Are we seeing the signals of big change at Arsenal?
It wouldn’t be accurate to say that Arsenal are a club in crisis, but there is a general sense of decline around the team among supporters. The failure to win – or even to seriously compete – for the Premier League is at the root of the problem. Fourteen years without a Premier League title is too long a wait for fans spoiled by the successes of the “Invincibles” and three league wins in seven seasons at the turn of the century.
The sense of decline has been staved off by regular Champions League qualification and a string of FA Cup wins, but last year Arsenal slipped out of the top four for the first time in Arsène Wenger’s tenure, and this time around, they are again adrift of the Champions League places and are not showing the kind of domestic form that suggests that they can close the gap. To add salt to the wounds, they have fallen behind Tottenham in the Premier League pecking order, a state of affairs that would have been unthinkable just a few seasons ago.
As a result, the Europa League – at one time a consolation prize for teams who missed out on the Champions League – has become a hugely significant tournament. Given that the Gunners are generally considered as third favourites by Stakers for the Europa League, it could even be said that lifting the trophy in May has become a more viable route to the Champions League next season. After all, breaking into the top four in the Premier League would require the Gunners to overhaul both Tottenham and Chelsea, and there has been no evidence lately that the team is capable of doing that.
The cause of this decline has inspired a thousand articles. The diversion of money to construct the Emirates Stadium has sometimes been cited, though not with much conviction, given that Wenger has had access to a large transfer budget in recent seasons.
A more plausible cause is a general lack of dynamism and ambition at the top of the club. Owner Stan Kroenke has spoken of his stake in Arsenal as an investment, which didn’t go down well with fans, while the board has appeared to be content to allow the situation to drift in recent seasons, seemingly happy with regular top-four finishes.
However, Arsenal’s decline begins and ends with performances on the pitch, and that is where Wenger comes in. Although he was a revolutionary figure when he arrived at the club in the mid-1990s and turned the Arsenal team into the most progressive and exciting in English football, there is a feeling that he has become a little set in his ways as the seasons have rolled by. In particular, his failure to address the team’s defensive shortcomings and their tendency to wilt in the face of physically strong adversaries has infuriated Arsenal fans.
The Arsenal board have stuck with Wenger for far longer than many clubs would have done. It is impossible to imagine Manchester City, Chelsea or even Manchester United giving a manager that much leeway – and there are signs that the situation may be changing.
The news that Josh Kroenke – the majority shareholder’s son – is to hold a wide-ranging review into the way the club is run and its management structure, has led to speculation that major change could be on the way. The club has also overhauled its scouting structure, bringing in former Borussia Dortmund chief scout Sven Mislintat as head of recruitment to address the perception that the club’s approach to identifying talent is outdated. The arrival of Barcelona’s director of football, Raul Sanllehi, is another signal that change is in the air.
This outbreak of activity seems to have been kickstarted by last season’s failure to reach the top four, illustrating pretty clearly where the board draws the line in terms of acceptable performances. With the Gunners looking unlikely to make the top four again this time around, the impetus for major change is only likely to grow stronger.
While Wenger has remained publicly sanguine about these changes, he will know that his position is under increasing scrutiny, and although he is under contract until 2020, there will be many suggesting that he should be eased out at the end of the season, if only to avoid the 2019-20 campaign being dogged with uncertainty. Winning the Europa League could change the board’s calculations, but failing that, major change could soon be on the way at Arsenal.