Arsenal have slumped from Invincibles to a punchline in a little over a decade. So how on earth can Mikel Arteta help them vacate their unwanted throne as kings of the banter era?
Only Arsenal could emerge from an inconsequential friendly in tatters. David Luiz’s latest episode of overplaying inspired Brentford to a surprise win over their Premier League opponents last week, with the Twittersphere all too obliging to bask in the latest mistake.
How can a club that went a season unbeaten, won the Double and made the Champions League final – all in the living memory of most – have become the birthplace of so much misery? Much of that is due to the sorry demise under Arsene Wenger and the club’s resolve to prove they were the exception to a managerial change that seemed obvious for a decade.
But even after the Frenchman moved aside, and even after recruiting one of the most highly-rated young coaches in Mikel Arteta, the negativity persists. And that is the Spaniard’s greatest conundrum: how can he transform a club that has already adapted to its role as a punchline?
For so long, Arsenal’s problems have seemed obvious. Fix the defence. Strengthen the spine. The party line was that there was no money… until, last August, they suddenly announced the £72 million arrival of Nicolas Pepe from Lille. A luxury player in a squad that was already creaking under the Mesut Ozil invisibility burden and often played two strikers in Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette.
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Sure, Pepe was a different outlet and may yet become good, but the Gunners hierarchy had missed the point entirely. Their peace-making defensive gifts of Luiz and Kieran Tierney for significantly smaller fees, plus William Saliba after a year’s loan, did little to help.
The vicious pendulum of hope and despair has become rather predictable, occurring in individual matches (see Olympiacos Act IV) and new signings (revisit Granit Xhaka’s Euro 2016 clamour). The club is desperate for a saviour. But it won’t be their best player.
And can you blame Aubameyang for angling to leave? Arsenal are so far away from the Champions League and lack any sort of identity to make you think it could arrive next season. Even if they can convince players to sign, can they be sure that they aren’t just moving for a pay packet and an easy ride?
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Still, one slither of hope for Arteta, bizarrely, comes in the form of empty stadiums. The Emirates has regressed into an increasingly hostile venue when times are tough – which is often these days – with the hounding of ex-captain Xhaka highlighting the difficulties of playing for the club. Without the groans, and the atmosphere-driven backlash from the AFTV huddle, Arsenal have 10 games to calmly steer their way towards a promising future.
This is where Arteta needs to step up. In the current climate, it is unavoidable to note that he was thrust into a job when others of certain backgrounds may not have been so fortunate. He has the composed managerial exterior, but he must prove he ingested the tactical nous and man management when he sat alongside Pep Guardiola at Manchester City. Otherwise, can there be any point in persisting with a rookie?
Arteta’s been handed the ultimate lifeline, a break to iron out the many flaws, just as his side looked to be heading down the same sorry path that Unai Emery travelled just a few months ago. Their season was fading away, banished from European football by Sheffield United and Wolves. Now, there’s still a chance to make a statement.
This season may be a freebie with few expecting a run to the top four, but if Arsenal still look lost come the start of next season and remain a source of ridicule, then the familiar groans will be justified again.