Arsenal’s Europa League success cannot hide their massive shortcomings

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Arsenal head coach Unai Emery before UEFA Europa League match second leg against Valencia at Mestalla Stadium on May 9, 2019. (Getty Images)
Arsenal head coach Unai Emery before UEFA Europa League match second leg against Valencia at Mestalla Stadium on May 9, 2019. (Getty Images)

If Manchester United’s current plight taught us anything, it’s that a managerial dynasty is incredibly difficult to follow up. When Unai Emery stepped into Arsene Wenger’s proverbially huge shoes at the start of 2018-19, there was a strong risk that he would fail to live up to his predecessor, a la David Moyes at Old Trafford.

But if you had to bet on one area in which Arsenal would excel in its debut campaign under the Spaniard’s stewardship, it’s the Europa League. No manager in the world has a better record in Europe’s secondary continental cup competition, which Emery won in three consecutive seasons between 2014 and 2016 with Sevilla.

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Accordingly, the Gunners will find themselves traveling 2,500 miles to Baku at the end of May to face Chelsea (an epic journey for two teams who play their home matches less than 10 miles apart).

Aside from success on Thursday nights, however, Emery’s debut campaign has been one of mild frustration and disappointment for the Gunners faithful. There will be no Champions League qualification through the traditional top four means, thanks in part to a disastrous close to the campaign that has delivered only a single point in the last four league outings.

More painful for fans is the fact that there will be no “St Totteringham’s Day” (the day when Spurs can no longer mathematically finish above Arsenal) for the third consecutive season. It also cannot be ignored that their fierce North London rivals are in a rather more significant European final.

A fifth-place finish and a European final are nothing to be scoffed at in the ultra-competitive English top flight—where six teams expect to place in the top four every season—but the manner in which Emery has approached this season has caused concern among fans.

At the start of the term, the manager spent £70m on the likes of Bernd Leno, Lucas Torreira and Sokratis Papastathopoulos, while acquiring free transfer Stephan Lichtsteiner. Evidently, the intention was to improve the ailing defence—but it has ended up being the most problematic area of the field.

The Gunners have conceded 50 league goals this season (at least 11 more than any of the top four) and a stunning 34 on the road. Only five teams have conceded more on their travels, and two of them have been relegated.

Alexandre Lacazette of Arsenal and his team celebrate after the UEFA Europa League semifinal second leg match against Valencia at Estadio Mestalla on May 9, 2019 in Valencia, Spain. (Getty Images)
Alexandre Lacazette of Arsenal and his team celebrate after the UEFA Europa League semifinal second leg match against Valencia at Estadio Mestalla on May 9, 2019 in Valencia, Spain. (Getty Images)

The April run of three consecutive losses to Crystal Palace, Wolves and Leicester—where Arsenal conceded three goals to each opponent — highlighted their shortcomings. Shkodran Mustafi plays below par for a top team and Granit Xhaka doesn’t appear suited to the rigors of defensive midfield. Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Alex Iwobi seem to have an aversion to maintaining possession at times.

There is a sense that the side have been far too reliant on the fire power their star forwards Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette to paper over their issues. And to include them both in the team each week is to make concessions elsewhere on the field, particularly in wide areas.

While a manager may not necessarily be blamed for individual errors, Emery has certainly been guilty of excessive tinkering this season. He played a back three against Palace (a decision that has been widely blamed for the defeat) and switched to a back four for the defeats to Leicester and Wolves. In the next match, against Valencia, he reverted to a back three once again. The constant two-and-fro between defensive formations suggests the manager doesn’t have a clear idea of how to set up his team, nor the players he wants to execute his plans.

Emery has made tactical errors this season, and he is ultimately responsible for the motivation of the players on the field, but he is far from the biggest issue facing Arsenal Football Club.

Frankly, they are a badly run organization.

Emery has been hampered by a lack of squad depth, spurred by several seasons of underinvestment. The finger may be pointed at owner Stan Kroenke for failing to make funds available, but a huge part of the problem may also be poor contract management. It is expected that Emery will have even less available to spend this summer than last, due to an increased wage budget — Mesut Özil, for example, was made the club’s best-paid player with a new deal in January. (Whether the German has earned such a status is entirely another question.)

Heads are also being scratched by the manner in which Aaron Ramsey has been allowed to let his contract run down to join Juventus this summer. Petr Cech and Danny Welbeck are also likely to depart, which will cause further issues for squad depth.

Player recruitment and retention, however, is a secondary problem in comparison to the lack of recruitment for executive positions. Arsenal are operating without a sporting director or a head of recruitment. Former head of recruitment Sven Mislintat, who helped bring in Aubameyang, Mkhitaryan and Konstantinos Mavropanos, quit in February after 14 months in the job. It is reported that the loan arrival or Denis Suarez from Barcelona in January prompted his exit, as he was not even consulted on the deal.

Does that sound like a team that is functioning effectively at the executive level?

It was thought that Roma’s lauded sporting director Monchi would arrive at the Emirates when he left Italy in March. The former Sevilla goalkeeper would likely have established an excellent working relationship with Sevilla legend Emery, but he chose to return to the Andalusian club instead. While club loyalties may have played a part, that doesn’t speak well to Arsenal’s ability to attract top talent.

There are reports that former Gunners midfielder and current Brazil national team general manager Edu will become technical director after this summer’s Copa America. But that means he will be unlikely to have a hand in any summer transfer business, and it does not hide the fact that the club have been utterly rudderless in the recruitment department for some time. Wenger famously didn’t see the need for a technical director, preferring to oversee recruitment himself. The club have failed to move on from that setup.

Arsenal undoubtedly have problems on and off the field, but it is important to remember that it could be worse. In his first season at Liverpool, Jurgen Klopp finished eighth. Pep Guardiola finished third in his freshman Manchester City season — a disappointing placement that he admitted might have had him fired at any other big club. And Emery’s post-dynasty Arsenal has definitely performed far better than Moyes’ Manchester United.

If Arsenal aspire to compete at the very highest echelon of the game, however, they need to get their house in order from an organizational standpoint. And Emery needs to have a set of players that will allow him to tone down the tinkering and actually improve on the Wenger era.

Sadly for Gunners fans, those kind of changes aren’t likely to happen overnight.

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