When Arsene Wenger came to England in 1996, he brought new approaches that allowed Arsenal to leave others in their dust. Now, 22 years later, it is Arsenal who have found themselves playing catch-up.
Nutrition, sports science, and savvy transfers from abroad are now the norm several steps down the league pyramid, let alone in the top two of the Premier League. For a decade too long, Arsenal’s credo was ’if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’; it took 2016/17’s failure to finish in the top four to jolt them into changing that to ‘better late than never’.
There were strong arguments that Wenger should have been gently shown the door before the beginning of last season. Those protestations became too much even for the stubborn Arsenal board and even more stubborn Wenger to ignore as they sank to their worst final league position since 1995, closer on points to seventh-placed Burnley than fourth-placed Liverpool.
It would be misplaced to give the club credit for doing things they should have done years ago, but getting a tenner and a hastily-scribbled apology in a card two weeks after your birthday is still better than nothing. The big positive for Arsenal fans is that they are finally showing they are seriously about re-modernising. Saying “well done, bye bye” to Wenger is just one part of a transition that, to be fair, Arsenal seem to have handled better than most.
For a start, when a new manager takes over, their first task is usually to trim the deadwood from their squad, but despite being the first new boss in 22 years, Unai Emery will have arrived to find that Wenger spent his final 12 months in the job effectively doing it for him. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Theo Walcott, Olivier Giroud, Francis Coquelin and Kieran Gibbs were all sold for decent money; injury-prone pair Jack Wilshere and Santi Cazorla were allowed to run their contracts down; and Per Mertesacker retired.
The best indication of how long overdue that clear-out was is that between them, those eight players had spent nearly 66 years at the club. There are currently only 11 players in the entire Premier League with a longer tenure than that octet’s average of 8.2 years, and one of those is Aaron Ramsey, whose current contract at Arsenal expires next summer.
While that dressing-room exodus was ongoing, Arsenal were busy belatedly bringing people in to the back office to change the way the club conduct their transfer dealings to something rather more 21st century. Head of recruitment Sven Mislintat (formerly of Dortmund) identifies the targets, head of football relations Raul Sanllehi (formerly of Barcelona) negotiates for them, and former Team Sky legal expert Huss Fahmy deals with the player contracts.
The trio have certainly had plenty to do: the disruptive Alexis Sanchez left, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang arrived, Mesut Ozil’s contract was extended, Emery was appointed, and the five new players have already arrived so far this summer – more than any of the other sides from last season’s top half.
Amongst those signings are the desperately-needed goalkeeper (Bernd Leno), centre-back (Sokratis), and defensive midfielder (Lucas Torreira). While there is no guarantee that any of them will prove to be the solution to a problem Arsenal have faced since Jens Lehmann, Sol Campbell and Patrick Vieira left in 2008, 2006 and 2005 respectively, it does at least suggest that the club are aware of their problems and are willing to spend money to fix them. After years of poor prioritisation, this feels like a significant step in the right direction.
By spending the last 12 months gradually moving towards a structure and squad fit to start a new era, Arsenal have at least tried to learn from the mistakes of Liverpool in 1991 and Manchester United in 2013, and hit the ground running where their northern rivals fell flat on their faces. On paper, they look like they’re ready; now it’s up to Emery to turn paper into silverware.