Eleven hours and very possibly a sleepless night after the worst moment of his managerial career, Mikel Arteta was asked to rake back over the debris. Arsenal have been condemned to a year in the shadows and he was left to discuss why things have gone so badly wrong after, in his words, “investing every drop of energy emotionally” in a project whose credibility is teetering on the edge. “So far it has not been enough and this is when the question mark comes: why is it not enough?” Arteta said. “Is it just a thing? Is it the manager? Is it other stuff? What is it?”
Anybody capable of boiling that down to a single factor could probably earn themselves a pretty enough penny to help Daniel Ek force his bid to unseat the Kroenkes over the line. The problem is that, while fingers will flail everywhere in search of an answer to Arsenal’s decline, it is nigh on impossible to settle on a panacea. Arteta has by all measures that matter failed this season, but anyone believing their fortunes can be reversed by trading one piece of the puzzle would overlook the doubts coursing from top to bottom.
Replace Arteta, whose job appears safe even though he could have few arguments if a change of manager was viewed as a genuine option, and what comes next? Arsenal would still be run by the Kroenkes, who remain long shots to sell up even if the harnessing of supporters’ groups and feted former players gives Ek’s approach huge popular appeal. And it would take a gigantic leap to believe the conciliatory noises emanating from the owners will be lapped up overnight.
Arsenal would also remain staffed by other individuals whose status must, as a minimum, be subjected to intense scrutiny. The chief executive, Vinai Venkatesham, is a bright and personable character who has commanded respect inside and out. Like the Kroenkes, though, he is tainted by the Super League debacle and the warmth with which senior “big six” figures are welcomed back around the top flight clubs’ table may yet hinge on personnel changes being made. It may help that Richard Garlick, formerly of the Premier League, joins as director of football operations this month and should add a measure of gravitas that has been lacking.
Venkatesham could ride out the storm but his technical director, Edu, may face a more difficult pre-season than anybody. Edu gets on well with Arteta, has an easy charm and was guaranteed credit upon his appointment in 2019 given his playing history at Arsenal. But nothing has happened in the subsequent two years to suggest he is capable of playing a role of such fundamental importance at a club that would still like to consider itself among the elite. He arrived with no upstairs experience in European football and that lack of nous has been exposed.
While there have been a handful of clear successes on his watch, such as the signing of Kieran Tierney and an important new contract for Bukayo Saka, Arsenal’s transfer outlay has generally provided appalling value for money and there is little to say things will improve. Edu was happy to take plaudits for securing Thomas Partey, a high-quality operator but still disappointing overall in an injury-blighted first season, from Atlético Madrid in October but the Ghanaian had long been lined up by a scouting regime that was hollowed out last August.
Since then Arsenal’s recruitment network has, as Edu put it in September, encompassed “less people with much more responsibilities”. Perhaps his new model will unearth the right additions this summer in a market that looks impossibly crowded for a club with no continental excursions to offer; if not then it is hard to see why Arsenal would resist installing a more seasoned operator in his place.
Only Tierney, Smith Rowe, Saka and presumably Partey can feel especially secure over the coming months
All of this is to ignore a playing squad that divides opinion. Are Arsenal far less than the sum of their parts or is this really their weakest group of players in a generation? Arteta has made clear that there will be changes ahead and it is probably no exaggeration to say only Tierney, Emile Smith Rowe, Saka and presumably Partey can feel especially secure over the coming months.
It is fair, though, to ask how many purges a manager needs to undertake. This season Mesut Özil, Sokratis Papastathopoulos, Sead Kolasinac, Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Lucas Torreira were all, to some extent or other, moved on to little dissent, but that quintet was still good enough to help an Unai Emery-led team cruise past Valencia in the Europa League semi-finals two years ago. Arteta’s squad remains unbalanced and he could certainly use better quality, rather than the existing quantity, in central defence and wide areas. He is asking for more time and patience to complete his rebuild but the point will come when an end product needs, as a minimum, to be visible on the horizon.
The picture, then, is an intensely muddled one. Nobody in a key position at Arsenal stands out as a high performer and that breeds the kind of situation in which mistakes are allowed to ferment. Who, among the present leadership, will raise their voice and bang heads together? Removing the Kroenkes would rip off the plaster and Ek – who hopes to formalise his offer next week after opting not to deflect pre-match attention from the Villarreal tie – may yet make some headway if supporters decide their wallets cannot tolerate one letdown too many. But even if Arsenal do end up in new hands, the list of weaknesses Ek inherits would be enough to make even a tech billionaire turn pale.
“I think everybody’s job is under scrutiny,” Arteta said in a terse, awkward press conference after full time on Thursday night. That is unarguable but Arsenal must find a way to get the tough decisions right if their fall is to be arrested.