Arsenal and the Perception of Change

Arsenal has already changed. You just might have missed it.

For a moment, it seemed as if all the progress Arsenal had made in the past 20 years was in jeopardy. Following a 2-1 defeat against scrappy Bournemouth and still without a win in 2018, Arsenal sat 7th in the table. Instead of being trailed by Chelsea, Manchester United, and Spurs, they were nearly level with Burnley, Crystal Palace, and Everton. The mercurial attacker Alexis Sanchez and crafty playmaker Mesut Ozil seemed prepared to depart on free transfers. Indeed, the Alexis transfer saga had developed to such a point where when he scored a goal against Crystal Palace last month, more than half of the squad refused to celebrate with him, instead returning to their side of the pitch. The squad languished in the Europa League, with a round-of-32 tie against Swedish minnows Ostersunds approaching. The week before, the Gunners had stumbled to a 4-2 defeat against Championship side Nottingham Forest while playing a rotated squad, despite the fact that the FA Cup might have been Arsenal’s best chance at silverware.

Arsenal were not always the powerful side they are known as now. Before the arrival of Arsene Wenger and the inception of the Premier League, Arsenal’s league position varied by year. Playing at Highbury, a small stadium the likes of which are rapidly disappearing from the British scene, the Gunners were known for playing a style of football which has also disappeared. The chants of “boring, boring Arsenal” would ring out from around the grounds, as Arsenal would play a resolute 4-4-2, seek to score once, and then park the bus; incredibly, this led to a string of results in 1993 when neither Arsenal nor their opponent scored more than one goal for 13 straight games. (So perhaps Jose Mourinho is actually paying homage to this vintage Arsenal squad?) Then came the appointment of a little-known manager whose name seemed too good to be true, last seen taking the helm of Nagoya Grampus Eight, a Japanese outfit.

Of course, with the arrival of Arsene Wenger also came the increasing publicity and money of the Premier League era. Arsenal changed stylistically as well, building a strong defense led by Tony Adams with an imposing keeper in David Seaman. The 4-4-2 gave way to a 4-2-3-1, with Frenchman Patrick Vieira anchoring the midfield. Fellow legendary Frenchman Thierry Henry – to this day Arsenal’s leading goalscorer – led the striking line, flanked by Freddie Ljungberg and Dennis Bergkamp. Ian Wright, Kolo Toure, Ashley Cole – many more names played a part in the Arsenal squad that was so dominant in the first decade of the 2000s, as Arsenal won the league without losing a game in 2004 and made it to the final of the Champions League in 2006 (a game that, were it not for incredibly poor refereeing, Arsenal might have won). With the money and success came other changes; Arsenal decided to construct a new stadium to usher them into a new era.

With the construction of the Emirates came financial constraints. Many prominent players departed the club – Thierry Henry went to Barcelona, Kolo Toure left for Manchester City. New faces, albeit lesser-known faces, were brought in; Andrey Arshavin, Nicklas Bendtner, and Abou Diaby were brought in cheaply to fill the voids left by their predecessors. There were clear ups and downs – FA Cup triumphs, a League Cup final loss to upstarts Birmingham City, an 8-2 loss to Manchester United – but the Gunners (and Arsene Wenger) always found a way to weather the storm. Despite this clear downgrade in talent from the 2004 and 2006 sides, Arsenal still never finished any lower than fourth in the league until 2017.

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The last game played at Highbury, while the Emirates Stadium loomed in the background. Courtesy of the Islington Gazette.

This time period also coincided with the rise of Arsenal’s English youth products. Whether home-grown or bought from other academies, Arsenal was the stage for the breakthroughs of many an England international, graduating an impressive string of academy players such as Kieran Gibbs, Jack Wilshere, Theo Walcott, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Perhaps it was the dearth of quality in the first team that allowed these players to break through, but the players certainly seized the opportunity. Arsenal fans will never forget seeing 19-year old Jack Wilshere dominate the midfield against Barcelona in the Champions League, or Theo Walcott scoring a hat-trick and assisting twice in a 7-3 rout of Newcastle. Of course, Arsenal fans might be far less reluctant to forget the lineups that included Marouane Chamakh, Andrey Arshavin, and Sebastian Squillaci. However, Arsenal stuck to their possession-based 4-2-3-1, and they remained consistent (if not prolific) in the upper echelon of the league.

Arsenal finally got their star players when they acquired Ozil and Sanchez in 2014 and 2015 respectively. However, as Wenger’s tenure continued and Arsenal’s struggles in the league and European competitions, discontent grew in the Arsenal fanbase. The “Wenger Out” movement was (and to some extent still is) loud, if lacking numbers. A handful of protests were held, but the message from the club was clear when they extended his contract last year: Arsene is our man. With the 6th place finish last season the first season out of the top four in two decades, some have questioned his adaptability. He currently has one year left on his deal; it is unknown as to whether or not he will extend his tenure again. Unlike with Sir Alex Ferguson, Wenger is unlikely to want fanfare around his departure. The pragmatic Frenchman will likely leave the way he arrived.

It remains to be seen when, if ever, Wenger will step down. The Economist actually named him in their list of rulers who should step down in 2018, albeit somewhat satirically. With Sanchez now a day away from a move to Manchester United and Ozil prepared to sign an extension, Arsenal can focus on the present. Henrikh Mkhitaryan is coming over from Manchester in the deal; capable of playing on either wing, he certainly represents an upgrade over Alex Iwobi. Prolific talisman Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is rumored to be on the move  to Arsenal as well, providing an extra edge to the Arsenal attack (he has 98 Bundesliga goals in 148 games – and he’s only 28, presumably at the peak of his career). Jack Wilshere, whose contract is also up this summer, is also ready to sign a new deal. Promising academy stars Reiss Nelson and Ainsley Maitland-Niles have already made breakthroughs into the first team. Arsenal also recently appointed Sven Mislinstadt, the ex-Dortmund transfer guru. A Mislinstadt signing, promising 20-year old center back Konstantinos Mavropanos, has already begun to integrate himself in the squad. Wenger himself has showed significant amounts of adaptability as well, alternating between his typical 4-2-3-1 and a new-look 3-4-2-1 (in the same style as Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City and Antonio Conte’s Chelsea). 

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Arsenal celebrating as a unit. Courtesy of Reuters.

Yesterday, Arsenal rolled out a lineup that didn’t include Alexis Sanchez. Against a mid-table Crystal Palace side, Arsenal stormed out to a 3-0 lead within 11 minutes –the fastest any side has scored 3 goals in the last seven years in the Premier League . As Alexandre Lacazette calmly finished the fourth goal off of a back heel layoff from Ozil in the 24th minute, the whole squad ran to the far corner flag to celebrate. The Emirates swelled with noise, and for a moment all was well.



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