Arsenal were plunged deeper into crisis as they slumped to an embarrassing 3-0 defeat at the hands of Man City at The Emirates on Sunday.
The Gunners registered just one shot on target during the entire match and they put up minimal resistance as Kevin De Bruyne ran riot. It summed up just how far they have fallen and highlighted the magnitude of the challenge their new manager will be presented with.
This was a Man City side that had won just two of their previous eight games. They had not kept a clean sheet since October. Yet they ripped Arsenal apart with alarming ease in a first-half burst of activity, before treating the rest of the game like a stroll in the park. Arsenal were utterly devoid of inspiration, ambition, leadership, pizzazz and courage, and they looked desperate for the final whistle to blow.
Interim manager Freddie Ljungberg cut a forlorn figure in the dugout. The Swede betrayed little emotion and sat powerless to prevent a one-sided humiliation. The result flattered Arsenal, and Man City will not have an easier game all season. The club’s owners, the much-maligned Kroenkes, hoped that a club legend like Ljungberg would galvanise the squad and reinvigorate the supporters after they finally took the plunge and sacked Unai Emery. Yet Arsenal have simply continued upon their downward trajectory.
A Lack of Passion
The situation could not be further removed from the impact Duncan Ferguson has had at Everton. The Scottish striker spent half of his career terrorising defenders at Goodison Park, and he is now causing nightmares for opposition managers. He led the struggling Toffees to a 3-1 win over Chelsea in his first game in charge, and then secured a 1-1 draw at Old Trafford, heaping further pressure on Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. The players and fans feed off the passion, fire and energy he brings to the touchline, and Everton suddenly look capable of climbing the table after jettisoning Marco Silva out of the club.
The Kroenkes were clearly hoping that Ljungberg would provide the sort of new manager bounce that Solskjaer inspired when he replaced Jose Mourinho at Man Utd last season. The Norwegian secured six straight victories when he took the reins and led the Red Devils on a 12-match unbeaten streak. It came to an end at The Emirates, as Arsenal beat them 2-0, but it was enough to land Solskjaer the job on a permanent basis.
Yet Ljungberg is clearly not Solskjaer, who had spent six years in charge of Molde and actually had experience of managing in the Premier League thanks to an ill-fated spell at Cardiff. Arsenal have just one win in five games under their Scandinavian club legend, and the new manager bounce has proved elusive.
Ushering In a New Era
Yet there are clear parallels between Arsenal and Man Utd. Both clubs are struggling to find an identity in a brave new era precipitated by the departure of a successful manager that spent more than two decades at the helm. Man Utd are further down the line than Arsenal, but they both look a long way off challenging for top honours any time soon. Defeat to Man City left Arsenal 27 points behind league leaders Liverpool, which is outrageous when you consider the season is only 17 games old.
They are seven points off a top four spot, but also just seven points above the relegation zone, and they appear to be going south. The Marathonbet football odds show that they are huge underdogs to finish in the Champions League places, and they are also fast becoming underdogs in the Europa League.
Man Utd have a lot more money to throw at their rebuilding project than Arsenal. That has led to the arrival of highly rated players like Paul Pogba and Harry Maguire, earning hefty salaries and commanding high transfer fees.
Top managers like Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho have been and gone, and now Solskjaer is scrambling around in search of an identity. Man Utd endured a miserable finish to the 2018/19 campaign, and they have just six wins in 17 this time around. That shows how difficult it is to usher in a new era after an autocratic reign comes to an end, and Arsenal are not as well equipped to pull it off.
The Failed Emery Experiment
It is now clear that Unai Emery was the wrong man to replace Arsene Wenger. The Spaniard was unable to fix the defensive frailties that defined the final years of Wenger’s reign, but he blunted their attack through negative tactics, poor communication and inconsistent team selections. That is yet another blot on Ivan Gazidis’ CV. He is now presiding over AC Milan’s descent into mediocrity in Italy, and Arsenal have at least taken steps to put a solid executive team in place in order to share the burden around.
Yet the club’s new powerbrokers – Raul Sanllehi, Vinai Venkatesham, Edu, Huss Fahmy and mainly Stan and Josh Kroenke – must should the bulk of the blame for Arsenal’s decline. They dithered over sacking Emery despite his obvious inability to arrest an alarming slump in form. They then thrust Ljungberg into the caretaker role at an inopportune moment, giving him no time to stamp his authority on proceedings and prepare the team for a hectic period in the festive calendar.
They also sanctioned the departures of Aaron Ramsey, Nacho Monreal and captain Laurent Koscielny. Ramsey was the most dynamic midfielder at the club, while Monreal and Koscielny were the only two that could defend – even if they were both past the prime – and their absence has been keenly felt. This is now an Arsenal team without fighters and seemingly without hope.
A back four of Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Callum Chambers, Sokratis Papastathopoulos and Sead Kolasinac is possibly the worst in the league. David Luiz and Hector Bellerin are waiting in the wings, but they are equally sloppy at the back. Kieran Tierney has not yet got going in an Arsenal shirt.
Granit Xhaka is not a club favourite after swearing at the fans, and Matteo Guendouzi and Lucas Torreira offer pitiful protection to the back four and minimum spark going forwards. Mesut Ozil is frequently a bystander in matches, while the likes of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Nicolas Pepe and Alexandre Lacazette do not see enough of the ball.
Aubameyang and Lacazette are veering towards the end of their contracts, and both will have to be sold soon – if not in January then in the summer – so as to avoid them leaving on a free transfer the following year. Arsenal’s transition period from Wengerdom to a brave new era has been a total failure thus far, and someone needs to come in, rip it up and start again.
A Brave New Dawn?
Many fans have called for an experienced boss like Rafa Benitez or Carlo Ancelotti to come in and guide the club through these choppy waters. Those with a penchant for gallows humour might demand Sam Allardyce or Tony Pulis to save them from relegation. Yet Arsenal have opted for former captain Mikel Arteta, another man without a jot of managerial experience.
It represents a spectacular gamble on the board’s behalf. If it pays off they will look like visionaries, but if the Spaniard is not up to the task then it could lead the club down the path to ruin. He has been Guardiola’s number two at Man City during their record-breaking title triumphs and he apparently gave an impressive interview before losing out to Emery in the interview process in 2018, but he is very much untested.
Arteta looked in pain as he watched Man City demolish Arsenal on Sunday. It highlighted the enormity of the task he faces after swapping relative comfort of the number two role at the Premier League champions for the hot seat at The Emirates. Arsenal are a shambles at the back, brittle in midfield, while their talented attackers currently resemble square pegs trying to fit into round holes. The rot has set in at the club, and Arteta could be just the man to bring a youthful injection of fresh dynamism to proceedings.
Yet he will have to work quickly, settle on a best 11 and potentially bring in some defensive reinforcements in the January transfer window. This is a crucial period in Arsenal’s transition period, and the executives that run the club must show that they are not as inert or clueless as the team that limped to such an embarrassing defeat against Man City on Sunday.