As the final whistle sounded in Baku, it brought an end to Arsenal’s first season of the post Wenger era. A European final, even one where the result didn’t go our way, does not indicate a bad season, and certainly not a bad start for a new coach. But looking back, this should count as a season of regret for those at Arsenal. As the likes of Cech, Welbeck and especially Ramsey say goodbye and move on, this regret could potentially expand to a cause for concern about the future as well. It is with this trepidation that I decided to take a look back at the season and try to make sense of what happened.
The Goodbyes to Wenger had taken place last season, the memories and messages all shared, tears shed, and the chapter drawn to a close. Then… a palpable sense of excitement. Who would take over and lead us into this new era? Turns out it was PSG’s former manager. We pored through his record, his matches, his statements. Some were excited, some were disappointed but virtually everyone was looking forward to a fresh start, no matter what it would bring. Even the more cynical ones saying it would need time, were prepared to be patient.
The only jarring note was struck by Ivan Gazidis inserting himself into every photo, video and interview, indicating he was the boss. Unai Emery was pointedly introduced to us as Arsenal’s new Head Coach. He immediately won us over with his spirit and courage in facing the press and answering questions in his very broken English. We wanted to get to know the man and his vision for the club, and together he and the CEO outlined the process they were aiming for. Everyone was on board, and couldn’t wait for the season to begin.
Including the players. Mesut Ozil cut short his holiday to join the Arsenal tour. Young hotshot midfielder Guendouzi rejected the call up for an international youth tournament. Torreira was playing well with Uruguay at the World Cup and it was reported how excited he was to join us. Leno seemed like a good addition who would help with playing out from the back. Our dynamic Dortmund Duo were to be joined by the serious CB Papa, and we added Old Man Licht as backup RB.
The PL threw us, and Unai Emery, a curveball with the fixture list, but even that couldn’t dampen our spirits. This was a new Arsenal. We knew it wouldn’t be easy, but we had a new coach in charge, new players, a new plan, and football was here!
Let’s just get these out of the way. My attitude to this review, the attitude of most of the fans and the players. Not really our target, more like nice to have, but we weren’t starving after 3 recent FA Cup wins, so these were bonus matches. We beat a few lower league opponents, and went out against our league rivals in both the cups. No big deal. The only quibble I had was that we didn’t use the opportunity to play more of our young prospects.
Drawn into a group against Sporting Lisbon and with much travelling involved wasn’t ideal, but we entered as clear favourites. Not just for the group, but in many people’s eyes, for the whole thing. Which frankly, scared me. Arsenal fans should not be extravagantly optimistic. Never ends well.
Still, the group didn’t pose us any problems. 5 wins and a draw, and we went through as winners. Again, I would have preferred if we’d played some more of the youth against Vorskla and Qarabag, but ultimately, the job was done and we entered the knockout rounds with a tie against BATE Borisov as our reward.
It was in the first leg of this tie that we reached possibly the nadir of our season. A painful, turgid, even shameful 1-0 loss away to the Belarussian champs. In what was to become a running theme, this was treated by many as an unfortunate blip on an otherwise upward trend. BATE’s season is just starting so they are fresh, the pitch wasn’t great, the travel doesn’t help, and we’ll get the job done in the return leg. All of which are varying degrees of truth, but this Valentine’s Day loss seems to carry deeper meaning than that. It certainly led to some off field changes, but we can get to that later while sipping on a cup of tea. We did get the job done in the return leg, and on to the next round.
A few weeks later, and we were doing this job of falling over away from home again. This time in France to Rennes. The annoying Ben Arfa was having a laugh at our, and probably more at Emery’s, expense after our 3-1 loss. However, we turned it around again at home, beating them 3-0, Auba’s black panther mask was out, and we were through to the Quarter finals of the Europa League. Take that Ben Arfa!
A tough tie against Napoli who also were among the tournament favourites. But this time we weren’t having any of it. Victories in both legs, with not too much fuss as far as I can recall, and on to the semis.
Valencia, with Gabriel and Coquelin came next. They started well, came at us, and scored an away goal that we were hoping not to concede. But we countered immediately, scoring two quick goals through Lacazette. Aubamayang added another in the 90thminute. A 3-1 win. Still all to do in the return leg. Once again Valencia started well and scored an early goal. But route one football and a great long range finish from Auba changed the game. Arsenal were in control as we won 4-2 (7-3 on aggregate) and made our way to our first European final since 2006.
The toughest of opening day fixtures with the champions coming to the Emirates. No upset, but no cause for being upset, other than an injury to AMN. This was followed by a frustrating loss to Chelsea. Frustrating because we could have been out of sight in the first half if we’d taken our chances, despite the early goals we conceded. As it is Chelsea readjusted, and Emery introduced us to something other than the 68th minute subs we’d become used to under Wenger. All part of getting to know his team. Despite the result, some cause for optimism. Justified by the come from behind victory over West Ham with a 90th minute goal from Welbeck making it 3-1 to Arsenal, and confirming Emery’s first win as Arsenal manager.
As it turns out that was the first of a 7 match winning run, and a 14 match unbeaten run in the league. Cardiff, Newcastle, Everton, Watford, Fulham and Leicester went down before Crystal Palace held us to a draw right at the end of October. Two more draws to Liverpool and Wolves before a win over Bournemouth brought November to a close.
Then came the big one. December had us facing Spurs, ManU, and Liverpool. First up, Spurs came to our home, and Eric Dier decided he could shush us. Sit down he said, to one Aaron Ramsey who was a substitute but had a punch up with Dele Alli, the battle of words with Dier, and came on to provide 2 assists as Arsenal won 4-2. Legend. 3 days later, Manchester United and Arsenal battled to a draw. A bit of a blur this one, but I recall us conceding right after scoring to go 2-1 up. Games coming thick and fast now. Huddersfield next and a 1-0 victory with not much positive except the 3 points. Southampton then again proved to be our bogey team, ending our unbeaten run. This was followed by a win against Burnley, a draw against Brighton, and a huge 5-1 defeat to Liverpool to close out the year.
January went much better with wins against Fulham, West Ham, Chelsea and Cardiff, before ManCity again put the brakes on us in February. 5 days before the BATE debacle, we got ourselves a hard fought victory over Huddersfield. We closed out the month by taking revenge on Southampton, and destroying Bournemouth in a 5-1.
March again saw us face Spurs and ManU, with the results reversed this time. A draw against Spurs (Auba missed a penalty, but Ramsey owned the Wembley pitch. Say it with me…Legend….) and a good win against ManU with a long range Xhaka goal. April began with a win against Newcastle and a loss to Everton before the 1st leg of the Napoli tie. Sandwiched between the EL Quarterfinals was the hilarious win over Watford. Both good hilarious and bad hilarious for Deeney’s early red card and for how bad we were in the game, respectively. A sign of things to come.
“We’re in the Endgame now”
Then came the giving away of the time stone, otherwise known as the Top 4 Trophy, as Emery Strange saw only one possible scenario to win the Champions League qualification gauntlet.
Crystal Palace – L
Wolves – L
Leicester – L
Brighton – D
And when it was all over,
Burnley – W
Finishing 5th. 1 point outside the top 4 behind Spurs, and 2 points behind Chelsea in 3rd. But at least we had the European Final to go to. Win a trophy, and we’d achieve our main target for the season.
Travel and ticketing issues, Mkhitaryan’s safety and the politics, and a poor pitch were the stage for this final. Uefa pulling out all the stops to let us know just how second tier this trophy is to them. But a trophy it was all the same and we were facing a rival who had their own problems to deal with. We had the greater need since they’d already qualified for the big top next year.
Arsenal started off well enough, controlling most of the game. There was an appeal for a penalty, but I didn’t think it was one. As the game went on, Chelsea grew into the game, made some adjustments and by the end of the half we were already on the backfoot, with Cech making a couple of sharp saves.
I’ve tried to wipe the second half from my memory files, but the nightmare scenario of Giroud winning it for Chelsea remains. He scored the opener with a fantastic diving header at the near post, won a penalty for their 3rd goal, and most annoyingly, in a move reminiscent of his pass to Ramsey in the FA Cup final 2 years ago, he gave an assist to Hazard to wrap up the score at 4-1. Iwobi’s goal was great, but like much of this season will not live long in the memory.
Trust the Process:
So how to evaluate this season? What I can say for sure is that it has not been fun. Even for writing this review, I was struggling to remember much of what had happened. It was not pleasant to go over it all again, though I tried to make the most of it. It’s almost distressing to think about what has happened this season, especially when it held out so much hope, both at the beginning, and at the end. My opinion is that it has been an unmitigated disaster. If it were up to me I’d fire Emery, even if it meant replacing him with a relative novice like Freddie, or anyone else as long as he actually has the vision to match the words. Emery doesn’t seem to realise that above all, football is entertainment. Whatever joy there was in this side has been systematically sucked out. The system sucks. End of.
The counter point I’m faced with is that it’s only a transition season and despite some difficulties imposed on Emery, the results have basically been on par. It’s true that any coach needs time to build their side. We are often quoted the example of Klopp (who thankfully, saved football for all of us) But is good coaching and a rebuild a function of time alone? Trust the Process has become a mantra of sorts, but oddly enough, no one seems to want any discussion on the process itself. Merely on the results, and the fact that we’re a position higher in the PL table with 7 more points, and progressed a round further to the final of the EL.
But is football really only about the results? Would any serious evaluation not look further? Except when results are either spectacularly good or spectacularly bad, I’d always put process above results. That’s what you really control. Away from the spotlight, I’d hope Arsenal are carrying out a serious analysis of the season. I shall attempt to do the same here.
A large squad turnover in the 2017-18 season, was the start of a rebuild. At virtually no added cost in transfers and wages, in January we transferred Giroud, Walcott, Coquelin, Debuchy, and Alexis Sanchez out, and in came Aubameyang, Mkhitaryan and young CB Mavropanos. We also extended Mesut Ozil’s contract within this budget.
This left us with a solid attacking core built around Ozil, with two top class forwards ahead of him, and Ramsey, Mkhitaryan and Iwobi to support him.
In the summer, the club spent 70m to fill the remaining gaps in midfield and defense. In came young midfielders Torreira and Guendouzi, experienced CB Sokratis and young GK Leno, who would help us build from the back, an area of weakness for our senior GK Petr Cech. A free backup RB signing followed with the experienced Lichtsteiner.
Although the rebuild would not be complete for another season or two, there was no rush to do so, as the high level of talent in attack and the experienced, if ageing, defense, gave us a good platform to compete well for the next 2 or 3 years. On the basis of this, a roadmap was laid out and presented to the fans by the club and the head coach.
- Play attacking football – Possession, pressing and playing out from the back.
- Not heavily reliant on the transfer market – Funds would be available, but the head coach is to work with the players at the club.
- Play and develop the youth
- Represent the club and its values well
Though left unstated, it was understood that the target was to qualify for the Champions League. Failure to achieve this in the first season may, however, be acceptable.
The expectations among the fans and at the club was that Emery’s more hands on, tactical approach would lead to a better structure for the players, which would help improve the defense, while still maintaining the commitment to attacking football.
However the underlying numbers are cause for concern. We have created fewer shots than last season, and have conceded more shots to the opposition. Individual errors remain high. Possession stats are down. The very visible plan to play out from the back was abandoned very early. Our distance covered numbers are up, but there is little evidence of a coherent press.
Midway through the season, there was some upheaval in the club’s upper management, which possibly impacted on some of the team’s cohesion and plans. Certainly, the decision to withdraw Ramsey’s contract came as a surprise to many, and it couldn’t have helped him or the coach. There was also some major incident between our head coach and our highest paid player. This too might have been triggered by management wanting to bring down expenditure and getting the largest contract among the squad off the books.
While this may be an extenuating circumstance, confining the analysis to the head coach, there is a body of evidence that his preferred style of play is incompatible with Mesut Ozil. Emery seemingly prefers to attack from out wide, using the midfielders more as conduits and shields for when the move breaks down. This is not an ideal use of the talents of one of the best creative midfielders in the world, and our highest paid player.
Attempts to freeze him out of the squad did not go down well with his teammates as he remains a popular member of the team. Following a series of poor performance and finally, defeat to BATE, things came to a somewhat public head with Ozil making a point on social media, and a few of the players ‘liking’ his post. Eventually it led to the coach reversing his decision and reinstating Ozil in the squad and the team. It remains a strained professional (and personal?) relationship and a potential flashpoint. This presents the club with something of a problem since the size of Ozil’s contract makes it difficult to ship him out, even if he were to agree to go, which is doubtful.
On working with the present squad, the head coach has not met the target. His plans seem in dissonance with what this team was built for, and the result has been a reduction in player value and added costs for next season.
In such a scenario one might have expected the youngsters in the squad to be given more game time. While Guendouzi has enjoyed a regular place in the first team, and Maitland-Niles as well, the rest of our youth players have not been deemed worthy of regular involvement in the Premier League. Emile Smith-Rowe played in the cups and the Europa League group stages, but was sent on loan in January. Despite the injury to Danny Welbeck, Eddie Nketiah has received very little time on the pitch. Similarly, Joe Willock has not regularly featured despite the injury (and absence) of Aaron Ramsey. Neither has Mavropanos in defense despite injuries to Holding and Sokratis at different points of the season.
The collapse at the end of the season, when qualifying for the Champions League seemed likely, must also count as cause for serious concern.
The head coach has stated his desire for going into the transfer market. Through a lack of funds in January, the club nevertheless signed Denis Suarez on loan – a player he had worked with before. This turned out to be more of a waste of funds as the player hardly played, and ended up returning with an injury.
If the head coach is retained for next season, to play his preferred style of football would need a major overhaul of the squad, accelerating the time line of the planned, gradual, rebuild. Unless the club is able to recoup much through sales, this would also represent a major loss through investments made not just in Ozil, but the window of opportunity for our attackers. In addition, there is the lost revenue and value from Ramsey’s departure.
A rebuild then would likely need the sale of one of our most valuable assets. The options for this are essentially confined to Aubameyang, Lacazette, or Bellerin. We could also look to sell some of the squad players like Elneny, Jenkinson and Mustafi, and replace them with younger players from the market, the academy, and returning loanees like Chambers and Bielik. Yet another option would be to let go some senior players nearing the end of their careers such as Koscielny and Monreal.
On the plus side, we will be shedding a significant amount from our wage bill as Cech retires, and Welbeck, Lichtsteiner and Ramsey are leaving. There will also be increased revenue from the new shirt sponsorship with Adidas.
A reported transfer budget of 40m would need some creative manoeuvring. The appointment of a technical director would be of help in this regard, and also in ensuring that while the coach retains focus on the season’s goals, the long term health of the club is not compromised.
Marketing and Brand Value – ‘Values’
This may seem a more trivial point, yet it is significant that even while introducing Unai Emery, the then CEO chose to make upholding club values as a target. For years Arsenal had struggled to match the spending and the trophies of our rivals under the stadium debt, and faced a lot of negative press for it. But the fanbase still kept expanding. Much of this was based around the marketing of the club’s history and values as unique in the football world. These values involve respect for players beyond just the strictly professional, honouring a given word, dignity in dealing with the press, and the commitment to attacking football and youth development.
This season has seen a major departure from how the club has done its business. From withdrawing Ramsey’s contract, the treatment of Ozil, and the unceremonious departure of an injured Welbeck, to the lack of exciting ‘on-brand’ football, and some disappointing statements from the coach to the media.
If the club is to retain the involved passionate support of many among its supporters around the world, it is imperative that it goes back to honouring its values not just in words, but in deed.
The final league position and improvement in points, and making the final of the Europa League are serviceable results. However, missing out on qualifying for the Champions League is disappointing, especially with the end of season collapse that caused it.
The quality of football remains suspect, issues with man management exist, and a major overhaul might be required in the immediate future.
There is once again division among the fans, and could potentially derail next season’s campaign. This makes it vital for the club to carefully, but quickly, assess their plans as pertains to the head coach, the technical director, playing staff, and budgets, and to communicate these effectively to the fans.