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April 2021
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The fall of Arsenal: How far behind are we, and what is the solution?

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.

Year Manager Pos W D L F A GD Pts
2015* Wenger 3 18 6 6 58 31 27 60
2016 Wenger 3 16 7 7 48 30 18 55
2017* Wenger 6 16 6 8 61 39 22 54
2018 Wenger 6 14 6 10 55 41 14 48
2019 Emery 4 18 6 6 63 39 24 60
2020* Arteta 10 9 13 8 41 41 0 40
2021 Arteta 10 12 6 12 40 35 5 42

*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.

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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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8 comments to The fall of Arsenal: How far behind are we, and what is the solution?

  • K Fourie

    I am a firm believer in develeping the team ( your optione one).
    We have exellent upcomming and (still) developing youngsters in our sqaud. It tooke mr Klopp 3 years to develop Liverpool. This approach allso have the vitle ingrediant off building trust and loyalty that can kindle the motivation to give your all to the club. I am hisitant for the optione to let tactics evolve around players because it can easely result in a lack of identity and chaos(op 2). I am not talking by this of inflexability. Op 3 and 4 will not greate the stability whar we neede most at the moment.

  • Ken

    There is only one solution. Change the manager who could not see the talent of Martinez, and who was focused on Partey. Now he is doing the same with Martinelli and Saliba, bar Guendouzi. So when you are saying developing talent like Balogun, there can be only one call, sack Arteta.
    Lol with your little insight.
    ** Playing against Liverpool with a sack of attacking players, without Xhaka to sit in front of the defence and three attacking players who do not bring balance to the team, at the same time, you’ve got to be absolute fool.

  • The only problem Ken is historically, changing the manager fails many more times than it works. How many managers are you willing to work through?

  • This is a sensible and balanced article. There have been times this season when I have felt we were moving forward under the current manager, but your figures are a stark reminder that this impression is not factually based. I would stick with him, enjoy the fact that next season we will not need such a large squad as we won’t be competing in Europe and use that space to build a new team around players that really do seem to want to play for him.

  • Mikey

    @ Ken

    I find it baffling how you, as a fan with (and I’m being presumptuous here I admit) no club management experience, no coaching qualifications, no background in top flight professional football and no access to the training pitch or dressing room, believe you know more about “the talent of Martinez” than someone who does. This seems a little questionable to me.

    What I also don’t understand is how or why focussing some or all of his attention on Partey (although there is no evidence that this is what happened) makes any difference to his perception of Martinelli.

    You also say, “he is doing the same with Martinelli and Saliba, bar Guendouzi”. What does this mean? Martinelli is at the club and getting in the matchday squad regularly since his injury. Saliba is out on loan, seemingly for development reasons. Guendouzi is on loan, seemingly because of a lack of discipline. So when you say these are “the same”, I apologise for my inability to see the similarity, but you’ll need to explain that to me.

    You go on to say, “when you are saying developing talent like Balogun, there can be only one call, sack Arteta”. Again I must apologise, I cannot even begin to understand why developing the talent of a player who is behind PEA, Laca, Nketiah and Martinlli in the pecking order of strikers will only happen if Arteta is sacked. Are you suggesting that “development” only occurs as a result of putting someone in the team (ignoring all the ramifications this would have among the other players mentioned) and do you believe any new manager who comes along will do so?

    I really am struggling with your assessment of the situation but I’d be happy if you could elaborate on this and help me understand how you reached these conclusions and hence give more informed credibility to your assertions.

  • gee

    @ Tony Attwood.

    The problem for me is that the situation we are in now is a result of the rush to get Wenger out the door without a proper plan for the future.

    The hiring of Raul,the change from the scout based analytical model for player recruitment to rauls black book of super agents, the decision to treat loyal Arsenal staff (from Aaron Ramsey, Carzola, Ozil and also the 55 staff that got fired) with not much respect,
    the hiring of pragmatic, defensive minded coaches ( emery now arteta ) to coach a team that had a pure attacking philosophy for 2 decades are some of the many mistakes made by the owner of this club since his decision to take full ownership and has led to this current state of decline.

    change of management will not help while the captain of the ship does not have a clue where they are going.

    It is sad and i don’t think it will be better because decisions made at that level are not in the best interest of the club.

  • GoingGoingGooner

    Solution:

    Support the club…win or lose.
    My support is only contingent on one thing: morality. Winning or losing happens. Players and managers come and go. I look to see that the club acts in a moral manner. I want them to represent me as I try to represent the club as a loyal supporter/defender.

    I hope this does not come across as sanctimonious. I only mean that I do not want to be embarrassed by the club. And losing on the pitch does not embarrass me. Only one club can win the title every year.

  • Sleekwhale

    This article is not just timely, but balanced in a reasonable way. One can draw conclusions from a place of reason. It was silly to get Wenger out without thought as to how we will progress post-Wenger. The idea of most of the WengerOut brigade was that once we changed the manager, our problems will automatically be solved. This meant Wenger was the problem. Post-Wenger changes didn’t signify him as the only problem, in fact, it made some realise that he wasn’t doing too badly. So we moved to Emery, who we couldn’t really say had a clear vision for the team especially from an attacking point of view. During this time, we lost players like Carzola, Monreal and Ramsey who were Arsenal mainstay and could improve thinkability on technical matters during training. We also lost loyalty as a bedrock of Arsenal’s culture. Anyway we moved on to Arteta after a period of massive movement and upheaval of players and staff respectively. There was a short stint where Ljumberg was interim and he supported use of academy players, at least from his view, he wanted those that would play for the shirt to play on the field. Arteta has continued somewhat in this realm and we could use the exception of Willian, but even underperforming players need faith sometimes to get them running again, so you can’t completely fault the manager. We have improved defensively, but our attack has stymied. This is a midfield problem and possibly, the flanks need to do more through the defense. But there is more fight and cohesion. Will the fans be patient? I hope so. Because we put so much pressure on these players and restrict them gravely to play with freedom. And as fans, I always ask one question, will I support Arsenal even if they are relegated from the top flight. If your answer is yes, you are a true fan and I hope the love we have for Arsenal will run deeper than our love for trophies. Only then will we be able to give them the backing they so well deserve, whether they deserve it or not, simply because we love the Arsenal.

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