Where has Arsenal gone? An American investigates.

Courtesy of Getty Images

I left for my final year of college the week that Arsenal endured its worst loss in recent memory. Well, that I could remember, anyway.

An 8–2 thrashing at the hands of hated rivals Manchester United—at Old Trafford, to boot—was the final nail in the coffin of a troublesome narrative that had been building. After years spent jockeying with the Red Devils for titles and trophies, Sir Alex Ferguson’s side had vaulted past the Gunners into a state of domestic—and to a slightly lesser extent, international—supremacy.

Three days later, Arsène Wenger, for so many years steadfastly thrifty in the transfer market, acceded to pressure to significantly strengthen his side. In came a rash of reinforcements headlined by midfielder Mikel Arteta and Per Mertesacker, a defender.

For last-minute additions to the club, it is interesting that Arteta and Mertesacker, both of whom were then in the latter halves of their careers, made Arsenal their home. They have both taken coaching positions within the club. (Arteta as manager; Mertesacker presides over the Academy.) They both avidly profess their love for Arsenal, the way it remains a cut above other professional environments—a sentiment oft-repeated during Wenger’s tenure at the club. Many players who left for greener pastures often bemoaned their decision. It is one of Wenger’s greatest achievements, to my mind—and I firmly believe it had a direct effect on Arsenal’s cohesive on-field play.

I fell in love with Arsenal because of that silky style. For anyone needing some walks down memory lane, which has become an increasingly important refuge during this interminable period of performative malaise, I highly recommend “Wengerball” videos on YouTube.

Whatever it was that Wenger did to make Arsenal an inviting environment—one hearkens to the kind of Mes Que Un Club (More Than a Club) message seen on Barcelona’s kit—players feeling that it was a home away from home, particularly when they were foreigners arriving in a new country, it worked.

Since Arteta returned to Arsenal as its new manager late last year—the second since Wenger retired in 2018—he has seemed determined to continue what his predecessor, Unai Emery, attempted in the little more than a year he was at the club. Drill Arsenal into a cohesive unit. Shore up its oft-porous defense.

In the three years he spent as assistant manager to Pep Guardiola at Manchester City, one would imagine that Arteta closely followed the Gunners’ fortunes in Wenger’s final years—not to mention when he helped preside over City’s matches against them.

What he would have seen were more of the implosions in big matches he suffered all too frequently as a player for Arsenal, before watching a few more as an opposing coach. For all of its brilliance in attack, Arsenal was forever unbalanced—never able to create the consistent approach necessary to win a league title. Gone was the game management the Invincibles had honed to perfection during their perfect league campaign (26 wins, 12 draws, 0 losses during the ‘03–04 season). Those Gunners could turn on the style when needed, but they also knew how to grind out results.

That quality was rarely seen in Wenger’s final years at the club, when the silverware slowed to a trickle. I vividly remember a 2–0 win away to Manchester City in the winter of the 2014–15 season. It was, by all accounts, a well-managed, professional approach on the road. I had to double-take. A disciplined display. We talking the same Arsenal?

From BBC’s match report of the 2–0 Arsenal victory

Alas, those kinds of performances proved the exception, not the rule. Emery, who took over for Wenger ahead of the ‘18–19 season as the club’s first new manager in 22 years, brought that disciplined approach. A few months into his second season in charge, he’d lost the team, and was soon dismissed.

Arteta breathed new life into the side. Here was an Arsenal man, who was going to restore the side to supremacy and reimplement the swashbuckling style not seen for months. Arteta, at the outset, appeared able to merge stringent defensive discipline with attacking intent. That balance, however, has disappeared. Arsenal look listless in attack once more.

The worry, now that Arsenal has lost three consecutive home matches, including a particularly dreary 2–1 defeat to Wolverhampton on Sunday, is that by focusing so fully upon defense, Arteta, like Emery before him, has sapped the side of any sense of attacking intent.

Before, when Arsenal endured a barren patch, with toothless displays (normally away from home, against teams that defended doggedly and hit out on the counterattack) that threatened to become the norm, they’d reel you back in with a breathtaking display. That’s the best way I can describe Arsenal—barreling forward in attack, overwhelming defenses with blissfully crisp passing and pinpoint finishing. They made you forget about the tedium of life and reminded you that there is something better. In many ways, that’s art.

I find my love for Arsenal slipping away, but that might just be down to the way sport as a whole has suffered of late. It’s a microcosm of life in the midst of Coronavirus. Everything as it was, I guess—but the experience always diminished.

Going out to eat, and constantly looking over your shoulder and adjusting your mask between sips of wine and bites of food. Watching games set to the eerie backdrop of empty stadiums that compensate for the lack of spectators by pumping in crowd noise over expensive speaker systems. (Though that is changing; beginning with Arsenal’s next game on Thursday, 2,000 fans will be allowed into the Emirates Stadium. For perspective, it has a 60,000 capacity.)

The compressed season has seen an uptick in injuries and an increasing sense of dissatisfaction and malaise among coaches and players alike. Into all this is a project at Arsenal that Arteta says will take time. For me, it’s too late. I don’t recognize the team I see out on the pitch. Every player I associated with embodying the Arsenal way has been sent away.

For years, Arsenal watched its best players leave in search of silverware. Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey were part of a young generation that came up during its most trying epoch, and despite the frustrations, remained loyal to the club. They were dead-set upon bringing it back to glory. They overcame terrible injuries to do so. Then, once Wenger left, they were promptly made surplus to requirements.

That cut deeply to my sense of justice, but it was a good reminder that Arsenal is run like a business. Without Wenger’s human touch, it is cold and unfeeling. Don’t mind me if I look elsewhere in sport to get my fix.

That’s part of the privilege of following an English soccer team from across the Atlantic. You have none of the loyalty requirements I’d endure had I been born in or around London. I can come and go as I please. So I leave in search of something better.

Game of life, with a twist—and shout. Twitter: @alleywhoops

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