Arsenal entering a dark era

The future of the club is more uncertain than ever after majority shareholder Kroenke recently made a £525 million offer to buy Usmanov’s shares. Most Arsenal fans have had doubts about the club’s ambitions in the past couple of years. Now they are skeptical about the direction taken by the club on and off the pitch.

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Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com

Despite what the Arsenal board says, the summer transfer window has been disastrous for the club: the squad is weaker at the end of the window than when it opened; the dead wood hasn’t been cleared; weaknesses in the team, especially at centerback and in central midfield, haven’t been addressed; and funds for the next summer transfers have been lost even if the Gunners sell Sanchez and Ozil at a discounted price in January. The worst part is that this transfer window is only a symptom of deeper problems inside the club.

Here’s below the Arsenal squad for this season. Premier League rules allow a maximum of 25 players per squad, excluding U21 players. Of those 25 players over 21, there can only be a maximum of 17 players not homegrown. My list looks a bit different from the Premier League squad submitted by the club because I’ve added some youngsters from the academy:

Goalkeepers: Cech, Ospina, Macey (HG); leftbacks: Kolasinac, Monreal; centerbacks: Koscielny, Mustafi, Mertesacker, Holding (HG), Chambers (HG); rightbacks: Bellerin (HG), Debuchy; defensive midfielders: Coquelin (HG), Elneny, Maitland-Niles (-21), Willock (-21); all-around midfielders: Xhaka, Ramsey (HG), Wilshere (HG); attacking midfielders: Ozil, Reine-Adelaide (-21), Zelalem (-21); left wingers: Sanchez, Iwobi (-21); strikers: Giroud, Lacazette, Welbeck (HG), Akpom (HG), Nketiah (-21); right wingers: Walcott (HG), Nelson (-21).

There are serious concerns at centerback since Mertesacker and Koscielny are past their prime, Holding and Chambers are inexperienced and error-prone while Mustafi’s motivation could be a question mark after being denied a move to Inter Milan. At rightback, Debuchy is a weak alternative if Bellerin gets injured.

In midfield, the team has no world-class ballwinner to shield the defense. It also lacks creativity with just Ozil and Wilshere as established playmakers. Cazorla might join the squad in the second half of the season but there’s no guarantee the Spaniard will rediscover his form. It’s no coincidence if Arsenal’s brand of football is less exciting to watch than a few years ago. During the 2010-11 season, the Gunners could rely on Nasri, Fabregas, Rosicky and Wilshere to create breathtaking moves. Up front, Walcott struggles against defenses sitting deep while Welbeck and Iwobi may lack end product.

Kick and rush?

To understand why the club will be in trouble next season, here’s a look at the Arsenal squad in the summer 2018 when the contracts of players like Ozil, Sanchez, Cazorla and Wilshere expire while some loanees return:

Goalkeepers: Cech, Ospina, Martinez; leftbacks: Kolasinac, Monreal, Bramall; centerbacks: Koscielny, Mustafi, Holding, Chambers; rightbacks: Bellerin, Jenkinson, Debuchy; defensive midfielders: Coquelin, Elneny, Maitland-Niles, Willock; all-around midfielders: Xhaka, Ramsey; attacking midfielders: Reine-Adelaide; left wingers: Iwobi; strikers: Giroud, Lacazette, Perez, Welbeck, Akpom, Nketiah; right wingers: Walcott, Nelson.

Assuming the club does not sign any player next summer, the 2018-19 squad will have the same weaknesses as this season but will also lose the firepower of Sanchez and the creativity of Ozil, Cazorla and Wilshere. Can you imagine the Gunners play some ‘kick and rush’ football with Ramsey in the No. 10 role?

The picture becomes even more gloomy when you think of what will be left of the squad in the summer 2019 (see the list below). Optimistic fans will say that the board and the manager won’t let the club sink that low. But the last few transfer windows just tell us that Arsenal could pile up average players simply to make the numbers.

Goalkeepers: Martinez; leftbacks: Kolasinac, Bramall; centerbacks: Koscielny, Mustafi, Holding, Chambers; rightbacks: Bellerin, Jenkinson; defensive midfielders: Coquelin, Elneny, Maitland-Niles, Willock; all-around midfielders: Xhaka; attacking midfielders: none; left wingers: Iwobi; strikers: Lacazette, Perez, Nketiah; right wingers: none.

Going into the 2019-20 season, the Arsenal squad would rely heavily on youngsters, with only Kolasinac, Mustafi, Bellerin, Xhaka, Coquelin, Elneny and Lacazette in their prime. There’s no way such a weak squad could contend for a Champions League spot or even qualify for the Europa League. That prospect has led the board to panic and mention contract extensions a few weeks ago. I definitely think this squad needs a massive overhaul. The club must be ruthless in clearing the dead wood and only keep players who can turn the Gunners into a competitive team. At this stage, Nelson is the only player that Arsenal should keep at any cost.

A punch-drunk boxer

Over the past few months, Wenger has been the catalyst for anger. He could have walked away this summer but in the end opted for a two-year extension. In my eyes, Wenger is like a punch-drunk boxer who believes he’ll win the next fight even though he just got knocked out. The French manager is destroying his legacy by refusing to accept the reality that his powers are waning.

I don’t think Wenger is so delusional that he hopes to end his Arsenal career on a Premier League title. But finishing outside the Top 4 last season was definitely a blemish on his record at the club. Therefore he must probably think that he needs a Top 4 finish to prove that he’s leaving a good squad to his successor.

Wenger hasn’t become a bad manager overnight. In fact, he’s still a good manager. The big difference is that the Premier League is much more competitive than 10 years ago. Money from the TV rights has attracted top managers and allowed average clubs to sign more internationals.

The arrival of Pochettino and Klopp at Tottenham and Liverpool respectively is the key factor that has accelerated Wenger’s decline. The Gunners haven’t beaten Pochettino’s Spurs and Klopp’s Reds in the Premier League yet. Since Pochettino’s appointment in August 2014, the Gunners have drawn 4 Premier League games and lost 2 against Tottenham. Their record against Liverpool is worse with 3 defeats and 1 draw since Klopp took over.

It’s no coincidence if several players have refused to extend their contracts or have even asked to leave Arsenal. They can clearly see that Wenger is not the best manager in the league and won’t turn the club into a contender. Unless the Gunners are stuck in a relegation fight, it doesn’t make sense to fire Wenger at this stage of the season because there is no decent option available now. And don’t start mentioning Ancelotti. The Italian manager may be more astute tactically than Wenger but he’s not a team builder.

Power struggle at the top

A lot of fans are upset with the manager, but the irony is that Wenger is not even the biggest problem at Arsenal. The club’s inefficiency in the transfer market this summer has exposed the power struggle between the manager and the board. Despite their poor knowledge of football, Josh Kroenke and Gazidis can feel that Wenger is doing something wrong, but they make the situation worse by interfering. The club sent contradictory signals this summer because Kroenke and Gazidis acted as de facto sporting directors, undermining Wenger and making Arsenal’s transfer policy unintelligible.

When the transfer window opened, Wenger mentioned expensive signings like Lemar and Mbappe. But a few days before the end of the window, the club said it would need to sell several players before maybe signing one. Basically, the club tried to show some sporting ambition in the beginning of the summer. But deadline day made clear it was all about financial results as Arsenal spent much less than Liverpool and Everton and even made a profit in the transfer market.

The antagonism between Wenger and the board was obvious in three cases. The manager doesn’t rate Chambers. It should have been a no-brainer when Leicester made a £20 million bid for him. But instead of making a profit on an unused player, the club turned down the offer. There can only be two possible conclusions: either the board hoped it could get more money from Leicester, or it thought that Chambers could still improve under another manager.

The second case was Mustafi’s aborted move to Inter Milan. The club sold Paulista to Valencia on Aug. 18. It didn’t make sense to also offload Mustafi without having a decent replacement at centerback, especially since the manager plays a back three. In the end, the transfer was called off on deadline day possibly because Arsenal couldn’t sign Evans from West Brom. Waiting until the last day to make a move for such a key position as centerback shows the dysfunctional relationship between the manager and the board.

Embarrassment in the transfer market

Yet, nothing could beat the amateurish attitude of the club in the botched Lemar and Sanchez deals. Last year, Arsenal made a £29 million bid for Lacazette but Lyon rejected the offer because it wanted £50 million. The Gunners finally accepted to spend £46 million on Lacazette in July. The club seemed to accept the reality that there is a price for English clubs and one for continental clubs. But guess what? Arsenal repeated the same mistake with Lemar this summer.

Manchester City and Chelsea understood how the market worked and met Monaco’s asking prices to sign Silva, Mendy and Bagayoko. On the other hand, Arsenal tried to get Lemar on the cheap with a £31 million bid in June, which was very far from Monaco’s valuation. The Gunners improved that offer to £40 million in July and finally £92 million on deadline day. Monaco accepted that bid but Lemar changed his mind and preferred to stay. If you’re in the player’s shoes, you’d rather move in June or July and have enough time to adapt to a new country and league. From the moment Lemar played in Monaco’s first game of the season on Aug. 4, it was very unlikely that he would switch clubs.

The Gunners not only wasted the whole summer to meet Monaco’s asking price for Lemar, they also sold Oxlade-Chamberlain to a rival and kept an unhappy player like Sanchez. Arsenal needed a massive overhaul this summer. In the end, the club only made two signings and was unable to offload average players like Debuchy, Chambers and Elneny.

Kroenke’s cash cow

While Wenger has definitely been the catalyst for anger, only a different owner could prove the real catalyst for change. Despite all his flaws, the manager is doing his best to win titles. The same can’t be said of Kroenke. A quick look at his mediocre U.S. teams shows that Kroenke is not interested in success on the pitch. For the American billionaire, financial results trump sporting results. Kroenke basically treats Arsenal as a cash cow, taking money out of the club. He has never injected money into the club like Abramovich at Chelsea or Mansour at Manchester City.

Optimists will point at Manchester United and the Glazer family, but the context is completely different. United’s huge commercial revenue means that the Red Devils still have a big transfer kitty despite paying dividends to the Glazers every season. Arsenal would need to win several Premier League titles before having a shot at enjoying a similar commercial revenue. Here’s the catch: it won’t happen unless the Gunners splash the cash to sign top players in the transfer market. The club does not have an academy that can produce a winning generation like Xavi’s Barcelona or Giggs’ United.

In that light, Kroenke’s offer to buy Usmanov’s shares does not bode well for Arsenal. Kroenke owns 67% of the club compared to 30% for Usmanov. Technically, a threshold of 75% is required to pass special resolutions without putting them to a vote. With about 97% of the shares, Kroenke could squeeze out minority shareholders and delist the club.

Leaving empty seats

By taking Arsenal into private ownership, Kroenke would basically throw accountability and transparency out the window. Kroenke could take out as many dividends as he wants. He could even load debt onto the club since there would be no requirement for an AGM or for the publication of accounts. A lot of fans fear that Kroenke will use Arsenal’s revenues to finance the new stadium in Los Angeles for the Rams. At a time when the top teams in the Premier League are massively spending to contend, that would be a deadly blow to the Gunners’ ambitions and reputation.

The divided fanbase reflects the existential crisis which is affecting the club. It’s so depressing to watch Arsenal fans fighting each other while they should be united to protect the club. I believe it’s important that the fans keep supporting the team when they attend games. Arsenal must still look attractive for potential recruits. Top players won’t join the club if the fans create a hostile atmosphere and boo the team every week.

The best way to bring about change would be to protest outside the stadium before kickoff and then leave empty seats during the game. It may not force Kroenke out of the club but it could pave the way for a new majority shareholder who would show more ambition and give a new direction to the club.

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