Hope for a new season usually lasts more than three weeks, but not at Arsenal. Not this year. After a comprehensive hammering at the hands of Liverpool and the end of a transfer window that saw first-team players departing rather than arriving, hope seems to have evaporated.
Arsenal’s conclusion to the transfer window has been underwhelming at best. The loss of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain without a replacement is a blow, and it appears that Alexis Sánchez has been retained against his will. There was late talk of an enormous bid for Monaco’s Thomas Lemar with a view to his replacing Sánchez, but reports suggested he rejected the chance to join up. Despite Sánchez’s obvious quality, replacing him would have at least solved the problem of his expiring contract. Now it looks like he will walk for free next summer, alongside Mesut Özil, leaving plenty doubt as to what kind of shape the club will be in to entice new players.
But while the future is grim, the present isn’t much better.
Plenty of teams turn up at Anfield and try to play with an attacking verve, and it usually ends badly. Tottenham and Arsenal themselves both tried it last season and were easily dominated and brushed aside, 2-0 and 3-1, respectively. With Jürgen Klopp managing the club for nearly two years, it might be expected that opposition managers realized that it’s not a very effective way to beat Liverpool on their own ground. By way of contrast, when Jose Mourinho brought his star-laden Manchester United team last October, he specifically set his team up to defend as a first and only priority. They secured the 0-0 draw and a useful point.
Watching Arsenal last Sunday fueled a familiar criticism. It looked as though they had no idea what was coming. Liverpool might try and press the ball high? Really? With fast players like Sadio Mané and Mohamed Salah, they could be lethal on the break? Are you sure? The outcome was horrific and predictable: Liverpool coasted with considerable ease to a 4-0 victory by repeatedly tearing through Arsenal’s shaky backline. That score line was bad enough, but it could have been worse.
Once again, Arsène Wenger appeared to have no visible desire to adjust his team to Klopp’s tactics. They shipped seven goals in the league to Liverpool last season in two defeats and drew 3-3 at Anfield when the two managers first faced off in 2015-16. Another four goals conceded here and they endured their most complete defeat yet. There was also the curious decision to leave record signing Alexandre Lacazette on the bench and use him only as part of a too-late double-substitution with Olivier Giroud. But even the subs were puzzling: It left Arsenal with a trio of strikers—Lacazette, Giroud, and Danny Welbeck—with only one creative midfielder, Mesut Özil, being tasked with providing for all three.
Half-time against Liverpool also saw a defensive change—the return to a back four. The switch to a three-center-back system during the latter stages of 2016-17 had coincided with a return to form for the team. Arsenal won seven of their last eight league games under the new setup, but despite the kudos of beating a Europa League–focused Manchester United, 2-0, the key game in that run was the 2-0 defeat to Tottenham. That day, as at Anfield this past weekend, they were comprehensively outplayed and deserved no more than they got from the game. This was the first evidence that the new system might not solve the long-term problem of failing to compete against their rivals, particularly away from home. Their other results in that run concealed an underlying truth: With the three center backs in place they conceded only five goals, but if you account for expected goals, that tally is closer to 11. Arsenal hadn’t really played better; they’d been getting lucky.
The wider decline in performance, then, goes back over 18 months. During the first week of January 2016, the club sat atop the league, two points ahead of Leicester City, three ahead of Manchester City and with Liverpool, Manchester United, and Chelsea a mile off the pace. During that first half of the season, they not only gained the most points, they also projected as the best team in the league. Expected goals rated their attack five goals ahead of the rest of the league and overall expectation had them over 10 goals clear of everyone but Manchester City.
An untidy middle section of that campaign saw them fall off the pace, and Leicester of course profited. The 2016-17 season followed a similar pattern but the highs were never as high and the dip was far more severe. In the last third of the season, their defense ranked 15th for expected goals against, and during the run with the back three, it ranked 18th. With the three center backs in place, Arsenal then started 2017-18 conceding six goals in five halves of football against an expectation of around eight. These are grim numbers for the main course, with a side order of luck.
The back-three experiment also sketched a picture of Wenger as reactive rather than proactive. He has never favored anything but a back four in his entire time at Arsenal, so 20 years in, a switch to the system du jour was a surprise. During 2016-17, Antonio Conte’s Chelsea were the first team to experiment and succeed with the formation and other teams soon followed. Among Arsenal’s main rivals, Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham and Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City both spent time using it, too.
It’s unclear if Arsenal even have the right personnel to make a back three work. Their three matches this season have found center back Shkodran Mustafi, who started 26 Premier League games last season, apparently out of favor having started just one game, while Sead Kolasinac and Nacho Monreal, both primarily left backs, have been shunted into the back line. Before he was sold to Liverpool, Oxlade-Chamberlain, traditionally a midfielder, and Héctor Bellerín, usually a right back, have curiously switched between the required wing back roles. These are square pegs in round holes, and many of the misfitting pieces were created by the system change. Yet, Wenger has persisted. Despite the changes, the team’s overall structural cohesion hasn’t developed or improved over time and remains faulty.
Meanwhile, the mysteries of central midfield have yet to be solved despite the relatively recent purchases on Mohamed Elneny and Granit Xhaka. The long-term absence of Santi Cazorla has left a hole in the side that is unlikely to be filled by his eventual return—he has missed the majority of the last two seasons and will do well to return at all before 2018-19, by which time he will be nearly 34. His passing ability that fluidly linked defense to attack was a rare skill and hasn’t been replicated. This season, Elneny started the first game alongside Xhaka, but following the trend of his entire Arsenal career, was quickly replaced by Aaron Ramsey. Francis Coquelin then replaced the Welshman at half-time against Liverpool as the pack was shuffled again. This area remains a problem and has been for some years: play Coquelin and you swap out ball control for his tackling and occasional over-enthusiasm; leave him out and the team is devoid of mobility in the middle of the field. Regardless of the players, Arsenal’s midfield can be bypassed quite easily by a quick and efficient passing side. There is a lack of consistency in selection, and while Xhaka’s signing was a step in the right direction, central midfield reinforcement had been long overdue and the team has not played to a consistently high standard since his arrival.
Indeed, since Sánchez arrived in 2014, it’s arguable whether the team has made a definitively successful signing. This summer has promise in that regard. The free signing of Kolasinac was a relative coup—he was wanted across Europe—and Lacazette arrived with plenty of goals in his back catalog to in theory give the team an unambiguous first-choice striker. However, the handling of the expiring contracts of Oxlade-Chamberlain, Özil, and Sánchez seems negligent. It’s hard to understand Oxlade-Chamberlain starting the first three games of the season then being sold to Liverpool. Surely it would have made more sense to bed in his replacement? Özil and Sánchez, the two premium-talent attackers in the squad, both look now look likely to complete the final year of their contracts, and their plans after that are unclear. Now the club faces the uninspiring choice of signing either or both to new, expensive contracts that will likely last well beyond their peak years—both will turn 30 during the 2018-19 season—or losing them for free while entering an inflated transfer market with a need to replace their two best players.
For all these issues, the finger may point at Wenger. But it also moves beyond him. Majority shareholder Stan Kroenke still has greatest influence over the club’s strategies, and he was the one man who had the ability to challenge the Frenchman at any point during 2017. The club’s downturn in form was so severe—during 70 days from January 31 onward, they won just two of eight in the league and were bounced out of the Champions League 10-2 on aggregate by Bayern Munich—that at any comparable club, Wenger’s tenure would likely have been terminated. Instead Kroenke offered his manager another contract right after the season.
Kroenke has effectively owned the club for six years now, yet even five years ago skepticism was rising around whether his passive stewardship would enable progress. In between then and now, the Kroenke-owned St. Louis Rams became the Los Angeles Rams but failed to record a winning season or finish above third in their division. His Major League Soccer team, the Colorado Rapids, may be coming off a winning season—but even that required some unsustainable performances. There isn’t planning or design: Kroenke teams simply don’t rise, they maintain mediocrity.
Removing Wenger was also a consideration all the way back in 2012. Robin van Persie’s departure to Manchester United was another in a long line of Arsenal players leaving for rivals, and seven seasons had elapsed since their last trophy. Eventually an FA Cup in 2014 broke that run and the Özil and Sánchez signings allowed for the idea that the club was aiming to compete again. We now arrive at the end of their cycle, and the only protagonists that remain stable are the majority owner and manager.
Once the international break concludes, the near future may well see improvement in form. Before back-to-back league fixtures at Manchester City and against Tottenham in November, Arsenal face 12 matches, and they’ll be favorites in all but two (at Chelsea and Everton). In that run, there are four especially winnable home-league fixtures against Bournemouth, West Brom, Brighton, and Swansea. A short run of victories here may well mask the bigger issues, but there is little to suggest that there is an appetite within the club to force change. During 2016-17, nothing about Arsenal’s performances or underlying numbers suggested that they were deserving of a top-four slot, and despite a brief flurry at the end of the season, they duly failed to secure one. The league is now tougher and five teams are at their level or superior. An erratic start and problems created by transfers and contract issues do nothing to suggest that this season will be any different.