminds me of Jose Mourinho’s time at Manchester United, where he implemented a defensive approach despite the strongest part of his squad being in the final third.
On a macro level, mediocrity seems to be fully embedded within the organisation. I have no doubt they would love to be majorly successful and win countless trophies, but they don’t seem willing to take the necessary risks that entails along the way. For a long time, the hierarchy have been happy to consolidate rather than build upon what they have, the end result being slow gradual worsening of the team’s talent level.
While they were doing that, other clubs diversified, grew stronger and overtook them: Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City and Spurs, with Leicester City looking set to join that group. As stated above, this is a club that has everything – except ambition. And that’s why they are unlikely to remove Emery, even as it becomes clearer with each passing week that he is not the person to guide them back to the top.
A quick glance over the statistics paints a glaring picture that should change the board’s mind; the team is worse in just about every way since the changeover. When comparing the last 50 games of Wenger and the first 50 games of Emery at Arsenal, the Spaniard’s side has: won fewer games, gained fewer points, scored fewer goals, conceded more, kept fewer clean sheets, taken few attempts on goal, fewer shots on target, created fewer chances, faced more shots and had less possession.
In light of this, Emery’s position should be coming serious pressure following Tottenham’s sacking of Mauricio Pochettino, but we know it won’t. The one thing we can deduct from the past year and a half is that Arsenal will never evolve, never change. They are trapped within a cycle of repeating events, time itself bent around them, looping about to replay the same season over and over again.