Photo by Aleksandr Osipov – via Wikimedia Commons)
Perhaps the most memorable moment of the season so far came on October 7, in the second half of Arsenal’s visit to Fulham. Arsenal were playing champagne football, cruising to a 5-1 victory.
Aaron Ramsey had scored a contender for “goal of the season.” The move was started by Ramsey on the edge of Arsenal’s box. The ball seemed to float between half of Arsenal’s team, barely brushing the turf before being caressed into the bottom right-hand corner by Ramsey’s heel.
Yet, more significant than the goal or the scoreline was the chant that followed it.
“We’ve got our Arsenal back,” the fans bellowed in unison.
The chant can be interpreted as evidence of the fans’ approval of Unai Emery’s Arsenal regime in comparison to Arsene Wenger’s final years, or simply a celebration of the fact that Arsenal fans felt united behind their manager once more.
It was this unity in celebration that created a lasting memory. After all, this is a fanbase known for flying banners over stadiums in protest and a certain youtube channel famous for their perpetual sense of indignation.
It’s easy to forget that the never-ending cascade of complaints against Arsenal over recent years have been directed not only at Wenger, but also at Arsenal’s owner, Stan Kroenke. Kroenke, not so affectionately nicknamed “Silent Stan” by supporters, has been accused of a lack of input into the club.
According to fans, Kroenke’s ownership of Arsenal is simply an asset to his business, Kroenke Sports & Entertainment, rather than a pursuit of passion. Arsenal’s CEO until a month ago, Ivan Gazidis, suffered from similarly intense scrutiny.
Criticism of board and manager often go hand-in-hand. To run a successful club, you need both the manager and those above him working efficiently. The upper echelons of the club must facilitate the conditions under which the manager can build a successful team.
Therefore, if the good times are truly to return to Arsenal, fans must hope that Emery will learn from Wenger’s mistakes and that the board will learn from theirs.
A look at Arsenal’s recent outgoing transfer record exposes Arsenal’s shortcomings at both managerial and board level.
Their current record sale is Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s 2017 move to Liverpool, which was reported to be about £35 million. Oxlade-Chamberlain and Cesc Fabregas are the only two sales to have brought in £30 million or more for Arsenal.
For their Premier League rivals, it’s a different story. Chelsea received £60 million for Oscar. Manchester United made £80 million from the sale of Cristiano Ronaldo. Spurs made £6 million more than that from Gareth Bale. Liverpool squeezed £142 million out of Barcelona for Philippe Coutinho’s services, the current highest fee paid for a Premier League player.
These examples are only the club’s record sales. These teams have made multiple sales that eclipse what Arsenal received for Oxlade-Chamberlain and Fabregas.
The only exception is Manchester City, whose record sale is Kelechi Iheanacho for £25 million. They are, however, an anomaly as they are lucky enough to have an endless pit of money and haven’t had a significant player ask to leave in the last five years or so.
Arsenal have neither of these luxuries — their shortcomings in the transfer market has been one of the club’s greatest stumbling blocks in recent years. Again, both Wenger and the board can be held accountable.
In his final years, Wenger, frequently failed to improve his players enough to make them profitable. Since Emery has taken over, a number of players have significantly stepped up their game. Alex Iwobi has regained his confidence and looks a new man. Shkodran Mustafi has cut down on the countless mistakes he made last season. Petr Cech was stopping far more shots before he was injured and replaced by Bernd Leno.
In short, players appeared to be coasting under Wenger. It is the price he paid for blind loyalty. If you look at the league’s current standout managers — Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino — each of them vastly improve the players they manage. Wenger was no longer doing so.
For example, Pochettino seems to turn every full-back he manages into one of the league’s best. Andy Robertson and Xherdan Shaqiri have made remarkable progress since they came to Liverpool. Almost every player in Manchester City’s squad seems to have improved under Guardiola. This constant improvement is fundamental to managing a top team. If they wanted to, these managers could turn a huge profit on the players they’ve coached. Once Wenger stopped improving his players, Arsenal were left trailing their rivals in player sales.
What is more inexcusable is the way the board allowed key players to run their deals down. Robin Van Persie, Alexis Sanchez and Samir Nasri all left Arsenal for a fee smaller than their worth with less than a year left on their contract. Aaron Ramsey is also likely to leave for nothing at the end of the contract next summer. If Arsenal are to see any lasting improvement under Emery, this has to stop.
Emery, for his part, must continue to improve the players he has. With the perpetually furious-looking Juan Carlos Carcedo assisting him, players are unlikely to coast without risking an earful.
Much was made of Arsenal’s £70 million transfer budget this summer. Fans expected that the club with the country’s most expensive ticket prices would have more of a war chest.
Only if Emery learns from what his rivals have done right, and his predecessor wrong, will he enjoy a greater transfer budget. To facilitate this, the board must take the power back from the players in contract negotiations. If a player flirts with running his deal into its final year, he should be sold before his value starts to dwindle.
Football is, after all, a business. If Arsenal are to be a successful team once more, the business side must be efficient. Then, fans may truly have their Arsenal back.