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Arsenal – Groundhog day

(I appreciate this particular post is aimed at more of a niche audience, so apologies for that)

The corona virus pandemic has had a drastic effect the world over. People and civilisations forced to change their entire thought process and way of living. Some, rather drastic changes, others a bit more temporary and subtle.

One establishment that doesn’t seem to have been impacted though, is Arsenal Football Club. For those that tuned in Wednesday evening to watch the resumption of the Premier League season it was normal service resumed as Man City brushed us aside with a resounding, yet comfortable 3 nil victory. A victory which after a 3 month lay off, served as a stark reminder to us Arsenal fans of the decline of a once invincible North London club.

To be honest, did anyone expect anything else? Of Arsenal’s 37 away trips over the last two campaigns they have lost 19, drawn 8 and won just 10. It get’s worse, since winning 2-0 away at Man City back in January 2015, the Gunners record in Premier League away games against the top 6 reads: Played 22, Won 0, Drawn 8, Lost 14, Goals For 24, Goals Against 50. Just how many points have Arsenal got in those games, from a possible 66? Eight.

Once again it wasn’t just the defeat, it was the manner of the defeat. Once again, outclassed, outfought and outnumbered by a far superior Man City side that barely got out of second gear. Once again it was Arsenal players suffering from injury after injury. Seven minutes in and our midfield ‘enforcer’ Granit Xhaka gets stretched off after a seemingly innocuous challenge. Barely 10 minutes later and our new ‘powerful’ centre half Pablo Mari had to leave the field of play before being told he will miss the rest of the season after damage to his ankle ligaments. For the first 10/15 minutes we actually looked quite good and lively, but we always do. In fact, the only surprise was that it took until the stroke of half time for another defensive gaff (in an endless line of defensive gaffs) that led to Man City’s opener. Five minutes after half time and David Luiz had not only hauled an opponent down inside the penalty area, but had got himself sent off in the process. 2 nil down and GAME OVER. From then on it was simply a matter of how many. From then on it looked like men vs boys. The thing is, you can accept teams have bad games. Man City are a class outfit and on their day would beat practically any team they are up against.

Problem for me is, I can’t remember the last time we actually held our own against a top flight club, I can’t remember the last time Man City actually didn’t beat us 3 zip. I can’t remember the last time we actually defended like a top European club or ended the final whistle without any season long injuries and that horrible dejected feeling.

Arsenal midfielder Granit Xhaka receiving treatment during the game against Man City on Wednesday night

Was it Albert Einstein who once described insanity as ”doing the same things over and over again but expecting different results”. How poignant to Arsenal fans, how relevant to the club since leaving fortress Highbury. You see for me, I see little to no difference in practically anything from the last few years of Wengers tenure, to Emery and now Arteta. What has changed? Nothing. We still buy the same sort of players, we still try and play the same style of football, we are still hopeless at the back and we are still nothing short of a joke away from home.

We change nothing yet we expect different results? Maybe we are the fools. Arsenal are the most expensive team to watch in Europe. Back in 2018 an Arsenal game would cost the average fan 74 pounds. More expensive than Real Madrid (55), more expensive than Bayern Munich (54) and more expensive than Man Utd (53). Where are we in the Premier League table right now? NINTH. Sitting amongst teams such as Burnley and Crystal Palace. Top 4 and Champions League is now nothing more than a long forgotten dream and a nostalgic longing for the past. A title challenge? Jheez you’d be put in straight jacket if you started mentioning that phrase around the Emirates stadium these days.

The issues are fairly obvious, yet so readily ignored – ownership and arrogance.

Historically the club was owned by family members of the Bracewell-Smith and Hill-Wood families. Key figures such as David Dein would oversee proceedings at the club. People with a genuine love and appreciation for Arsenal and it’s values. How different compared to nowadays. For in 2007, Arsenal succumbed to the modern way of football and sold their soul to devil, so to speak. Two rival tycoons Stan Kroenke and Alisher Usmanov were allowed to acquire significant share holdings in the club. In 2018 Kroenke bought Usmanov’s share for 550 million and is now the solitary share holder of Arsenal. Another billionaire tycoon buying up another football club. Something that is gradually ruining football in my opinion, but that is a discussion for another day.

Kroenke the American businessman, is estimated to be worth around 10 billion dollars. He also owns NFL team The Los Angeles Rams, Denver Nuggets of the NBA, Colorado Rapids of Major League soccer, along with many other teams / ventures. To put it simply he does not care about Arsenal, he only cares about them making him money. He is a business man playing with his latest toy. He rarely if ever attends game, and not once in the 13 years since he first bought shares in the club has he put a single penny into the team. Us Arsenal fans now face the prospect of seeing our club privately owned by one man. And it should be of concern not just to those who follow Arsenal but to football fans in general. Once they are bought, assets can be stripped or clubs allowed to fall in to disrepair, with nothing the fans can do to stop it. It’s very much a worst-case scenario, but when it all goes wrong – as it has at Coventry, which is owned by a London-based hedge fund – the impact on a club and a community can be devastating.

How can you expect to be successful if your owner only cares about one thing? Making money for himself. This philosophy, this culture must surely reverberate throughout the club. Decisions are no longer based on success or tradition, but on making net profit. Arsenal fan’s are being played. The most expensive tickets in the whole of Europe and for what? To watch a team languish in mid table, play in the mickey mouse Europa league and line the back pockets of an American billionaire. Sell your soul to the devil and sooner or later he will come knocking.

Secondly and perhaps just as importantly, is a sense of arrogance and entitlement which it seems resounds in and around the club. Since the plethora of trophies under Wenger and the magnificent invincibles season, that hunger, desire and ability to adapt has well and truly dissolved. It’s almost as if Arsenal know their own problems and what needs to change but are too cocky to do anything about it.

Surely a good manager is able to adapt to the personnel he has at his disposal and plans accordingly. It’s all very well trying to play this attractive, possession based, ‘tip tappy’ style of football that the likes of Barcelona play, IF YOU HAVE Barcelona type players. Once upon a time Arsenal did. Well we don’t anymore, far from it.

The spine of Arsenals team during the height of their success (proved by going the entire season without losing a single game) was this: Campbell & Toure centre halfs, Gilberto & Vieira centre mid, Henry & Bergkamp up top. Power, aggression, skill, flair, pace, tenacity and hunger all in an abudance.

Compare that to the one that started the game against Man City: Mustafi & Mari centre halfs, Guendouzi & Xhaka centre mid, Willock Nketiah up top. The comparison between the two teams is so far apart they’re on different postcodes. The difference is truly astonishing, YET the attempted style of play is exactly the same. What do the management team or any of us really expect? Would be a bit like going to war with the best, most destructive artillery and army in the world and then 10 years later going to war with a weaponry not one tenth as powerful as before, yet still adopting exactly the same tactics and expecting to win. You would get annihilated.

The Invincibles team from 03/04 – a truly remarkable season

Now if I can see that, and everyone else can see it, then it’s obvious that the people making the decisions at the club can see it. Yet why no change in approach? Arrogance or just plain ignorance? Confidence in your own ability is good along with an element of stubbornness, yet surely there comes a time when those ingredients are counter productive.

During the last few years of Wengers reign I saw no difference in approach and style of play, even though the results and performances were gradually getting worse. We went from title challengers to top 4 to top 6. Under Emery and Arteta we have regressed yet further. Currently it looks to be a struggle to make even the Europa League Yet still the style of football and tactical approach remains exactly the same. I simply do not understand.

There must come an enlightening, a crossroads so to speak when you must stop and reassess. If Arsenal want to play this extravagant, eye catching style of football, then invest 300/400 hundred million and actually go out and buy the players to do it. Will that happen? I somehow very much doubt it. The summer transfer window is fast approaching and I’d bet my mortgage on what will happen. We will invest in a dodgy second division centre half from Greece or somewhere alike. A small skinny centre mid with decent technical ability and a delicate touch, but who will effectively get bullied in the physically demanding Premier League. ANOTHER winger and probably a striker on 400 grand a week who doesn’t really want to be here.

Why not adopt a different approach? If you haven’t got the funds or can’t attract the top players then adapt to the players you have got and the players you can attract.

We so so badly lack a leader. Someone who when the chips are down, roles his sleeves up and inspires those around him. I rate Aubemeyang I really do, but he’s not a leader or a captain. Neither is Bellerin or Xhaka. In fact I can’t pick one single leader in that current Arsenal team. Why not go out and actually buy one? A proper captain. A Patrick Veira, a Tony Adams, a Cesc Fabregas. People say we haven’t had the money. That is an urban myth. In the past 5 seasons Arsenal have spent 443 million on transfers. Arsenal are also currently 4th in the Premier League wage bill table, spending an eye watering 223 million each year on wages. You mean to tell me that will all that money and all their resources – scouts, data analysts, negotiators, transfer guru’s etc, that they can’t entice a decent leader to the club? Absolute rubbish. They just don’t want to. They believe their current style and philosophy is the right one and they aren’t willing to budge.

In fact, I think Arsenal have had more than enough money to at least compete. Yet how many times have we been utterly embarrassed in big games? 10-2 on aggregate against Bayern Munich, 8-2 and 6-1 against Man Utd, 6-0 against Chelsea, 5-1 against Liverpool, 4-0 against Southampton and so on and so forth. We were told we needed to leave Highbury and build a new 60 thousand seater stadium to allow us to compete with Europe’s finest. Well, that couldn’t have been further from the truth. We now get swept aside in any big game, haven’t won away from home against a top 6 side for over 5 years and are currently struggling to finish in the top 8.

Arsenal’s 8-2 defeat a Old Trafford was a low point for many Arsenal fans

It’s not that we haven’t had the money it’s that we’ve spent atrociously. Mesut Ozil – 42 million, Danny Welbeck – 18 million, Calum Chambers – 18 million, Granit Xhaka – 40 million, Shkodran Mustafi – 36 million, Lucas Perez – 18 million, Henrickh Mkhitaryan – 30 million, Sokratis – 15 million, Nicolas Pepe 72 million, Kieran Tierney -25 million.

I actually rate Pepe but he cost 72 million and barely plays? A club record transfer fee surely means there’s aspirations of you being the focal point of that team. Pepe can barely break in to the starting 11 let alone be a focal point of it. Kieran Tierney another player I rate but yet another Arsenal player who seems to play 3 games and then spends 23 injured. I don’t know, maybe I am just being harsh..

How long have Arsenal been crying out for a proper centre half. A physical, assured centre half? Years if not decades. Who do we buy? Gabriel, Chambers, Squillaci, Silvestre, Mustafi, Sokratis, Djourou, Mavropanos. We sell out every single week, we have the highest ticket prices in Europe and we resort to buying bargain basement type players that simply aren’t good enough. I think it pretty much summed it up on Wednesday evening when David Luiz came sauntering on to the pitch mid way through the first half. A man far beyond his best years whose contract is due to expire in a matter of weeks. So here we are away to arguably the best side in the Premier League, and who is leading our back line? A player at the back end of his career who the club have admittedly told they don’t plan on keeping past the end of the month. How is that allowed to happen at a club like Arsenal? Beggars belief.

How long have Arsenal been crying out for a proper central midfielder? A midfield general, a dictator and presence that sends shivers through the opposition. Years if not decades. I don’t think we’ve ever really replaced Patrick Vieira. Fast forward 15 years since his departure and who do we have lining up in the centre of the park against the league champions? Guendouzi and Xhaka. Need I say more?

We spent 42 million (which was a club record at the time) on Ozil. Fourty two million pounds yet every manager so far has eventually decided he doesn’t really fit in with their plans. A man on 350 grand a week – nearly double what anyone else is on, yet a man who doesn’t travel to away games because he doesn’t make enough of an impact when on the pitch. Astounding, truly astounding.

Who is sanctioning these buys? I hear Arsenal have a unique way of acting in the transfer market. Apparently they base a lot of their purchases on data and analytics via a methodical strategy they have worked out. Well that is all very well if you’re playing Football Manager or picking The Sun Dream Team, however it’s a bit different in real life. Stat’s and data don’t win you football matches, as so clearly proved by Arsenal in recent times. Stat’s don’t account for what players do when they go one down against Liverpool at Anfield, or Sheffield Utd have got 10 men behind the ball. Stat’s are a small percentage of what makes a football player. Why base your whole transfer strategy on something that dismisses some of the most basic key ingredients of a footballer?

What will it take for someone to stand up at the club and actually admit it needs a complete overhaul? But then again why would they when it is making so much money for those at the very top of the pyramid. I fell out of love with Arsenal a long time ago. I still support them but that intense passion and affection is no longer there. Maybe I was spoilt growing up with players such as Adams, Vieira, Pires, Ljungberg, Bergkamp etc. Maybe it was too much too soon? I think there’s possibly some truth in that.

I believe strongly however, that football fans enjoy seeing players they can relate to in some way and players they feel connected to. My favourite player growing up was Ashley Cole. He just represented Arsenal to me – fight, determination, skill and a never say die attitude. Same with Patrick Vieira, Cesc Fabregas and Jack Wilshere. I look at the players out there now pulling on the shirt – players like Guendouzi, Bellerin and Mustafi. They just don’t feel like Arsenal players to me. Not the characteristics I used to associate with Arsenal, and fell in love with anyway.

I can see why Arsenal fans get so frustrated and angry, I really can. I don’t agree with some of the abuse they hurl at the players and staff but I do agree with the animosity and rejection they feel. Arsenal fans are played, that’s the truth. Forking out extortionate prices to effectively fund players on 350 grand a week, a team in 9th place and Stan Kroenke’s beloved American sports team’s. Do you know how else Arsenal fans have been played? By Stan Kroenke purchasing Arsenal Football Club using a massive loan from the bank, and using profit generated by Arsenal Football Club to pay that loan back. What a sad state of affairs.

A team who simply cannot compete with the top sides anymore, should not be charging the top ticket prices. It’s immoral and stinks of a club having lost it’s values. Would a second rate theatre show or an average tech company charge sky high prices? No they wouldn’t.

Arsenal Fan TV – some of the abuse is uncalled for, however I do understand their frustration

From when I first remember watching Arsenal in about 97, up until they left Highbury I suppose, I knew what that team stood for. Even if they lost or the result didn’t necessarily go their way, you could still see the team’s ethics and values highlighted in everything they did. Fight, determination, passion, skill and a never say die attitude. What does that Arsenal team stand for now? I don’t really know to be honest. If I was being totally honest, they look like a bunch of players who don’t really want to be there mixed with players who know they aren’t good enough.

Not having enough money, not having the best players or needing to ‘give it time’ are excuses that can only be used for so long. Look at Leicester when they won the league, look at Wolves and Sheff Utd now. They are teams with not an ounce of the resources and profile that Arsenal have, yet teams all competing on a much more consistent basis. Put it this way, if someone said they’d give you a grand if Man City failed to with their next game, who would you want it to be against, Arsenal or Sheff Utd?… Says it all, really.

Arsenal so badly need an identity. If it is playing fast free flowing football like some of these other top European sides, then go out and buy the players capable of delivering that style of performance. Stop trying to deliver a Ferrari style performance with a Volkswagen style engine. Either that, or accept your personnel and adapt your style of play to win football games. Who cares if you have 70% possession, if ultimately you end up losing as many games as you win.

Arteta hasn’t been in charge long and ultimately he does need time to sort things out. If the resumption of the Premier League on Wednesday night was anything to go by though, we’ve got a long long way to go…

Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta