This summer, Arsenal went back to the drawing board. It has been a steady decline over more than 15 years in North London, but since Arsene Wenger, a target for blame from many critics, departed in 2018, their issues have only deepened. Ownership trouble has caused fans to protest, but poor recruitment and decisions on contracts of existing players have contributed to the Gunners slipping away from top-of-the-table relevance.
In 2004, they won the Premier League without losing a single match; gradually, qualifying for the Champions League became their only target. Now, as they head into their first season without European football since 1995, they are in a constant battle to avoid midtable mediocrity.
But that can create an opportunity, and Arsenal are looking to the future. Coach Mikel Arteta had a lot of credit in the bank after winning the FA Cup in July 2020, just months after arriving at the club. Finishing eighth in the league was a disappointment for fans, though, and a repeat last term has put him under pressure. Spending £135m on the likes of Ben White, Nuno Tavares, Albert Sambi Lokonga, Martin Odegaard and Aaron Ramsdale will only magnify the spotlight if things turn sour.
Having previously struggled to afford an overhaul of their squad, Arsenal are now facing criticism of their business. There are some who believe their new arrivals will not get them back into the hunt for the top four and beyond immediately. Harry Symeou, founder and host of the Chronicles of a Gooner podcast, is a little more sympathetic to the situation.
Bacary Sagna had some things to say about Arsenal 😳 pic.twitter.com/EG5wq2FwYl
— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) August 23, 2021
“Arsenal are clearly building,” Symeou tells Compare.bet. “If you look at the signings, they are around that age bracket of 21 to 23. I think if you can’t spend £70m, £80m or £90m on a single player like Chelsea and Manchester City can, this is the only way to do it, planning for the future. They’ve brought in players who have the opportunity to develop and to go onto bigger things, while also retaining sell-on value. Arsenal have been notoriously bad in terms of that when it comes to the business they’ve done previously.
“While I’m looking at some of the signings and wondering if they are the right players to get us back into the Champions League, I think Arsenal are going about it the right way. That is the only route back into the Champions League.”
It is telling that the Champions League is now the target for Arsenal, when it was seen as insufficient for years in the final few years under Wenger. But such a change in perspective cannot be weaponised against their fans specifically; football has changed, the Premier League is more competitive than ever and moving forward is key.
Arsenal have stood still at times, with doubts over their ability to pay for big players. The likes of Nicolas Pepe and Thomas Partey, who were signed in the last two summer transfer windows, arrived thanks to deals paid for via instalments, or with players in part exchange. Odegaard, who had such a transformative impact on the team’s performances last season, initially joined on loan. At the very least, financial muscle seems to be there once again.
2-0 loss to Brentford
2-0 loss to Chelsea
Next up for Arsenal: Man City at the Etihad ☠️ pic.twitter.com/YaFOumxSw0
— B/R Football (@brfootball) August 22, 2021
Signing White from Brighton for £50m has certainly split opinion. Some have lauded the arrival of a young, versatile, technical defender with experience of the Premier League, while others pointed to the size of the fee. Outrage at money being spent these days is annual, and it has only been exacerbated by the pandemic, but the uncomfortable truth of today is that £50m is the going rate for a young England international, especially given that he was part of the squad which reached the final of Euro 2020.
But Arsenal’s main issue has long been their soft centre and the perception that they cave when confronted by physicality. White’s debut came away at Brentford last week, which ended in a 2-0 defeat. There aren’t many teams who will fear them, particularly on their home ground, with fans returning this season.
“People talk about the soft centre all the time, it has been going on for years,” adds Symeou. “I think it was a little bit too convenient to level that at them after Brentford. It was kind of the perfect storm; we were playing against a team playing their first top flight match for 70 years, in front of a packed house for the first time in a while; Brentford were right up for it. Arsenal were rocked by the situation that happened prior to the game; we know now that Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang had tested positive for Covid, as had Willian.
“That really disrupted Arsenal’s preparation and Arteta felt the game was going to be called off. I don’t think the season will be defined by that opening game, but it doesn’t help that they now play Chelsea and Manchester City consecutively. There is a real possibility Arsenal could have no points after three games, which will attract criticism, but I think they are in a place where they will be stronger.”
20 – Mikel Arteta suffered his 20th defeat as Arsenal manager in the Premier League, in what was his 60th game – while Arsène Wenger didn’t register his 20th defeat with the Gunners in the competition until his 116th game. Gulf. pic.twitter.com/NRgTaGKFSW
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) August 22, 2021
All things considered, Symeou isn’t confident that Arsenal will make a first appearance in the Champions League since 2017 next season.
“It is unrealistic to expect Arsenal to march into the top four,” he says. “The business done is for the future and that is exactly the point. This team, even with all the additions, is probably going to be a little bit short. Not having European football is obviously a negative, but the positive is that they only have one game per week most weeks, more time on the training ground without the distraction of travel, preparation and recovery in the middle of the week.
“Arteta has struggled to get some of his ideas across, I think because of the quick turnaround. Now is the time we can really judge him as a coach.”
Arsenal have not added much to their starting XI on paper, but the extra depth could prove vital if this season is to be a success. What would that look like? Progress. However high the demand is at the club, and whoever is to blame for their demise over the better part of two decades, the cold hard truth is that there is a long way back. At least now, they’ve picked their way forward and their intention is clear.