By Tony Attwood
The decline of Arsenal over recent years has not, as some like to suggest, been a smooth slip into mid-table, but rather a very bumpy ride.
For at this stage in the season in 2018 we were fourth in the league with a league record very similar indeed to 2015, the last of the “fourth is not a trophy” years. In each case this snapshot of the league table is taken after Arsenal had played 30 games in the season.
*Arsenal also won the FA Cup in 2015, 2017 and 2020.
This table is interesting because it shows that the decline in the number of points after 30 games, and the decline in goalscoring ability (highlighted), as well as the position – which is of course dependent on other clubs. In both 2020 and 2021 we have had one club that is massively in front of all the rest – at this stage in 2020 Liverpool were 22 points clear of Manchester City. This season Manchester City are 14 points ahead of Manchester United.
So looking at the table above it reminds us that in 2019 Mr Emery had clawed us back after 30 games to the position we were in, in 2015, True the season then slipped away from us, but these snapshot figures after 30 games do show us how far back we need to climb to get to being regulars in the Champions League. By 30 games we need to be on between 55 and 60 points. We are running between 15 and 20 points behind.
Those who demand a sacking of a significant number of defenders might also like to note that this season our defence is on a par with the two seasons in which we were third at this point. And indeed we have only let in four or five more goals than by this stage in the seasons in which we finished the season in the top four.
As for the solution, there are five solutions on offer
1: Develop this squad
In essence this shows faith in our present group of players and a belief that they will come good in the end. One or at most two attackers might be replaced to combat the major decline in goalscoring, but in essence the squad will be allowed to mature, with the majority of new faces coming from the ranks of the youngsters currently at the club.
The problem with this approach, which is one that Mr Wenger often used, is that both the media and the majority of supporters are against the idea. The media has perfected the approach of creating a storm, demanding change now, with the only change acceptable being the purchase of players, such that for many supporters any solution other than wholesale buying and selling is simply unthinkable to the point of insanity.
But the development approach has the benefit of only introducing one or two newcomers to the team at a time, meaning the newcomers can fit into a squad that is used to working together.
2: Change the tactics
This is rarely mentioned, but can have a terrific effect if the players in the squad have the flexibility to handle this. If, as I think will happen, Joe Willock returns next season as a regular in the team, this will give us new options, and with the increased maturity of Smith Rowe and Saka, will allow us to move forward as a unit, with the tactics evolving around the players, rather than the players being forced to change their natural style to fit new tactics.
3: Buy more players
This of course is what the newspapers, radio, TV and bloggers talk up as the only option. But it comes at a price that is greater than the cost of the players. Replacing several players at once (the common talk today is of six of the first team squad leaving) very rarely results in a cohesive team the following August. The players might gel, but it can take half a season to find out, by which time several of the established squad will be fed up with working in a destabilised club, and will themselves be asking to leave.
Worse, the defence which is not the central problem, will probably be disrupted also, and could put us back another five years.
4: Change the manager
We’ve had three different managers on this date in the last four years and things have got worse and worse. It’s difficult to imagine that another change will suddenly make things better. Most managers will insist on lots of new players so we then have two sets of changes at once, leading to even more destabilisation. There is a serious risk of further decline under this approach – and besides I;m not sure Kroenke will want to put more money up.
5: Accept that it’s over
Mr Wenger gave us an Arsenal that was always in Europe, and almost always in the Champions League. The Arsenal stadium is built on that premise.
But in the past the board (under the Hill-Wood regime) did accept that mid-table was Arsenal’s lot, and almost seemed to feel that challenging for trophies was rather vulgar and not for Arsenal.
From 1953 to 1970 Arsenal won nothing. From 1972 to 1986 we won the FA Cup once. Just because we had a period from 1998 to 2020 in which we have won the League three times and the FA Cup eight times (ie 11 trophies in 22 years) does not mean we are still in that era of a trophy every other season.
But of course it might not be over; we might win the Europa League. But, if not, we need to be careful which of these options we are choosing, because choosing an option and failing to make it happen can make things far, far worse than they would have been by letting things evolve.
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