IT’S a long way back from Baku. The Arsenal fans who made the difficult and expensive trip to the Azerbaijani capital got very little reward for their efforts. They were probably left wishing the players had shown similar levels of commitment, as the Gunners were thrashed 4-1 by an Eden Hazard-inspired Chelsea.
It sets the seal on an incredibly disappointing end to the season for Unai Emery’s Arsenal. A matter of weeks ago, they looked the favourite to finish in third place in the Premier League. Ultimately, they slumped to fifth after a dreadful run-in. At that point, the Europa League final became a shot at redemption: a chance to lift a trophy and secure a return to the Champions League.
It was not to be. Arsenal looked competitive enough in the first half, but once they conceded an opening goal (to Olivier Giroud, of course) they fell to pieces. It’s been a pattern all season long: once a game slips from beyond Arsenal’s control, they don’t seem to know how to get it back. They over-committed, they became ragged, and they were punished. Some Arsenal fans had suggested the club should boycott the final due to the controversial location. In the second half, it felt like that was precisely what they did.
It means that Arsenal are forced to spend another season in the Europa League: a competition they don’t really want to be in, yet one that probably still represents their best chance of getting back into the Champions League.
They should be getting used to it now: 2019/20 will be the third consecutive season in which Arsenal have been confined to UEFA’s second tier competition. When Arsenal first dipped into the Europa League, they felt like a Champions League club on a temporary hiatus. The depressing reality is that Arsenal now feel like a Europa League team, and a Europa League club.
Football has changed.
Here’s the thing: Arsenal haven’t changed quickly enough to be successful, but they have changed sufficiently to have lost their identity and left their fans feeling alienated.
It’s a pretty depressing place for a club to be caught.
— gunnerblog (@gunnerblog) May 29, 2019
So where next? It’s clear a major rebuild is required, but the failure to win last night has cost Arsenal an enormous chunk of money. It also means they can’t offer potential recruits elite European football. Arsenal’s Head of Football Raul Sanllehi said the club had prepared extensively for all eventualities, but presumably the club will be crossing out the top names from their list of transfer targets.
Arsenal could do with a clear-out. The likes of Nacho Monreal and Laurent Koscielny need replacing with younger models, and it’s difficult to argue that Granit Xhaka’s three years with the club have been a success. As for Mesut Ozil, his withdrawal for youngster Joe Willock felt particularly pointed. The financial constraints upon Arsenal mean his enormous salary becomes ever more problematic. Undoubtedly the best thing Arsenal could do at this point would be to cut their losses.
And what of Emery? It’s a huge concern that, despite bringing Arsenal to the brink of Champions League qualification, he faltered so dramatically at the final few hurdles. Arsenal don’t look any better than they did in Arsene Wenger’s disastrous final year. He looks like a man desperately treading water in an effort to keep a club in decline from going under.
Of course, there is a man with the power to change things. Owner Stan Kroenke insists he’s committed to a self-funding model, but as a new owner of the club financial regulations would allow him to invest significantly should he so choose. The fact that the cameras didn’t seem to pick him out in Baku does not bode well. If he’s unwilling to invest the time to attend the game, he’s unlikely to invest his money.
Arsenal are caught in a negative cycle: they don’t spend Champions League money, and thus they struggle to make the Champions League. With each year that passes, they regress. Perhaps the one hope comes in the form of young players like Willock.
Right now, it feels like Arsenal’s best bet is to gamble on the young generation of talent at their disposal. They might as well grant some of these kids playing time—as things stand, they won’t be back at Europe’s top table any time soon anyway. It will be a long way back from Baku, in every sense.