Prospects looked brighter for Arsenal this past week. They drew 2-2 with Manchester City over the weekend and beat West Ham 3-0 during mid-week. They picked up two points on Manchester United and three points on Manchester City in the top-four race. But, one terrible result yesterday and it’s straight back to the unadulterated melancholy.
Arsenal lost 3-0 away at Crystal Palace, who are in 16th place. It was the Gunners’ first loss to Palace in all competitions since 1994. It came against big, cynical Sam Allardyce. Instead of four points behind Manchester City for a top-four place with a game in hand, they are seven, and three points behind Manchester United.
Arsenal has never finished outside the Champions League places under Arsene Wenger. They have never finished below Tottenham, currently 14 points ahead. The Gunners appear set to do both and show no signs of fighting.
Normally, such a loss to Crystal Palace would be termed shattering. But, Arsenal has resorted to crazy glue so often in 2017 that’s no longer the correct word. West Brom thumped the Gunners 3-1. Watford beat them at the Emirates. That’s not to mention 3-1 losses to Chelsea and Liverpool, and purported peer Bayern Munich annihilating Arsenal 10-2 on aggregate in the Champions League.
The salient question right now is simple: what the heck has gone wrong? The answer, if there is one, is complicated.
Does Arsenal Need To Spend Some Effing Money?
Wenger is an economist. He looks for value. He doesn’t like overpaying for players unless they are “top, top quality.” For much of the last decade, Arsenal was operating under financial constraints. They took on debt to build a new stadium. The property development deal from the old one did not play out as anticipated. Stan Kroenke likes his teams to turn a profit.
Arsenal could not make big signings. Each summer, top players fled to Barcelona or to direct league rivals Manchester City, Manchester United, and Chelsea. They were replaced, though not always with like-for-like talents. However, that pattern has changed the past few years.
Arsenal’s last gutting departure was Robin van Persie in 2013. Players who have left since weren’t in the mix. The club has splashed out cash for two “world-class” stars, Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil. That’s not to mention multiple-time European Goalkeeper of the Year Petr Cech.
Arsenal spent $109 million net during the summer of 2016, with vague rumblings they had another big move lined up that fell through. The signings made sense. The Gunners needed a robust, all-around central midfielder. They signed Granit Xhaka who had played well in the Bundesliga and was coming off a strong Euro 2016 for Switzerland.
Arsenal brought in German international Shkodran Mustafi to fill their hole in central defense. The striker they bought, Lucas Perez, has not panned out. But, there weren’t many options better than Olivier Giroud after Juventus took the Gonzalo Higuain bidding into crazy town for a player who turns 30 in October. This was hardly the summer of 2015 where Arsenal did not sign a single first-team outfield player.
You can play the “one signing they didn’t make” game. N’Golo Kanté was available. Chelsea bought him instead. Kanté has established himself as perhaps the world’s preeminent defensive midfielder. The Blues rocketed up the table after buying him. Last year’s winner Leicester plummeted after losing him. He’ll be player of the season.
One also could revisit past Arsenal failings. Arsenal could have used their buy-back option to block Cesc Fabregas from going to Chelsea. The Gunners could have put forward a less insulting offer to buy Luis Suarez when he was still at Liverpool. Wenger could have put up an extra $4 million to land Xabi Alonso when Liverpool was selling. He has won the World Cup, the Euros, the Champions League, and three league titles with Real Madrid and Bayern Munich since. Arsenal also had multiple chances to sign Vincent Kompany before he went to Manchester City.
That said, Arsenal could, without question, have done worse. Manchester City has written off hundreds of millions in losses on failed signings. Manchester United has spent more than $30 million in transfer fees on 11 different players since 2013. That includes mega signings of Paul Pogba ($111 million), Angel Di Maria ($80 million) and teenager Anthony Martial ($53 million). That tally does not include locking down veterans such as Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Bastian Schweinsteiger. It hasn’t helped.
United sit only three points ahead of Arsenal this season. They have cycled through players and managers. If their lead holds, this will be their first time finishing ahead of Arsenal since 2013.
Is Arsenal’s Scouting and Development Policy To Blame?
What’s happened at Arsenal is sort of like the early 2000s Oakland A’s with Moneyball. The Red Sox and others catch on and your innovation becomes the paradigm. Can you come up with another? Wenger brought two new ideas to English soccer in the late 1990s. One was better nutrition and getting away from heavy English food. Another was that Continental European players, especially French ones, were being undervalued.
The first year he arrived, Wenger signed Patrick Vieira and Nicolas Anelka for small outlays. The next seasons saw Marc Overmars, Emmanuel Petit, Freddie Ljungberg, and Robert Pires arrive in a similar fashion. Later, cheap finds from Arsenal scouting included Kolo Touré, Gael Clichy, Cesc Fabregas, and Robin Van Persie. Those cheap signings made up for some big flameouts (Francis Jeffers).
Other Premier League teams caught on. With the influx of TV money, everyone is flush with cash. Those once bargain finds are no longer bargains. The ones that are arriving, like Yaya Sanogo, are not as impressive as those from yesteryear. N’Golo Kanté when he was in France and Didier Drogba were some high-profile misses.
Arsenal doubled back and began investing in young English players, just as the Oakland A’s moved on to defense. That was a sound idea. UEFA and EPL homegrown roster rules would make those players more valuable. It has not and is not likely to pan out.
Jack Wilshere, who legit looked like one of the world’s best midfielders at one point, has had his career devastated by injuries. Theo Walcott never hit the heights people foresaw. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, now 23 with more than 100 appearances, seems to be heading in the Walcott direction. Young defender Calum Chambers has not been able to get into the team. Aaron Ramsey, Welsh, has also been riven by injuries.
The Gunners, for whatever reason, seem to have a worrying penchant for having players go down with what appear to be routine leg injuries and disappear for 15 months.
It’s not that Arsenal has done a bad job. They just aren’t demonstrably smarter than everyone else. That, of course, is a problem when your strategy is being smarter than everyone else and building from within. There’s also no reason to try to be smarter than everyone else when you can throw money at your problems with impunity.
Has Arsene Wenger Failed To Adjust To The Modern Game?
Wenger is not considered to be a strong tactician. Consider him a really, ridiculously rich man’s version of Jurgen Klinsmann. He scouts his style players with speed, technique, and vision. He tries to play attacking soccer. His teams play the same way regardless of opponent. It’s worked out well for him. If he had left Arsenal for Real Madrid or Barcelona, he would probably have one the Champions League. He nearly did it at Arsenal in 2006.
It’s an overstatement to say Wenger does not try to adjust. His teams just may not be that adept at playing other ways. Ironically, two of his most significant tactical changes came in the heavy losses to Chelsea (shifting to a 4-3-3) and Liverpool (dropping Sanchez to go more direct).
Wenger, like Klinsmann, does not burden his players with hyper-specific instructions to counter what the opposition is doing. That’s good in one sense. You let brilliant players be brilliant and follow their natural reactions. This is supposed to be entertainment. If you want to see the opposite extreme, watch a joyless Jose Mourinho team that isn’t playing well.
That system, however, places great responsibility on the players, both individually and collectively. Arsenal does not need a John Terry to stand up and be counted. But, what they are missing are smart, experienced, professional players who manage things on the field, set the tone, and keep things from coming unraveled.
Wenger inherited a formidable defensive core and Dennis Bergkamp in the 1990s. He supplemented that with attacking skill and formed powerful, self-reliant teams. Later additions such as Gilberto Silva and Sol Campbell filled that role too. Recent vintage teams have had Per Mertesacker, Mikel Arteta, and even Mathieu Flamini to step forward.
Those players were critical when Arsenal needed to stop the bleeding after an 8-2 loss to Manchester United in August 2011 and to make late runs to secure Champions League qualification. Needing a spark now, such players are absent. Ozil and Sanchez are marvelous at creating goal chances, but they are not the sort to carry 10 other guys with them.
Arsenal (as has been the case in other lean times) are fragile. They start off okay. They are in the game for a while. Something goes wrong, most likely the opponent shreds them for a goal on a counter attack. They crumble. They have little cohesion or resilience.
Eight matches remain. Unlike past years, it’s not clear Arsene Wenger or anyone on the field will pull them out of the morass.