For years, the worst thing about watching Arsenal, The Arsenal, was not the decline from being one of English football’s dominant forces to becoming the side that was routinely humiliated in big games. The fall was acceptable; football often works in cycles. What was so infuriating about Arsenal’s deterioration was their acceptance of their new role.
The now infamous line that fourth place was a trophy was uttered every time an early-season title challenge faded away by Christmas. A side of greats, such as Tony Adams, Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp, had slowly been replaced by others that were just happy to play in the Premier League – not compete to win it.
Compared to other clubs (see Sunderland, Blackpool, Leyton Orient, Rangers), the situation at Arsenal wasn’t that bad. For a team used to being at the top of the league, it was as close to a crisis as it could get. The club became a laughing stock as ‘the owner paid £500m for a new ranch while not investing in the side; opposition fans taunted the Gunners demanding that Arsene Wenger stay; Arsenal Fan TV (now AFTV) had record views on its videos; the best players wanted to leave and trips to far-flung Eastern European sides in the Europa League became more common.’
Then the tide began to change. Unai Emery arrived from PSG and set about addressing the problems immediately. After years of regression and refusal to alter the status quo, Emery has already made his mark. AFTV’s views and prominence plummeted, which for some would mean Emery’s reign has already been a success.
After years of stubbornness and a one-size-fits-all approach to transfers, Emery has signed players that the team and fans were crying out for. Lucas Torreira has added what the midfield had missed – a calm, determined aggression to win the ball back and then play forward wherever possible.
Others, like Mattéo Guendouzi and Stephan Lichtsteiner, have given the team that little nastiness that they need when the going gets tough. While Lichtsteiner hasn’t played much this season, his wiliness and experience will have their impact on younger players. His signing is so at odds with the transfer policy that preceded his arrival. It isn’t popular but it is exactly why Arsenal would lose important matches. There were no streetwise players willing to practise the dark arts to shift the odds in their favour.
The side plays with a staggering intensity. The tactics and formations are fluid. From three at the back, to two centre-forwards and a midfielder playing ‘in the hole’ further forward, Emery adapts his approach for each game. It is this pragmatism that has won matches that simply would not have been won in previous years. The dynamism and unpredictability of Emery’s side meant they strolled to victory over a dogmatic Chelsea on Saturday.
After years of apathy and acceptance, there’s a new boss in town and he will give Arsenal fans a team they can be proud of once again.