Seventy-eight minutes into the second leg of the Europa League semi-final between Arsenal and Villarreal on Thursday, Arsenal needing only a 1-0 win to progress to the final, Hector Bellerin delivered a perfect cross. Arsenal’s captain, Pierre Emerick Aubameyang, rose between two defenders and guided down a perfect header that beat the keeper.
Surely, this was it? The ball, beyond the keeper and every defender, cracked into the inside of the post. Instead of spinning in, it spun out. The match ended 0-0. Arsenal were out of the Europa League.
When they were among the Champions League elite for 17 consecutive seasons, Arsenal — and their fans — used to be sniffy about the Europa League. Today, even Europe’s second-tier club competition is beyond their reach. Next season, for the first time in 25 years, Arsenal will not be playing European football. They sit ninth in the league table, on course for their worst finish this century.
Arsenal, who won the league unbeaten in 2003-04 (an invincibility matched in top flight English football only by Preston North End in 1888-89), who have won more FA Cups than any other team in the land (14; Manchester United are second with 12), who have spent more consecutive seasons in the English top division than any other side, one of England’s – and Europe’s – most storied clubs, have sunk to their lowest ebb in recent memory.
How did it come to this? The immediate blame for a calamitous season must lie with the current manager, Mikel Arteta. Inexperienced, inflexible, glib and with a delusional sense of his own tactical acumen, he has led Arsenal to plumb depths they have never done in the 21st century.
But Arteta did not appoint himself. The owners and the board did. The rot starts at the very top.
The indifferent American owners, Stan and Josh Kroenke, for whom Arsenal is one among several sporting franchises, milked the revenue and looked the other way as the decline set in years ago.
The wretchedness was evident in the final years of Arsene Wenger’s long managerial tenure. Despite overseeing scattergun recruitment (such as spending more than a hundred million pounds on two strikers who could not be shoehorned into the same team without playing one out of position), lavish spending on players whom the club later had to pay to leave, building a bloated, unbalanced squad, and a slow slide towards mediocrity, Wenger clung to power.
The owners, and the board, allowed him to. Had they put their minds to it, they could have secured the services of Jurgen Klopp at this time. Wenger left only when his situation became beyond untenable. By then, the damage done was too great, the rebuild required too extensive.
Arteta’s appointment was similarly shortsighted. As is the board’s continuing support for him. It is hard to imagine any club of Arsenal’s stature keeping on a manager after a season as dismal as this one. Had the owners and the board been astute, they should have, instead of Arteta, recruited Thomas Tuchel (a manager with a formidable body of work behind him), and a man who is now working miracles at Chelsea.
Arsenal are now caught in a vicious cycle. Without European football, pandemic-hit budgets will be tighter. Without it, the club will find it difficult to attract top players or a visionary manager. Without top players and a manager with true ability, Arsenal will find it hard to make it back to European competition.
Is this the nadir? Who knows, one discovers new depths while sinking. At some point, once Arsenal hit rock bottom, the only way will seem to be up. But things may get worse before they look like getting any better.