Arsenal aren’t so much stuck in a rut as slipping into a state of managed hibernation. Or, if we want to make things sound a little more exciting, they are the game of Kerplunk in which you are handed two sticks and told to keep all the marbles from falling. Which is a pretty fitting description of watching Shkodran Mustafi trying to defend.
This Arsenal summer is in danger of being defined by two players: Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Ozil. Not by a sexy new home kit, nor by the sight of young, hungry new signings holding up a scarf and insisting that they have joined to secure Champions League football. But by a reliably brilliant player who left because Arsenal couldn’t pay him enough and an unreliably brilliant player who is still there because they panicked and paid him too much.
Ramsey and Ozil are the chickens who came home to roost, the result of a club that wilfully ignored the need to improve the contracts of key players to match the sharp rise in broadcasting revenues and then looked shocked when agents asked for more money and looked around for suitors.
More broadly still, Arsenal slumped because they depended too heavily on Arsene Wenger’s consistency and intervened too late when it stopped working. The management structure relied upon Champions League participation to avoid innovation and introspection. A club and manager that once led the way fell back into mid-pack. With Wenger at his peak, Arsenal stood for something. Now they barely stand at all.
If the immediate past is gloomy, there’s not much trust in the present either. This summer was made ten times more difficult by the late-season capitulation that brought Europa League participation as an unpleasant boobie prize. For all the gleeful talk of ‘Spursy’ in the red half of north London, Arsenal offered their own spectacular impression: four points from their last five league matches (all against non-top six sides) to miss out on a top-four place by a point. Any goodwill accrued by Unai Emery in autumn and winter was lost on the late-spring wind against Crystal Palace, Wolves, Leicester City and Brighton.
The financial hit of that collapse cannot be overstated. With a rising wage bill and alarming deceleration in revenue from player sales (Ramsey and Alexis Sanchez leaving on free transfers), Arsenal are creaking. The club’s commercial revenue has flatlined. As the excellent Swiss Ramble reports, Arsenal were the only Big Six club to see their revenue fall in 2018 and they are likely to record a pre-tax loss for the first time since 2002.
In that context, efficient off-field structure only becomes more important; savviness can trump lavish wealth. So, naturally, get ready for some more bad news. The arrival of Sven Mislintat in 2017 allowed the club to proactively scout and sound out transfer targets. Arsenal’s Stockholm syndrome-style relationship with disorder meant that Mislintat was forced out last season before Arsenal attempted to replace him with Monchi and even saw that recruitment strategy fall flat on its face. If you can’t even appoint someone to oversee player recruitment then the recruitment itself is unlikely to go well.
And then there’s the man at the top. Stan Kroenke is not a calamity owner and this is not Bolton Wanderers or Bury, but he has allowed Arsenal to fall into dormancy. The problem isn’t that Arsenal are spectacularly failing in pursuit of The Plan; that would at least be intriguing. It’s that nobody really knows what The Plan is and it’s becoming impossible to get an answer that isn’t dripping in unrealistic PR spiel.
That matters, because time is ticking. There is less than six weeks of the transfer window remaining; more than half of it has now passed. The lack of transfers to date doesn’t mean that none will happen, but it does offer persuasive evidence that either a thorough plan didn’t exist before mid-May or the work on that plan is being carried out by those unfit for the task.
By this time last summer, Arsenal had signed Bernd Leno, Sokratis and Stephan Lichtsteiner and had January arrival Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang anticipating his first full season. By July 15, Lucas Torreira and Matteo Guendouzi had joined them. Arsenal have two weeks until that date in 2019 and so far have signed nobody. Ramsey, Danny Welbeck, Petr Cech and Lichtsteiner have all left. The end of Reiss Nelson’s loan might well be ‘like a new signing’, but his potential only stretches so far.
There are good reasons not to buy players for their own sake. But there’s a difference between not buying by design and not buying through incompetence or necessity. There are obvious holes in Arsenal’s squad that need filling: an advanced central midfielder, at least one central defender, a goalkeeper, another full-back.
Instead, Arsenal supporters have been given a diet of fanciful rumours. Lucas Torreira being loaned to Milan before a permanent deal would be deeply foolish. Selling Aubameyang to fund a £100m move for Wilfried Zaha an expensive gamble that Arsenal can literally ill-afford. But even those unlikely whispers provide some relief from the drudgery. They are a glimpse of revolution at a club that appears to have allowed evolution to become devolution.
The great frustration (capitalise that phrase and you have the DVD title for Arsenal’s last half-decade) is that Arsenal have a great opportunity in 2019/20 that may not return for some time. Chelsea will potentially be hamstrung by a transfer ban and have Frank Lampard learning the ropes and bleeding in academy graduates. Manchester United have bought, but have not addressed the structural inefficiencies that is surely necessary. In response, Arsenal are supine.
Six weeks is a long time in a transfer window, but there is a chasmic gap for Arsenal to leap and precious little good news to fill it. Sometimes silence is golden. Sometimes it just means that nothing is happening.