“We have not been competing with the top clubs in this country for five years… We have to be ruthless. There is no time to waste and there is a lot to do.”—Mikel Arteta, 5th May 2021
“Joe is part of our plans, he’s our player.”—Mikel Arteta on Joe Willock’s future, 13th July 2021
“I don’t want individual people working in one area or for one country. I want a group working together. Less people with much more responsibilities.”—Edu explaining his decision to get rid of several members of Arsenal’s scouting network, 11th September, 2020
“Ceballos, Aubameyang and Pepe all tested Arteta’s patience”—The Athletic’s first bullet point explaining Arsenal’s dismal 3-0 defeat at home to Liverpool, 5th April 2021
These are just four examples of what has been happening at Arsenal in recent years: management speak-embroidered promises which don’t mean anything; outright lies; idealistic attempts at convincing fans that there is a hidden master plan in the works; and then media outlets inexplicably making excuses on the club management’s behalf when the misdirection and deception are exposed.
Fortunately, it seems that the vast majority of Arsenal fans have seen through this ruse. But some still believe that there is some kind of long-term ‘process’ underway and that all will become clear in a few years. Short of glasses of water thrown in faces followed by cries of ‘wake up!’, an effort needs to be made to help these people see that they are being lied to. It is not complex. The Arsenal “process” does not exist. The club is being torn apart limb from limb, with nothing to show for it.
Arsenal Fans are Being Asked to Trust a Non-Existent Process
‘Process’ is the omnipresent buzzword of world sport. If a sporting organisation is struggling to win, but can show that a ‘process’ is underway, it is a fantastic way of borrowing time. The interest rates on this borrowed time depend entirely on the patience of the team’s fans, but if the ‘process’ yields no long-term reward, the supporters will be sending for the debt collectors eventually. At Arsenal, the ‘process’ line gets wheeled out more often than the team actually wins football matches.
A long-term project could be built at Arsenal. There is (or perhaps was) a plethora of young talent, at different stages of development, which could be molded into a very strong squad one day. The club still has some level of pulling power in the transfer market, and last season, one or two more experienced first-team players showed signs of not being total liabilities. There is little current evidence, however, of any promising ‘process’.
Since Arsène Wenger left the club, Arsenal’s net transfer spend has been in the region of a loss of £323million. This does not include wages, agent bonuses, signing-on fees, potential money laundering fees (the only way to explain some of the signings that have occurred) and so on. Yes, Arsenal have lost (not spent, *lost*) roughly the entire GDP of Palau in the space of seven transfer windows. And 10 out of the 22 permanent signings were aged 25 and over. And the vast majority of the signings weren’t very good. And Granit Xhaka was just given a new contract.
This is hardly a sustainable long-term model. “Buy high, sell low”. A club with a long-term vision would not throw money around so recklessly. The truth is that next to none of the signings made since 2018 have turned out to be sound investments. Since the summer of 2016, when Granit Xhaka was brought in instead of N’Golo Kanté (Shkodran Mustafi was also allowed within a ten-mile radius of Islington, but let’s not dwell on that), it is not an exaggeration to say that an equivalent recruitment error of judgement has been made at least once or twice a season. This is not the way to improve a team over a long-term period.
The “Youth Project”
“Mikel Arteta justified as Arsenal’s youth drive… wins the derby.”—Evening Standard, 15th March, 2021
“Mikel Arteta bouyed [sic] by Arsenal youth as he targets rebuild ahead of next season.”—Sky Sports, 11th May, 2021
“Mikel Arteta’s faith in youth is right approach but these are worrying times for Arsenal.”—The Times, 20th August, 2021
These are examples of mainstream media outlets trying to push the narrative that Mikel Arteta has a grand plan to make use of his squad’s young talent. The reality? William Saliba has been farmed out on loan twice, despite consistently showing that he is a better prospect than almost any of the club’s other defenders; Joe Willock is now a Newcastle player; fans are crying out for Gabriel Martinelli to receive more playing time; Matteo Guendouzi has been called up to the France squad but is unlikely to feature for Arsenal ever again; and there are reports of Ainsley Maitland-Niles being told he will not train with the first-team after his loan move to Everton did not go through.
Of course, Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe have blossomed under Arteta, but being able to see Saka’s talent should really be considered a minimum requirement for someone working in football, and Smith Rowe’s initial chances largely came about through desperation. This does not mean that the manager doesn’t deserve credit, but the treatment of these other young players, even if we do not know the full story, does not bode well. For a team to have such an unusual amount of young talent at its disposal, only for the manager to fail to build a rapport with more than half of them is not bad luck, it is absolutely criminal. So much for ‘faith in youth’.
The Fatal Flaw in the Arsenal Process
Modern day football does not suit long-term thinking. It moves in extremely short cycles, and too much of youth development, competition with other teams, and scouting of players is down to luck. This is not to say that football clubs should give up on long-term thinking altogether, but teams must be prepared to accept that any rebuilding attempts can quickly be thwarted by teams who adopt win-first mentalities. Even successful rebuilds, such as Jürgen Klopp’s at Liverpool, were done in a very short time, and required several expensive, win-first signings, and extreme examples such as Brentford’s “Moneyball” story relied on the kind of scouting expertise and boardroom ingenious that Arsenal simply do not have at the moment.
The sad truth is that even if all of Arsenal’s youth prospects were bedded into the team over the next two years, and every single one reached his full potential, the team would most likely still not be a title contender. It is nigh on impossible to compete with teams like Manchester City based on ‘a process’ alone. The fact that the club have lost so much money on transfers over the last four years shows that, whilst they may not have quite the spending power of other billionaire-backed teams, it would hardly be impossible for them to assemble a top quality team if they simply tried the tactic of ‘signing players who strengthen the team in the necessary areas’.
It doesn’t take long to turn a football team around. Klopp himself proved this. Two or three good transfer windows in succession, coupled with an improvement in the coaching staff, and ideally a bit of luck, be it through the emergence of youth players, a speculative signing which pays off, or just luck in the matches themselves, can make a dramatic difference.
The trouble is, there is no evidence that the people in charge of Arsenal have anything like the ability to have good transfer windows, improve the coaching staff, or get the most out of hidden gems. On current evidence, the priority (especially in the case of Edu and Arteta) seems to be more on convincing the fans and media that the right things are going on behind the scenes than actually doing them.
Perhaps the saddest indictment of Arsenal at the moment is that some of the most 606 phone-inesque opinions of old hold genuine truth today. Managers like Sam Allardyce and Martin O’Neill would almost certainly get more out of the team this season (maybe not Owen Coyle, though), and ‘Williams, Fellaini, “Bergovick”, Michu’-style signings would quite possibly be an improvement. Fans are right to direct some of their anger at Stan Kroenke, but for the time being, the least they can hope for is a manager—and a Technical Director—who do not lie incessantly and drag the club’s entire brand with them.
There is not even a need for nuanced discussions about whether the likes of Antonio Conte and Marc Overmars would want to come to the club, or whom the right replacements may be: the performances, as well as the subsequent misdirection and excuse-making, is so bad that any kind of change is welcome.
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