You have a broom. You replace the brush, and then you replace the handle. And you do that, over and over again. So the question is, is it the same broom?
A lot has changed at Arsenal Football Club in the last two years. Arsène Wenger, having first taken his seat in the Arsenal dugout in 1996, departed the club after a 22-year spell in charge. He left as the longest-serving and most successful manager in the club’s history, but those final years were tough. Empty seats, players running down contracts, the ever-growing unrest spilling into the stands where Arsenal fans were, on occasion, literally fighting one another. Outside the Emirates, you could hear fans calling for Wenger’s head at protest marches – begging the club to make a change in the form of a chorus of ‘‘we want our Arsenal back’’.
Eventually, the fans pleas were answered, and in the summer of 2018, Unai Emery, the antithesis to the departing Wenger, arrived at the club. If Wenger was known for his free-flowing football, Emery was famous for his constant and meticulous video analysis. By early October, eight games into the Spaniard’s debut Premier League season, his new side were in the middle of a 22 game unbeaten run, and it appeared as if Emery, at the very least, was beginning to add an element of steel to the North London side. It was during this game, away at Fulham’s Craven Cottage, where after a majestic end to end move, reminiscent of the kind of football played during Wenger’s heyday at the club, that culminated in a goal from a deft backheel, something special happened. The Arsenal fans, after years of division, came together in song – ‘‘we’ve got out Arsenal back’’.
Football can change quickly however, and by the end of his first season at the helm, doubts were beginning to creep in over whether the former Paris Saint-Germain manager was the right man for the job. In the business end of the season, his side appeared to step politely out of the way in the race for a top-four spot, and suffered defeat to Chelsea in the final of the Europa League with a dismal display in Baku. Despite this, a summer transfer window that saw a number of new arrivals in Islington, including the signing of Nicholas Pepe from Lille for a club-record fee, meant a feeling of optimism emerged amongst the Arsenal faithful.
In stark contrast to the beginning of life as Arsenal manager, the 2019/20 Premier League season, comprehensively covered on the Sportsbet football news portal, saw Emery endure The Gunners’ worst start in 37 years. The club hierarchy initially came out in full support of their manager, while sixteen prominent supporters’ groups and bloggers signed a statement calling for urgent action, describing the club as “rudderless”. During his time in charge, Emery used more players, and made more substitutions before the beginning of the second half, than any other team. The Spaniard made thirty-five changes by this stage of the game, while Liverpool and Manchester City, in the same time period, both only made seven. At the outset of his reign, these changes represented a willingness to adapt to each and every situation decisively. In this final months, they resembled the actions of a man desperately scrambling around in the dark, trying to find the right team selection, the right formation, the right balance between attack and defence – throwing every possible option and combination at the wall to see what sticks.
A now all-too-familiar cloud has once again formed over the Emirates stadium, a structure that with each passing year reminds fans of the Arsenal old. The club said goodbye to the hallowed Highbury grounds in 2006 for pastures new, and while fans understand the financial incentives of the move to a 60,000 capacity multi-purpose venue, they can’t hep but feel that a part the club’s soul was surgically removed. Fans have now witnessed two managers leave in the club in eighteen months. The past summer saw the return and promotion of some familiar faces, Edu as technical director and the promotion of fan favourite Freddie Ljungberg to the first team, first as assistant and now interim head coach. A football club needs to move with the times, but they also need to take care of what they have built. There appears to be two options for the Arsenal board at present, to continue to replace both the brush and handle with those who understand the values and traditions of the club, or risk creating a broom that now longer resembles The Arsenal.