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Trust the process: Are Arsenal doing what they need to do?

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Let’s look at some of post-Wenger Arsenal’s role models.

Arsenal v Tottenham Hotspur - Premier League Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images

There has been a lot of discussion and debate in this first post-Wenger season about what kind/size/class of club Arsenal should be. They’re based in London, they’re historically one of the more successful clubs in the English game (going by the rough metric of total trophy count, anyway), and they have the second (soon to be third) biggest stadium in the league, so one school of thought is that they should be a much bigger and more consistently successful club than they currently are.

Another school of thought is that Arsenal, at this point, are no longer one of the Big Clubs, and should, if not resign themselves to not winning in the hyper-funded world in which they find themselves, at least readjust their strategy and, instead of buying all the best players - which they’ll never be able to afford to do - develop from within and poach talented players still early on their learning curve, like they did with Lucas Torreira.

Liverpool and Borussia Dortmund are often held up as potential models for what this era of Arsenal should aim towards; both are clubs that build and regenerate without spending a fortune (I of course mean “fortune” in a sports context). A discussion in another thread prompted me to take a look at how those two clubs got to where they are today, how they became the type of club that other less-moneyed-but-still-rich clubs can look at and say “we should do that”.

To do this “analysis”, I am solely looking at league finishing position. I know that’s not perfect, nor particularly scientific, nor particularly deep or nuanced, but, deride it as many people do, finishing position is important, both economically and trophy-wise. The goal for Arsenal should be to get back to the Wenger model of routine top four finishes; that gives regular Champions League money, which is, as we’re seeing, vital for the operation of the club.

If there’s an occasional title push or deep CL run in there, that’s a bonus, but at this point in this club’s evolution, with the current ownership philosophy of self-sustaining operation, “Arsenal should aim to win the Premier League every year” is not realistic. So, with that in mind, let’s look at Liverpool and Dortmund, shall we?

Liverpool

Liverpool since 2008

Season Manager Finishing Position Notes
Season Manager Finishing Position Notes
2008/09 Rafa Benitez 2nd
2009/10 Rafa Benitez 7th
2010/11 Roy Hodgson/Kenny Dalglish 6th Dalglish started 8 Jan
2011/12 Kenny Dalglish 8th
2012/13 Brendan Rodgers 7th
2013/14 Brendan Rodgers 2nd
2014/15 Brendan Rodgers 6th
2015/16 Brendan Rodgers/Jurgen Klopp 8th Klopp started 8 October
2016/17 Jurgen Klopp 4th
2017/18 Jurgen Klopp 4th

Other than that second place finish under Brendan Rodgers in 13/14, then, Liverpool had been wandering around the top of the middle of the table for quite some time, until Klopp took the reins in October 2015. He’s guided them to two fourth place finishes since then and this season is really the only legitimate challenger to Manchester City for the championship. Is that all down to Klopp? Unknown, but Liverpool have also been fairly active in the transfer market since Klopp’s arrival, so as with all these things, there’s probably not one answer. But Klopp has a philosophy and a method, and Liverpool is giving him the time to implement his style, and it seems to be paying dividends.

Borussia Dortmund

Dortmund since 2008

Season Manager Finishing position Notes
Season Manager Finishing position Notes
2008/09 Jurgen Klopp 6th
2009/10 Jurgen Klopp 5th
2010/11 Jurgen Klopp 1st
2011/12 Jurgen Klopp 1st
2012/13 Jurgen Klopp 2nd
2013/14 Jurgen Klopp 2nd
2014/15 Jurgen Klopp 7th
2015/16 Thomas Tuchel 2nd
2016/17 Thomas Tuchel 3rd
2017/18 Peter Bosz/Peter Stöger 4th Stöger started 10 Dec

Dortmund’s trajectory was much upwardly sharper than Liverpool’s - from fifth to first in one season - but since Klopp’s third season, Dortmund has only finished outside the top four once.

Again, none of this should be construed as “analysis” - there’s obviously a lot more to league position than who the manager is. There’s the club’s transfer activity, the players that were already there, the club’s willingness to invest top-to-bottom, etc.

What I was trying to discover with this simplistic look at finishing position, more than anything else, is whether Arsenal finishing sixth or so this season would be out of alignment with what both those clubs did in their initial years with a new manager, and whether the trajectory of the team is in fact maintained when managerial turnover happens.

If Arsenal finish sixth, then, they will exceed what Klopp did in his first season (not first full season) at Liverpool, and will equal what Dortmund did in their first Klopp season.

None of this is to suggest that I am happy with how Arsenal are playing lately; they are not playing well, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. The reason I did this was mostly to reassure myself - and you - that what Arsenal are doing right now, while unpleasant to watch in the short term, is a first step in a longer road to establishing a new identity.

And it’s also to reassure myself that that first step isn’t out of line with first steps taken by the teams that are often held up as who Arsenal should be emulating. And, at probably the most superficial level possible, it doesn’t seem like Arsenal are too far off track. There’s a lot of work to be done, to be sure, but taking the long view, I think Arsenal are moving in the right direction. They’re still struggling to implement a playing style, but while that takes shape, they’re not getting a lot worse as far as the table goes, and that’s important.

Even if the progress isn’t as rapid as we may want, if Arsenal are aiming to be Liverpool or Dortmund and they do finish fifth or sixth this season, that sort of first-year finish isn’t any different than those two clubs. With reinforcements/improvements over the summer, Arsenal will be well positioned to keep moving the same direction as those two clubs in subsequent seasons as well. Whether the front office churn will settle down enough to allow them to make the decisions that will keep them moving in that positive direction is very much an open question, but at least as far as first steps go, things are going as I think they probably should.