Three years since Arsenal's 'rock bottom' – has anything actually changed

Three years on and it is hard to put it all into context.

It was on March 1, 2018, when Arsenal hit rock bottom under Arsene Wenger.

Arsenal lost 3-0 at home to Manchester City – just four days after they had lost to Pep Guardiola’s side in the Carabao Cup final – in front of a half empty Emirates Stadium.

The attendance was recorded as 58,420 but the reality was that it looked half that on a freezing, snowy Thursday night when the fans were in revolt.

Why? Because Arsenal had dropped down to sixth in the Premier League.

Yes, you heard correctly. Sixth place.

Arsene Wenger decided to announce his Arsenal retirement the month after slipping to sixth in the table

Now, look at the table. What Arsenal would not give to be back up to the giddy heights of a European place now.

In fairness back in 2018, Arsenal had gone out of the FA Cup to Nottingham Forest in the third round, they were still in the Europa League (eventually losing to Atletico Madrid in the semi final) but the end game had begun for Wenger.

And it is hard to remember just how poisonous it had become. Protests, calls for Arsenal’s greatest manager to go and the daily rants on Arsenal Fan TV.

How things have changed because now they laud him as a hero in social media posts. They are not, in truth, alone in changing their tune over Wenger because it was always going to be a case of appreciating the job he had done after he had gone.

To get Arsenal into the Champions League for so many years – 19 consecutive seasons – was a truly remarkable feat and you only realise what you had when it’s gone.

Arsenal seemed like they had hit their ‘rock bottom’ with the defeat

The fans clamoured for change – and they got their wish. They gave Wenger a wonderful send-off and Arsenal are onto their second permanent manager and the club is recognisable from three years ago.

Unai Emery did not do so bad when you think about it. Freddie Ljungberg had a short stint as caretaker boss but Arsenal quickly decided he was not up to the task and that speeded up their pursuit of Mikel Arteta.

Arteta is now in charge of a team in mid-table, they are out of the FA Cup, were thrashed by Manchester City in the Carabao Cup and have got the Europa League as the last hope of silverware.

A couple of weeks back, celebrity Arsenal fan Alan Davies hosted his highly entertaining Tuesday Club podcast and lambasted the state of the club right now.

Davies lamented how George Graham was never given a transition season, Wenger would never have been forgiven a mid-table finish when he took over and was very mixed on Arteta, suggesting fans might not have been so understanding had the Emirates been full.

Unai Emery came and went without significantly improving or worsening Arsenal

What is startling was there were only three players – Hector Bellerin, Granit Xhaka and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang – from that starting line-up against City to still be at the club. The likes of Petr Cech, Aaron Ramsey, Laurent Koscielny and Mesut Ozil have long since gone.

But even more remarkable has been the change at the club. Wenger’s long standing, loyal and excellent backroom staff were moved on with the manager at the end of the season.

Raul Sanllehi has long since been moved on. Ivan Gazidis put a strong structure in place at the club but then left in 2018 to join AC Milan.

For so long, Gazidis actually tried to drive change but ended up having more control at AC Milan and ultimately his methods and vision have been vindicated if you look at the Serie A table. Milan are on a very good upward path.

Vinai Venkatesham arrived as chief executive after Ivan Gazidis left for AC Milan

Vinai Venkatesham has long since taken over as chief executive. While there have been some big departures along the way like transfer fixer Dick Law, Steve Morrow – who oversaw a brilliant new generation of kids like Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith-Rowe – and a raft of highly-respected scouts like Francis Cagigao.

The club now has a very streamlined – partly in severe cutbacks and redundancies because of the pandemic – hierarchy with technical director Edu working closely with Arteta.

We often hear about Arteta’s project, vision and needing several transfer windows. But, as Davies put so eloquently through the expletives, did Graham or Wenger get such time?

Well, the answer is no. But then the last thing Arsenal need is yet more change. No-one is seriously suggesting that Arteta should be under pressure. But everyone is saying that he should be given full backing and support.

The Kroenkes, owner Stan and his son Josh, have backed the club financially in a way which is still perhaps not full appreciated by some of the fanbase.

Stan Kroenke joined the Arsenal board of directors back in 2008 and eventually assumed full control
Stan Kroenke joined the Arsenal board of directors back in 2008 and eventually assumed full control

They underwrote, for example, the record signing of Nicolas Pepe. Did something similar through last summer’s spending when reinforcements were needed and all owners have suffered huge financial losses through the pandemic.

What does underwriting mean? Well, for years Arsenal were very cautious. They had to keep money in the bank, reserve cash funds for a rainy day should they, er, finish mid-table and out of the Champions League so the club was always conservative in their transfer spending.

Now, as they head towards a mid-table finish, those cash reserves are underwritten and guaranteed and the club and squad is going through a huge rebuild.

There are certain to be more ins and outs this summer. They had a huge January… but with outgoings. Ozil, Shkodran Mustafi and Sokratis were moved on and the dressing room no longer has big earners who were not getting a look-in. That can never be healthy.

Alexandre Lacazette will only have a year left in the summer. What next for Hector Bellerin? They need new reinforcements. Should Martin Odegaard stay on after his loan from Real Madrid finishes?

Frankly, Odegaard is paying the price a little for being slotted into the team at the expense of Smith-Rowe who was playing so well in the No10 role and linking brilliantly with Saka.

Mikel Arteta has a job to do at Arsenal – including what to do with Willian

What on earth happens now for Willian? This is a player signed on a free transfer, on a three year deal with just under £200,000-a-week and yet has struggled badly for form. He is only just gone past halfway through his first year.

Yet Willian has been held up as almost as a symbol of Arsenal’s faults. You cannot blame Kia Joorabchian for bringing him to Arsenal. That’s what agents do. But should Arteta pick him ahead of Reiss Nelson? That’s the frustration.

Then David Luiz divides opinion but definitely has his qualities as a figurehead and leader in the dressing room. But again, the fans are split. All they want to see is young striker Folarin Balogun get a chance. Just like Wenger used to bring through the kids…

No it is a question of Arsenal, having had the best part of 30 years as the kings of North London and a major force in English and European football, trying to rebuild and get back to former glories.

One of the few links with the past is ironically Arteta, the former player and captain. Everyone says he is a good coach and he has the players onside. They can enjoy big wins and huge positives, like the dramatic comeback to see off Benfica and the impressive win at Leicester.

But no-one should kid themselves. The unprecedented year means no fans in stadiums, the financial hits have really hurt all clubs and patience is required from all quarters.

Arteta will clearly get this season. But is mid-table acceptable? I don’t actually think it is. Finishing in the bottom half would be unthinkable for a club like Arsenal.

The Europa League can still provide a passport into the Champions League and no-one should be under any illusions. With the plans for a new-look Champions League underway, this is not a time that even the biggest clubs can be allowed to fall from grace. You do that at your own peril.

Arteta will start next season with a clean slate, more changes in the squad and should get the 2021/22 campaign to really show he can take the club back to where it was.

But back in 2018, finishing sixth was seen as failure. There has been a lot of revisionism about Wenger since he left and maybe even his biggest sceptics will understand he did do a good job after all. (Mind you, the really bitter ones blame him for the current demise).

However, Arteta will have to show real signs of progress from here on in because full stadiums will be very welcome – but much less forgiving.


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