Monday, 13 May 2019

Deja Vu

The league season has ended with Arsenal in fifth, which is an improvement on the previous season's sixth. Reinforcing the sense of near deja vu, the goals for and against would have been identical had Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang completed a hat-trick against Burnley on Sunday and so monopolised the Golden Boot. In the event we scored a total of 73 and conceded 51, compared to last season's 74 and 51. The goodish news is that we ended with 7 more points, 70 versus 63, though there are obviously regrets that we couldn't garner a few more during the poor run we experienced in April. An additional 3 points would have been enough to put us in third and finish above both Chelsea and Spurs. A full reckoning on Unai Emery's first season will obviously have to await the Europa League final in Baku on the 29th of this month. Win silverware, and thereby qualify for next season's Champions League, and it will be judged a success. Lose and it will be judged a failure. In reality, both attitudes would be extreme.

I think this has been a classic transitional season and that Arsenal are some way short of being a team that can challenge in both the domestic league and in Europe. That we have got to a final in the latter reflects a general decline in continental standards, which the eulogising of Ajax's youngsters and Barcelona's ageing genius cannot hide. Napoli and Valencia were actually disappointing in the flesh, and it's clear that the leading clubs of recent decades, such as Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Juventus, aren't as good as they were a few years ago. That the two European finals are being contested by four English teams has more to do with the relative dominance of the English Premier League than plucky comebacks and bulldog spirit, and that dominance in turn reflects the steady impact of money. My purpose here is not to make a disguised dig at Man City for Abu Dhabi's largesse, or to suggest that the Premier League summit is simply out of bounds, but to emphasise that Arsenal's ambitions are tied to spending.

Emery has been described as a "Europa League specialist", but that is just meaningless journalistic filler. Knockout competitions and two-legged ties are hardly esoteric and the managerial skills required to negotiate them are no different to those required to win a league match. While most cups are won by the top teams, luck plays a large part, along with momentum and self-belief. Arsenal have displayed both of the latter at times, notably in wins over Spurs, Chelsea and Man Utd, and a creditable home draw against Liverpool, but they've also had a degree of good fortune. On balance, I think we stand a good chance of beating Chelsea in Baku but much will depend on individual performances on the day. Aaron Ramsey's injury and the likelihood that Eden Hazard will want to leave on a high might favour Chelsea, but the current form of Lacazette and Aubameyang may prove crucial. Let's just hope Olivier Giroud doesn't pull an outrageous goal out of nowhere in the dying minutes.

Though memory suggests that Arsenal rode their luck in the league early on and then faded badly in the home straight, the stats tell a story of consistency in points won. Divided into three (12, 13 and 13 games), we got 24, 23 and 23 points. The goals for and against tally was 26/15, 23/20 and 24/16 (that middle period was marked by away defeats to Liverpool and Man City that added 8 goals in the debit column). Though we outscored everybody bar the top two, our goals conceded total was decidedly mid-table. Clearly we need to tighten-up in defence, and that means buying. Koscielny and Monreal can no longer be considered first-choice players given their ages, while Holding and Mavropanos remain future prospects. Sokratis has been a good acquisition but there are doubts over Mustafi. Kolasinac isn't a full-back and Lichtsteiner was a mistake. Even if we assume that Bellerin returns in good form and Mailtland-Niles continues as a makeshift full-back, it looks like Arsenal need to buy 2 or 3 decent defenders to plug the gaps.

The midfield remains confused. Torreira and Guendouzi have been positive acquisitions, but Xhaka and Ozil have both continued to frustrate. Indeed both look to have coasted on occasion as they assumed the new boys would do the running. Mkhitaryan and Elneny will probably move on - neither feels right -  and Iwobi may only have one more season to prove his worth. The chief problem with the midfield was a lack of defensive cover, but this season has also seen a dearth of goals and assists, with the front two often having to forage for themselves. This is the area where Emery's judgement will be most tested, because it isn't just about purchasing creative upgrades but figuring out a specific system of play that can provide an adequate balance between defence and attack. Up front we're looking good, but that probably means we can expect richer clubs to come calling. I think it would be a mistake to sell either Lacazette or Aubameyang, though you could see in the away victory against Valencia how a late George Graham era team could be carved out of the current squad, with a lone Aubameyang filling the Ian Wright role.

In reality we may be forced to sell if we want to improve the defence and bring in some more creativity in the middle of the park. Though I've long been a fan of Ozil's deceptive skills, I think he would be the logical player to offload now, though whether that is possible given his handsome contract and the lack of obvious suitors is another matter. With the likes of Mustafi, Kolasinac and Mkhitaryan unlikely to command significant fees, and with the contracts of Ramsey and Welbeck having been negligently run down, Arsenal are in a difficult situation financially. Stan Kroenke shows no appetite to invest and without Champions League revenues the club will be at a disadvantage to Chelsea and Spurs over the next few seasons, despite their respective transfer ban and stadium debt pile. Perhaps the "George Graham Mk 2" thinking is that Emery can promote some of the younger talent from the academy (who came a credible 2nd in the Under-23 league) and reintegrate on-loan players such as Emile Smith-Rowe and Reiss Nelson.

Overall it's been a curate's egg of a season: some very good football in key matches, both in the EPL and Europa League, and some desultory performances in the bread-and-butter games, particularly away from home. It's a squad in which the whole is currently less than the sum of its parts, and we are no clearer about what "Emery-ball" might look like. The club's ambitions appear pragmatic, though I don't seriously imagine they're looking for the modern-day equivalent of David Hillier. An English Atletico Madrid is probably closer to the ideal: energetic, hard-to-beat, able to nick a goal. That suggests some radical squad surgery over the summer, and that in turn suggests heavy investment. While it isn't a case of Baku or bust, the difference in participation and commercial revenues between the two European competitions means that the length of this transitional period will certainly be influenced by which one we end up in next season.


  1. Ben Philliskirk13 May 2019 at 19:18

    "Knockout competitions and two-legged ties are hardly esoteric and the managerial skills required to negotiate them are no different to those required to win a league match."

    I'm not sure, things seem to have changed radically. After all, Liverpool lost 1 out of 38 league matches and finished 2nd, while they could win the Champions League having lost 4 from 13!

  2. "Torreira and Guendouzi have been positive acquisitions,"

    And here was I thinking you knew something about football!