How long will it take for Arsenal to become Arsenal again? Three decent wins against Norwich, Burnley and Wimbledon are not enough. The club hierarchy hopes we will see the best of Mikel Arteta’s team by the end of the season. But more likely we are for the long term, the slow rebuilding.
Sunday’s derby in north London is far too early to set the season, but its importance can hardly be overstated. Arsenal have recovered from their worst start in history and a win would feel like a full-blown crisis properly averted. Clubs – managers, players, fans and even directors – can live for weeks on the dopamine hit of a derby win. Yet that would be superficial. The foundations of this reconstruction are fragile.
In a way, it reminds of another era after Patrick Vieira and Thierry Henry left in 2005 and 2007 respectively. The new stadium had to be paid for and there were eight long seasons without a trophy as Arsene Wenger preached patience on a weekly basis for a mischievous young team, including the burgeoning talents of Cesc Fabregas, Robin van Persie and Samir Nasri, and that perpetually nearly good enough. Almost.
The importance of Arsenal’s game against Tottenham can hardly be overstated
Arsenal have recovered from their worst-ever start, but are still poised for a slow rebuild
The difference was that the team finished third and fourth in the Premier League and entered the Champions League (they reached the final in 2006 and the semi-final in 2009, before settling for the last 16 as the limit of their ambition) . At times they seemed to threaten for the title, such as in 2008 and 2014.
Wenger would argue that they finally got there with those multiple FA Cup victories at the end of his career, which began in 2014, driven over the line by luxury signings from Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil. But most would say they never quite regained the identity of the original Arsenal teams under Wenger, characterized by Tony Adams, Martin Keown, Dennis Bergkamp, Vieira and Henry, a team that can hurt you just as much physically as with his skills.
The infamous Ruud van Nistelrooy-Keown confrontation at Old Trafford turned 18 this weekend. Ancient history actually. The Roy Keane-Vieira spat in 2005. Different times.
Arsenal board doubled down on Arteta by spending £149million over the summer period
This summer, the board doubled their stake on Arteta with £149 million, mainly spent on potential in Ben White, Martin Odegaard. Aaron Ramsdale, Takehiro Tomiyasu, Albert Lokonga and Nuno Tavares. Jumping in on red in the middle of a losing run is a bold strategy, at the risk of another spin of the wheel. Arsenal have finished no lower than eighth since 1995, twice their finishing position in 21 months under Arteta.
If there was any doubt after their worst ever start to a campaign where they were bottom after three games, they are gone. The boardroom message this week is genuinely enthusiastic about Arteta and his young accusers. The key decision makers are Stan and Josh Kroenke and their London representative is Tim Lewis, with Lord Harris of Peckham representing the link to the past.
Their money is now all in on Arteta, 39, in his first managerial job, Edu, 43, in his first role as technical director in Europe and Vinai Venkatesham, 40, in his first appointment as chief executive. That team is just as raw as that on the field. And only Lord Harris in the boardroom would truly understand the ebb and flow of football over decades.
Losses to last season’s fanless campaign are likely to be around £158 million, in line with other clubs. This season’s transfers are likely to have been financed using low-interest overdraft facilities, although the club has not received confirmation as the Kroenke family remains behind the club. Still, the club cannot handle this kind of spending every summer, especially not without European football.
The money from the board of directors is all in on people like new manager Arteta and technical director Edu
And the Kroenkes have a lot of work to do to regain confidence. Twice they have disastrously linked Arsenal to breakout projects, in Project Big Picture and the European Super League. The club’s football achievements hardly deserve their inclusion in a self-selected elite. Their errors of judgment in those matters were huge, even though they were shared by their peers at other clubs.
That said, there is genuine enthusiasm and optimism at the board level about the project the club is embarking on. High-ranking sources confirm that the club supports Arteta and his young accusers. It’s clear that Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe were excited about their breakthroughs, but Tomiyasu, Tavares and Lokonga also impressed. Odegaard’s leading role last weekend was clear.
The messages are now for the long term. You suspect the sixth this season seems like a minor success. It would be enough to mark progress under Arteta, although it would have been unimaginably bad under Wenger.
Arteta talked on Friday about those glory days, the double-winning teams that could kick you off the park, or, if you chose to make it a battle, kicked you into the stands.
“That was another generation of fantastic payers that made a history in those clashes,” he said, recalling the Keown-Vieira confrontational spirit that once existed. “It was phenomenal to see from the outside, because it was about passion and competition.”
Arteta hates the fact that over time Arsenal has become synonymous with a team that is gentle. He has vowed to change that. “Every time we’re on the pitch we have to do it for ourselves because we know that’s the basic principle of competing in every game. And hopefully after that people will become convinced that we can do that. We’ve done it in the past as I’ve been here with other managers in previous years. We have maintained that belief that we can do it.’
The club supports Arteta and young chargers such as Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe
Arteta was also realistic on Friday, saying he felt the quality of the Premier League made it the best ever and that he would have a hard time playing in it himself, which may be false modesty, but his point was well made. The top four is harder than ever.
Arsenal desperately need this current round of recruitment to do well. They think they have leaders and game changers. About Lokonga, 21, Arteta comments: ‘He was already captain of Anderlecht and that does not happen by chance. He’s all set to play.”
About Tomiyasu: ‘We all believe he has the right qualities, both personally and professionally, to fit our culture and way of playing.’ Then there are the homegrown children, such as Saka. ‘[The Euros was an] incredible experience for him and he made the most of it. It was clear that he was a little less physically active because he didn’t have a pre-season, but he is in really good shape at the moment. He is a happy, humble and sweet boy – we want to help him as best we can.’
Sunday’s North London derby is unlikely to sell out, which was unimaginable at the time
But there is no denying that Arsenal is not what it used to be. Sunday’s derby in north London is unlikely to sell out. A hundred such Club Level seats, the most expensive in the middle row, will probably be available, previously unimaginable.
There are mitigating factors, the most important of which is the economic uncertainty caused by Covid. But this is also an Arsenal without European football, let alone Champions League football. Wenger always made the point that the club could only justify top-level awards because they played top-level football. That link has been broken.
Beating Tottenham won’t fix it, although it will make everyone feel a lot better about the future. In reality, some games coming out next month will tell us more: Brighton (away), Aston Villa (home), Leicester (away). These are the up-and-coming clubs approaching and, in the case of Leicester, surpassing Arsenal. Beat those teams and you could believe in some sort of renaissance. But if Arsenal struggle to get results against those aspiring clubs, poised to push them into the top six, the trajectory will definitely look flat.