Among Arsenal’s many issues, including tactical and organizational, Arsenal’s biggest issue is about the structure and direction of the team. In the post Arsène Wenger era, Arsenal have had essentially three directors of football, two different managers, and one confused approach. Sven Mislintat gave way to Raul Sanllehi, who gave way, eventually, to Edu. Unai Emery gave way to Mikel Arteta. The Kroenkes have remained, which is part of the problem, but this confusion has caused the club to go in several different directions, trying to satisfy the particulars of each technical director.
This of course leads to the decisions of the past summer. With Mikel Arteta installed, and Raul Sanllehi gone, Arsenal have unity of thought and purpose. Arteta has more responsibilities now, as the actual manager of the football club, and the signings during the summer sound like they were driven by Arteta, with Edu putting together the final details (for better or worse). This is actually what the club needs. Since 2018, Arsenal have both invested in younger players while doubling down on the older players at the squad.
The result is a squad now bereft of the technical quality of the Wenger years, but also confused in what it’s trying to achieve. Arsenal finished 8th last season, and were a day away from running back the same midfield, with Mohamed Elneny replacing Lucas Torreira and Mattéo Guendouzi. At the end of the summer transfer window, Arsenal spent £45m to bring Thomas Partey to the club, to improve the midfield, but also, to double down on winning now, and making the top four sooner, rather than later. A corollary to this was re-signing Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang on big wages—in some ways mirroring what Arsenal did in the winter of 2018, when Mesut Özil was kept on big wages, Aubameyang was brought in, and Arsenal doubled down on winning now. It didn’t work then, and the results of this season are not working either.
Essentially, Arsenal have neither committed to a rebuilding of the team, but nor have they committed to winning now. Both have been a series of half-measures. On one hand, signing Kieran Tierney, William Saliba, Gabriel Magalhães, and Gabriel Martinelli are good steps to rebuilding to the future. But they are only half-measures; as Arsenal have spent some money on younger players, they have also spent a significant amount of money on signing Thomas Partey and Nicolas Pépé, on re-signing Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, on the wages of Willian, and augmenting the squad with the likes of Cédric Soares and Pablo Mari.
The signing of senior players too, is a half-measure. If Arsenal were going to go all-in on winning now, then the signing of William Saliba, for example, is a confusing one: a significant expenditure given the resources available for a player who, as part of the deal, couldn’t even play for the club until this season. Thomas Partey was signed, which is a very much win right now move; but, Arsenal didn’t do anything else to restructure the midfield. Arsenal also went all-in on winning now with an attack of Aubameyang, Pépé, Lacazette, Willian, and some talented young players, as the series of half-measure moves have led to a dearth of players in the 24-27 age range at the club.
This is a significant problem for a club that is lacking direction. Whenever Arsenal are forced to next hire a head coach, be it six months from now, a year from now, or two or three years from now, this is the larger problem they have to confront: what do they want the club to be? Do they want the club to be in win now mode? Or do they want to be rebuilding for the future? For now, the series of half-measures leaves Arsenal walking backwards while the promise of a better future moves further and further away.