IT would be wrong to claim that Arsenal fans are only now fully appreciating what Arsene Wenger did for the North London club. While YouTube rants and general internet discourse painted the picture of a restless fanbase in open revolt against the Frenchman towards the end of his 22-year tenure, there was always a level of respect felt within the Emirates Stadium.
That respect may have grown just a little more in the time since Wenger bid farewell to North London, though. While many believed the Frenchman’s exit would allow Arsenal to rebuild and become a force at the top of the English game once more, the Gunners have only regressed further over the last two years.
They botched the hiring of Wenger’s successor, with Unai Emery ill-equipped both as a personality and a coach to take Arsenal forward. Now, with Mikel Arteta at the helm, the Gunners are in a bigger mess than they ever were under Wenger. The route back to the top now looks even more daunting that it did under Emery.
An away trip to Manchester City was always likely to be a difficult return for Arsenal after the coronavirus shutdown, but Saturday’s defeat to Brighton, which saw Arteta’s side let slip a lead with just 15 minutes left to play, was most revealing of a squad that can be questioned in almost every way right now. Arsenal don’t just lack elite level quality on the pitch, they lack the right dressing room mentality.
Not so long ago, Arsenal was the perfect environment for talented young players to make the next step in their development. They sold themselves to prospective superstars on this basis. Look at how Wenger was able to lure a teenage Aaron Ramsay to the Emirates Stadium despite strong interest from then reigning European champions Manchester United.
Now, though, Arsenal has become a deep, dark hole where young players, no matter their talent, disappear. Nicolas Pepe, for example, has stagnated since making the £72 million move to North London last summer. Kieran Tierney has struggled to such an extent it would be understandable if he wishes to push through a switch to Leicester City this summer, with the Foxes reportedly keen on the Scot as a potential replacement for Ben Chilwell. The King Power Stadium would almost certainly be a better environment for him. For anyone, at this point.
'When I'm talking about competing, there are details when you go ahead and game management and that's something we have to improve. I don't want to use excuses. At this level you can't do it.'
— Arsenal (@Arsenal) June 20, 2020
Dani Ceballos arrived on loan from Real Madrid with a reputation as one of Spain’s best young prospects, but will return to his parent club this summer without making much of an impression. When was the last time Arsenal harnessed a young player, either one of their own or one bought in, and turned him into a star?
There are, of course, some green shoots of hope poking through the otherwise scorched earth. The performances of Gabriel Martinelli and Bukayo Saka this season have provided encouragement. Arteta has recently spoken about giving a platform to a young core of players, with the aforementioned pair at the vanguard of that core.
Arteta might not have made the instant impact he surely hoped for in arriving from Manchester City, but he cannot be blamed for the mess at the Emirates Stadium. Nonetheless, Arsenal are approaching a crossroads. With players like Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette considering their futures and youngsters like Martinelli and Saka coming through, the club is being pulled in two different directions.
Boardroom leadership is desperately required to help give Arsenal a purpose and an overarching identity again, but that hasn’t been forthcoming. Arteta’s squad is a manifestation of a gross lack of direction from the top down. The problems Arsenal have experienced on the pitch this season are a reflection of a deeper cultural issue.
Not since Wenger first arrived at Highbury back in 1996 have Arsenal faced such a comprehensive rebuild, both in terms of the team on the pitch and the culture at the club. It would be unfair to judge Arteta on what has happened since he took over, but he needs help to untangle what has been left for him.