Arsenal are finishing this season like they’re a 30 year old car with 300,000 miles on it; sputtering, meandering, and lurching towards the finish line, slowly falling apart, never to be pieced back together again. The reasons for this are many, and I’m not here right now to dissect them; we’ll be doing plenty of that in the weeks ahead.
What I’m here today to do, rather, is ask what on the surface seems to be a simple question: How are you feeling about Arsenal right now? For me, to answer that question, I need to go back to when he was appointed, or even a bit further. My general feeling when Wenger announced his departure was that any new manager had one responsibility: To keep Arsenal at the same level they were at that point, not go backwards, and put a foundation in place to push the club back up to being a Champions League regular and occasional league challenger.
Has Unai Emery done that? Well...maybe. I wrote in February about how I’m still willing to be patient with Emery, and while that willingness has receded, it’s not entirely gone...yet. One of the reasons that Unai Emery, specifically, was hired, if you’ll recall, is his demonstrated success in the Europa League, which he won three times in a row in Spain.
Forget for a minute his PSG stint, and remember that Arsenal aren’t in the Champions League; Emery’s pedigree in the Europa League likely was what made the Arsenal board choose him. Smartly or otherwise, the club’s powers that be saw the Europa League as the easiest way back to the Champions League, so any coach they brought in would have to be good at Europa League-ing, not Champions League-ing. And Emery is, for all he’s not good at, good at that.
We all know what’s happened in the league, but despite that, and despite how we’re all feeling about the club right now in light of that, Arsenal does still have a path back to the Champions League, and that’s a path that also involves winning a European trophy. If Arsenal now, rightly, put all their Champions League eggs in the Europa League basket, then I can’t give Emery a final grade for the season yet, as that job isn’t done.
There is no doubt that this league season has been a disappointment. The question I’m struggling with in my head, though, is how big of a disappointment is it, really? Arsenal are, by surface measures like league position and points, largely the same team they were last year. The defense is still terrible, the midfield is hit and miss, and while it’s fun watching Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette bail out the club more often than not, that should not be a repeatable skill for an ambitious club.
Yes, they’re outperforming their xG, and yes, they have under-defended (?) their xGA, so the team is different from an advanced stats perspective, but for all intents and purposes, this is the same team it has been for the last couple seasons, with a different person in charge on the pitch. And while I’m not exactly thrilled with the job he’s doing, I can’t in all honestly say I’m really all that disappointed either, because this iteration of Arsenal aren’t a great team, from top to bottom. The squad needs work, the scouting and player acquisition isn’t up to the level of other Big Six clubs, and while I do give Emery a fair share of the blame for how Arsenal are playing right now, I don’t exempt the actual squad itself.
After all, the coach can only do so much - regardless of whether Emery’s style and vision is what we want to see as fans, he, like all coaches, has a style and vision of how he wants to play. If his players can’t or won’t execute that style, that’s on the players for not doing the job, almost as much as it’s on the coach for not communicating his desires in a way his players can absorb.
There are also questions that can be asked about Arsenal’s scouting and recruiting. This past summer brought Bernd Leno and Lucas Torreira, who are definitely plusses, but Arsenal seem to be reluctant to tread this middle ground - they either get guys like Stephan Lichtsteiner on free transfers, or they spend a ton of money on the Auba/Laca tier of player. Arsenal should be looking for and signing more players in that middle ground of youngish and good but not finished product-good yet player, and hopefully Leno and Torreira are the first in a long line of those, but up until now, that hasn’t been Arsenal’s strong suit.
Basically, what I’m trying to say with all this is that there is no one person who is more at fault for Arsenal being what Arsenal are right now than another. From the boardroom all the way down, everyone has blame; where you choose to apportion that blame is up to you, but I choose to give a little bit to everyone, as opposed to heaping it all on one person.
If the Arsenal way going forward is sustainability, that also means doing things on the cheap; if that’s the new normal, I’m not sure any new manager would make a huge difference, until the people charged with finding talent on the cheap get better at doing that job. For better or worse, in Europe, doing things on the cheap means, generally, getting other teams’ cast-offs on free transfers or at bargain bin prices and hoping they work out. Which isn’t a bad strategy once in a while, if you’re a club that doesn’t want to win the Champions League or who doesn’t have any money. Is either one of those a good descriptor of Arsenal?
Put it another way: If you plug in another coach, would that coach be able to make Granit Xhaka or Mohamed Elneny good at soccer again? Would that coach instantly make Matteo Guendouzi five years older and more mature? Would he take 10 years off Stephan Lichtsteiner’s life? Arsenal’s squad needs some work, and until that work happens, I have a hard time solely blaming a manager for the problems of a squad that wasn’t a championship-winning level squad to start with.
I would not shed any tears if Unai Emery were shown the door this summer, but if you think that relieving Unai Emery of his job would solve Arsenal’s problems, or that he is Arsenal’s only or biggest problem right now, I would encourage you to look a little closer. Arsenal, in a lot of aspects, are kind of a mess right now, at least in relation to the teams it aspires to be competing with. Until that mess is fixed, I have a feeling this club is going to be...this for a while.