Arsenal's 3 New Year's Resolutions
Let's start this off with something that I'm pretty certain no one else has said on any media platform this year. Certainly no one I've seen. The pithy, biting social commentary you're about to read, the rhetorical nature of which will leave you quaking at quite how the author can be so succinct, yet say everything in 8 words, comes out of the blue, purely from my own musings and a lot of scholarly thought, the likes and depths of which have never been seen before and will probably never be seen again. You'll close your laptop or lock your screen and stare into the abyss, wondering if anything will ever be the same again. Ok, here goes. Don't say I didn't warn you.
2020 has been a bit shit, hasn't it?
Finally, someone gets it.
2020 has been so shit it has become an adjective. An invisible virus grips the globe, and in the UK, an incompetent government flying by the seat of their pants decide whether they want votes or to save lives. Hospitals are overrun, pretty much everything is cancelled, and despite there being a vaccine on the horizon, cases and deaths in England rise to record numbers. So 2020.
Amidst all this though, somehow, football in the UK (more specifically the Premier League) has been played consistently since Lockdown 1.0. I'm not complaining. Football has kept me going through this dismal year. Something to look forward to. Hell, our podcast and this blog probably wouldn't exist without Covid-19. Now you have to hear our shit football takes as well as wear a mask everywhere; can this disease get any worse?!
But as sure as night follows day, Arsenal Football Club carries on. In a topsy-turvy year, it would have been rude of us to not have a topsy-turvy time of it too I say, out of respect to the outside world... right? Despite some positives; 2 bits of silverware, young players finding their feet and some great moments, an 8th placed finish, another year in the Europa League, a bloated, issue-ridden and unbalanced squad and a tragic run of form in recent times finding us in 13th at time of writing does sort of reflect the times. This blog isn't really looking back on 2020 though, partly because I don't want to, but mainly because I want to look forward now. And I hope you'll come with me.
In the same way that the next result is always the most important, 2021 feels like as high a stakes year as ever for Arsenal, if not the highest in living memory. We are at genuine risk of falling out of the group of Europe's elite level clubs. We require serious squad churn. We are operating on a Champions League wage budget with Europa League level results. We've seen change at executive level at an unprecedented (new word I made up) level, leaving an inexperienced, young team at the helm. We have multiple pressing contract situations. We are underperforming on the pitch. The ongoing situation means match day revenue is down. So 2020.
All true. And yet I feel positive.
After Arsenal's 2-1 loss to Everton, and before, there were those that would have told you that the Arteta project is done, sack him, sack Edu, cancel Willian's contract, sell the Emirates, hire a hitman for Stan Kroenke, delete the club, etc. I'm not defending the club. They've made some stupid, avoidable errors. But in the same way that results and fine margins in football decide everything, all of these issues can turn on a sixpence within a week, a day, a result, the touch of a football or the dart of an eye.
What's key now is moving forward with purpose, precision and ruthlessness, and here are (in my opinion) the 3 most important issues for Arsenal to iron out in 2021, leaving 2020 in the dust behind them.
3. Consistency at management level
Since Arsene left in the summer of 2018, the club has either lost, or signed then lost: our Head of Football (Raul Sanllehi), Contract Negotiator (Huss Fahmy), Chief Exec (Ivan Gazidis), Head of Recruitment (Sven Mislintat), Manager (Unai Emery), Assistant Manager (Freddie Ljungberg), Senior Scouts (Francis Cagigao, Peter Clarke, Brian McDermott), and countless other changes in the background as widely publicised, and I'm sure things I'm missing that we're not privy to. Add to that change those we've signed: New Head Coach (now Manager) Mikel Arteta, Vinai's new position, Edu as technical director, Ben Knapper as loan manager, new coaches Carlos Cuesta and Miguel Molina, new physio Bruno Mazzioti etc. etc.
That's a long list for just 2.5 years.
Of course, not all change is bad, but Arsenal announcing Head of Football Raul Sanllehi would be leaving the club mid way through a transfer window in August is probably the perfect microcosm for this, and outlines the reasons why I think this is a priority. A key figure leaving at exactly the wrong time, regardless of what you think of his work or why he might have left, meaning inexperienced people at the helm with another change in structure, leaving lack of clarity on roles and responsibilities. You wonder whether the Saliba situation might have been sorted if this hadn't happened, for example, and the paperwork would have been sorted in time. You wonder if the Folarin Balogun situation might have been tied up.
We simply have to find some consistency at management and board level. In order to know what's going on at the club, where to apportion blame, to build up relationships with other clubs, to identify problems, find out who is responsible for what, to carry out a vision etc.
Results will decide whether this current set up gets time, as always, and there's talk of a new contracts person to replace Huss Fahmy and maybe a new head to come in over Arteta and Edu on the football side. More change. Change and fresh ideas are always welcome, but it's clear that this change needs to, as it does on the football pitch, be overseen by experienced heads, out of necessity and with the right recruitment strategy. As fans and as a club, responsibilities and roles need to be clear, so any problems are ironed out swiftly and clearly.
I mean, who the fuck signed Willian?! Raul? Edu? Arteta? The tea lady? Who signed off on it? Raul left the day after we announced it.
Communication is also key in this. The club are getting better at this and Edu has done some good work on this side with some good messages to fans, but there is room for improvement. People are happy to be in "one process" to quote Unai Emery, as long as there is a clear strategy.
The journey is long, but if we're constantly changing drivers, cars and roads, we'll never get to where we need to be. It's also clear (in my opinion) that getting the right people (crucially) in the right positions and then (most crucially) giving them time, gets results more than it doesn't. I realise that's a lot of qualifiers, but look at Liverpool, look at Man City, look at Bayern, look at the Red Bull strategy. They have financial clout that we don't, but those principles are great bench marks. The right people, with time, leads to success.
Let's give this current executive team the benefit of that time to see if we're heading down the right roads.
2. Be smarter in the market and at home
As outlined in James McNicholas and David Ornstein's fantastic Athletic article, Edu is making radical change in the scouting department, changing to a more analytical and statistical focus, with some scouts still remaining. We'll be looking to identify players first and foremost out of necessity of position in terms of our squad, as well as finding 'look-a-like' players to fit our needs. With the current Covid situation, scouts out in the field aren't as necessary, but there appears to be an appetite to increase 'in-the-field' numbers when there are less restrictions. As with all change at the club, it will be a few years and a number of transfer windows before we can adequately assess how this has affected things, but it's clear our recruitment strategy has been a bit suspect in recent years. For every Auba and Martinelli, there's a Lucas Perez and a Mustafi. Our hit rate has got to be better, and pulling more in line with modern clubs in terms of analysis of data seems like a good sign to me.
As part of that, we need to be smarter in the market, both in terms of selection of players to bring in, and how we handle situations we have with contracts and the value of players that we have - basic asset management. We need to stop getting bullied by players, agents and other clubs. That can work both ways too. Sometimes, just pay the player's brother the £m he wants!
It's done to to death, but we all know we got no value from Welbeck, Ramsey, Wilshere, Alexis et al. That administration and its catastrophic errors are now gone, and we have to look forward and learn those lessons. I am seeing encouraging signs with the contracts of Saka and Martinelli, and I'm actually of the opinion that even though Auba signed a new deal, he may not be here that long and we've protected the asset.
In terms of smartness of selection, we're a club that rarely picks up players at cut price deals from relegated clubs, for example. Regardless of whether we sign him now, Emi Buendia ranked 4th for chances created in the Premier League last season behind only Grealish, TAA and De Bruyne. There wasn't even a whisper that we'd look at signing him last summer that I saw, nothing concrete anyway, despite us crying out for a player in his mould and publicly admitting it. He's the right side of the age curve, and would have been available for a really reasonable fee. I'm not saying Emi Buendia is the answer to our prayers, or even that we should have done it, but we do have a tendency to not make 'smart' moves like that for market value to balance the books, and I can't remember, with the exceptions of Guendouzi and Martinelli, any really smart moves like that the club have made in recent years.
For a club that can't compete financially at the top in the current model, I'd like to see us doing more deals like that, looking at players like Bissouma, like Aarons from Norwich, like looking at the French TV deal collapse and seeing what we can do there with a Soumare or a Jonathan David. Smart players and smart deals. With Brexit soon impacting things too, this is even more important.
We can't afford any more mistakes. Literally and metaphorically speaking.
Contract situations with the likes of Folarin Balogun, Lacazette etc. must be sorted to protect assets. Despite him being one of the worst centre backs I've ever seen in my life, we've again extracted no value from a 28 year old World Cup winner Shkodran Mustafi. Sokratis will go on a free. Özil too. We need to be better, and I hope we will be moving forward. It has to be a priority.
1. Squad balance & harmony - do the easy stuff!
This might seem a strange one to go as no. 1, but trust me.
We have 17 centre backs on professional deals. Imagine the effect a squad that big has on the players as individuals. As Arteta has spoken about literally today, it's important to get some players out before we can get more in, obviously in terms of squad registration, but to me it's more important in regards to morale and competition around Colney and the club.
Dealing with the mess of the previous administration can sometimes feel like a Sisyphean task, but we have to do it.
This is a group of players that has been hurt, and is fractured. Things like the Özil situation, the Saliba situation, Willian going to Dubai with no clear punishment publicly, the handling of the red card situations of Gabriel v Pepe... these will create divisions around the club, and we've seen that come out. It will create cliques. It will create player disagreement. If you know you're 7th choice CB and the manager hasn't looked at you in 3 weeks as he's got so many other players to deal with, why would you be motivated in training? It's on the millionaire players of course, but at some point you have to consider the environment.
We have to find some squad harmony by getting the numbers down and getting rid of toxic characters and situations.
We can also be better at the messaging. I'd love to link the episode, but it was a recent Arsenal Vision Podcast episode where Tim Stillman and Elliot Smith did a great bit about how messaging is free. We can control the assets in a different way by saying we want Saliba, he's just not ready at the moment. Why be silent? Who cares if it's a lie and Arteta doesn't fancy him? We need to be smarter and change the perception of Arsenal from a club in disarray you can take advantage of, to a club on the up with smart ideas and a group of young, ambitious executives at the helm. That perception is so important.
Stopping private things on the training ground and around the club get out too, despite in my opinion it being a symptom of squad bloating, again, is free. These things have got to be addressed.
A happy group of players is going to play better, and fight for the manager, and fight for every ball. That is free. And it's the minimum we can do, especially with a club whose owners appear less interested in funding us directly and prefer a self sustaining model (although that may be changing following their cash injection for Partey). We can try to be the fittest, most mentally resilient and tight squad possible. You see the difference in energy from the young, hungry players on the pitch in recent weeks, and that's surely what we need to aim for.
Ok. That's all for now. Thanks for reading - Happy New Year, and here's to a much better 2021 for us all.