Whichever way you cut it, 2018 was a tumultuous year for Arsenal Football Club. January gave us a heavy hint of what was to come; Nottingham Forest dumped us out of the FA Cup while Manchester City gave us a footballing lesson in the League Cup final. Alexis swapped parking spaces with Henrikh Mkhitaryan with neither ourselves or United supporters quite sure who got the best of that deal. If anyone did.
Mesut Özil seemingly heading toward the exit, backed off and signed a new £350k per week contract. The Mad March Hares made an early appearance in the Arsenal boardroom. Had we known then what we know now, would the club have been so generous?
It ended with the club in fifth place, five points off fourth and licking our wounds following a humiliating 5 – 1 defeat at Anfield. The nadir of our season or is that yet to come?
In between, there’s just the small matter of the end of Arsène Wenger’s two decades in charge. The footballing romantic in most people wanted him to bow out with the Europa League, to ride into the sunset with the gaping hole in his CV filled. That opportunity presented itself twice before; twice he swatted it aside on a tide of euphoria. There wasn’t to be a third time.
As it was, the decline which saw us drop out of the Champions League places in 2016-17 became terminal for Wenger’s reign when we finished sixth, our lowest placing since the mid-90s.
While Manchester United crumbled into mediocrity upon Sir Alex Ferguson’s departure, we were already there. The myth Arsène would leave us with a stronger squad, in better shape for the future is being sorely tested.
Sharp Dressed Pain
It’s a squad which would barely be missed if it were sold, save for Torreira, Aubameyang and Lacazette. Hector Bellerin is freed of slough in which he found himself mired but few others are indispensable; only the youngsters escape the cull.
The summer, underwhelming for the most part, delivered the tremendous Lucas Torreira to our doorstep and we shall enjoy him while we can. A player of that ability won’t remain at our beck and call for the remainder of his career. One of Europe’s elite will come calling for him.
We were supposed to be competing with them. That’s the lie Ivan Gazidis sold us. Short-term pain for long-term gain and we’ll take Bayern Munich’s place at the top table. Three 5 – 1 defeats later, we received the proof we never wanted that the gap was now a gulf. Far from closing, it widened. Even Ostersunds came to the Emirates without fear and won.
Yet the club is more alive now with Wenger and Gazidis gone; Unai Emery’s active management is such a contrast to what we became accustomed to, that it’s a breath of fresh air. It’s far from perfect but a promising six months which underline potential is there. If only we had the money to invest in the squad.
Gazidis is in Milan and there are fewer pronouncements from his successors. Maybe that will be different next month but the message won’t change: self-sufficient, Enos won’t invest while not making the Champions League provides a financial pain which is sharper and longer than a swift kick in the gooleys.
How Do You Like Your Novichok, Sir?
It’s a valley of pain into which we’ve been pulled and from where there is little light on the horizon. That’s because we’re locked in a box, somewhere in Delaware and away from prying eyes.
Plurality of ownership is dead; Enos took the lot, lock, stock and two smoking barrels. Usmanov got fed up with waiting for a seat on the board and sold out. Just in time as the British government decided that Russian oligarchs had to ‘fess up to the source of their wealth. Tell us or you won’t come into the country, as Roman Abramovich found. Putin had a more effective message: tell them and you’ll get a poison pen letter. Or was it just a poison pen? I forget.
Which brings us to 2019, it’s hopes and aspirations. The Champions League is, I think, a step too far. Qualification requires us to invest heavily in January with money we don’t have. The late Peter Hill-Wood never borrowed to fund purchases, continuing the philosophy of his father as chairman.
If we’re to achieve anything this season, that philosophy will need to be ditched. With the midfield we have the basis of a strong side. It will be without Aaron Ramsey. I was going to tag him ‘heartbreaker’ but heartbroken seemed equally appropriate. Arsenal tore up the offer of a lifetime and forgot to tell him why even though we knew it was all because Mesut Özil took £350k. No wonder he gets back spasms; his wallet must weigh a ton.
Long and Winding Road
2019 is a year, for the first time in a footballing sense, which I’m approaching with a renewed enthusiasm. While we might not achieve all that we can, we’re at least making every effort to do so. That’s not to say we didn’t before, just that this time there is an urgency to the efforts. No longer is it good enough to try and win beautifully, we dropped the last word out of that phrase.
It’s the start of a long journey and who knows how long Unai Emery will steer the ship. Not 20+ years, that’s for certain but not the six months which the no-marks claim is long enough.