Thursday, 03 December 2020 05:34

[OPINION] Relegation blues for Arsenal FC - Ehi Braimah

 

After Arsenal FC, the North London Club founded in 1886 suffered a third straight loss at The Emirates to Leicester (0- 1), Aston Villa (0 – 3) and Wolverhampton Wanderers (1 – 2), I reached out to Nurudeen Obalola, a versatile sports reporter and contributor to Naija Times, to get his views on the matter. The string of losses and lack of purpose by the team had become a source of pain for Gunners. By the way, Obalola is a Manchester United fan just like my Rotarian brother Ayo Banjo; they pride themselves as “Red Devils”. They have their Uruguayan striker, Edinson Cavani, 33, to thank for their last match against Southampton when Man U practically snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. Man U won the match 2 – 3 after being two goals down at half time.

 

Arsenal’s loss to Wolves last Sunday cost a football fan in Kenya his life, according to a report in The Standard Newspaper published in Kenya. The middle-aged man was hit on the head with a stone after mocking Arsenal fans. The group was watching the live match and you know how football fans tease one another usually followed by heated arguments. According to the newspaper, the argument degenerated into name-calling and the deceased was attacked after being chased out of the bar that the friends were drinking at Kinamba Centre along Naivisha-Kirima Road in Nakuru. An eye-witness account revealed that the deceased was left bleeding in the head after the attack and he died afterwards. This was clearly an unfortunate tragedy, and the lesson is that football fans must learn to manage their emotions and avoid violent attacks, no matter the circumstance.

 

Maybe it is too early to say Arsenal will not do well this season after only 10 matches out of 38. Can Arsenal bounce back this season? Presently, the team is languishing at the 14th position on the table and some fans with “weak hearts” now avoid watching the live games. It is evident that the Club’s changing fortune is reflective of the lack of competitive spirit that Arsenal was always known for. To date, the club has won 13 league titles (including one unbeaten title); a record 14 FA Cups, two League Cups, 16 FA Community Shields, the League Centenary Trophy, one European Cup Winners’ Cup, and one Inter-Cities Fairs Cup.

 

The day Arsenal lost to Wolves at The Emirates (last Sunday) marked the first anniversary of Unai Emery’s departure, the immediate past manager, who was subsequently replaced by Mikel Arteta. After the third straight home loss to Wolves, you could imagine the state of mind of Gunners around the world. Ian Wright, an attacking forward who scored 185 goals for Arsenal out of 288 games during his heydays, struggled to review the outcome of the match on television; it was a difficult task. His body language betrayed his emotions but he had to put on a straight face to get the job done.

 

Right now, Arsenal does not appear capable of challenging for the Premier League title. In the last six league matches, Arsenal scored only twice, won one game and lost four. “What do you think is happening to Arsenal FC,” I asked Obalola. “It is too early to write off Arsenal,” he told me confidently. “Arsenal has a way of bouncing back. They used to fight for titles when Arsene Wenger first arrived in 1996 and they won the league three times between 1998 and 2004,” Obalola continued. “Those were exciting moments and glory days for the owners, management, players and fans of the club.”

 

Subsequently, Arsenal became a club that was fighting to remain among the top four to qualify for the Champions League. They have dropped further to become the club struggling to compete in the Europa League and their current standing is indicative of a team that is a shouting distance from relegation zone. If the losses continue, we should not rule out the possibility of Arsenal being relegated to the lower league. It is, however, a remote possibility because the heritage of the club may yet be the motivation and tonic required to lift the team into the top 10 – not top four going by the current form -- of the league table.

 

Manchester City appears to be suffering the same fate as they are 11th on the log but trust them to be among the top teams at the end of the season – Man City often displays character, purpose and a tenacity to win when they play their brand of attacking football. My wife is a fan of Pep Guardiola, their coach; because she believes Pep is a great tactician although we are all Gunners in my family.

 

The aforementioned league titles were won during the 1997/1998 and 2001/2002 seasons as well as during the 2003/2004 invincible season; that record remains unbeaten till date. During that season, the team went unbeaten in their 38 league matches – they won 26 games and drew 12. It was the first time a team will go through an entire football season without a defeat in English top flight football since Preston North End did it in the 1888/1889 season. Preston’s season was however shorter; they played 22 matches, winning 18 and drawing four. In Arsenal’s unbeaten season, they scored 73 goals and conceded 26 in the league. Thierry Henry was the league’s top scorer with 30 goals and the Arsenal team had shining stars like Lauren Meyer, Sol Campbell, Ashley Cole, Patrick Vierra and Robert Pires who were all named in the Premier League Team of the Year. Arsenal had six players out of 11.

 

Since Mikel Arteta became the minder of Arsenal in December last year, the club has played 45 matches in all competitions with 25 wins, nine draws and 11 defeats; 70 goals have been scored and 41 conceded. The goal drought being suffered by Arsenal’s forward and top striker, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, is giving Arteta a disturbing headache; it is more like a migraine actually. With his current subdued performance, the Gunners captain may leave the club at the end of the season despite signing a fresh three-year contract.

 

Auba has scored only two goals in 10 Premier League matches this season began. He has scored only one non-penalty goal this season in the league, which he got against Fulham on September 12 in a 3 – 0 win. His other league goal was against Manchester United from the penalty spot in a 0 – 1 win at Old Trafford on November 1. Auba has now played three matches without scoring, and nine matches without scoring a non-penalty goal.

 

Auba scored 22 goals in the Premier League in 2019/2020, and 29 goals in 44 matches in all competitions. He scored 22 goals in 36 Premier League matches in 2018/2019, 31 goals in 51 matches in all competitions. In half season in the Premier League in 2017/2018, he scored 10 goals in just 13 matches after joining Arsenal in January. Auba’s goal drought can be attributed to two factors: Arteta’s defensive tactics and the fact that he plays wide on the left flank instead of playing as centre forward, his natural position. 

 

The last time Arsenal was relegated was in 1919 while the worst finish in the Premier League era since 1992/1993 was 12th position in 1994/1995. The worst finish under Arsene Wenger in 22 seasons was 6th position in 2017/2018 – his final season. Wenger won the league title three times: 1997/1998, 2001/2002, 2003/2004; came second six times, third five times, fourth six times, fifth once and sixth once.

 

Under Unai Emery, Arsenal finished fifth in his one full season -- 2018/2019. In the 2019/2020 season when Arteta took over from Emery in the middle of the campaign, Arsenal finished eight, their worst final position in 25 years. Arsenal’s general form is also mainly due to Arteta being more cautious than his predecessors and the team lacking creativity in the midfield; it explains why the team is struggling to score.

 

In the past, the club’s prolific strikers such as Ian Wright, Thierry Henry and Robin van Persie were supported by the following creative and roving midfield dynamos respectively: Robert Pires, Freddy Lunjberg and Cesc Fabregas. In this golden era, Arsenal displayed more of their attacking strength because, in football, goals make the difference. Arteta, on the other hand, is more intent on stopping opponents from scoring and it is hurting the side. Arteta should convert Arsenal into an attacking team. To be fair to Arteta, he has ignited passion among the players and brought back the fighting spirit. But the club needs to re-invent itself with a solid bench and create a new attacking flair.

 

The owners of Arsenal, it seems, are not interested in improving the prospects of the club and it also does not look like they are keen to win the Premier League title or the Champions League. When you see the determination to win displayed by Tottenham Hotspurs, Liverpool, Leister, Wolves, Aston Villa, Everton, Man City and Chelsea, you begin to wonder why Arsenal is no longer a fighting force. Stan Kroenke is an American billionaire businessman and owner of Kroenke Sports & Entertainment, which is the holding company of Arsenal. Kroenke probably sees Arsenal as just one of his prized assets but he should understand that the North London Club is a popular global football brand with a large community of passionate devotees, just like his Los Angeles Rams, a professional American football team, that took part in Super Bowl last year.

 

Arsenal fans have continued criticise the club owners for lack of adequate funding and aggressiveness to buy quality players in the transfer window every year. Even when there are attempts to spend on players, poor choices and wrong investments are made. How do we explain a situation whereby Mesut Ozil who is on 350,000 Pounds a week does not play for the team or when the club spent 72 million Pounds on Nicholas Pepe instead of signing a defender at the time? The approach is essentially panic buying, rushing to buy players when the transfer window is about to close – a case of last minute dot com.

 

However, with the arrival of Arteta, it appears there is an improvement with handling players’ transfers and contracts. If it were before, Auba would have been allowed to leave the club for a princely sum but he signed a new contract to stay although his form has dropped lately. Arsenal failed to keep their top players in the past, preferring to sell them off for a profit and replacing them with young players from the feeder team. We have had bad contract management scenarios where the players were allowed to leave for rival clubs for next to nothing. The examples of Robin Van Persie and Alexis Sanchez readily come to mind – both of them ended up at Manchester United.

 

Two Arsenal fans who are as worried as me are my sons: Ose and Ehis. They criticised the current playing style and pattern of the club. In their view, ball possession which has always been a major strength of Arsenal is good but it does not go far enough to win trophies. ”The mental toughness, alertness, aggression and staying power are lacking,” Ehis wrote in an email to me. His older brother, Ose, says the only way to win is to attack. “They should come up with a creative attacking flair, speed and excellent ball positioning,” he suggested to get Arsenal back to winning ways. 

 

Arsenal can compete well if the board, management and players are able to re-focus their efforts. The owners should also take full responsibility for the team and stop neglecting the financial issues affecting the club. Hopefully, the club will be pro-active enough to take advantage of the January transfer window for new quality players.

 

While I concede that Arteta can only field the players available under his watch, he should be more flexible with team selection, preferably with a 4-2-4 formation which can vary depending on each match requirements. The team has another difficult game next Sunday when they file out in a North London derby against league leaders, Tottenham Hotspurs. It is a match they cannot afford to lose in spite of recent lack lustre performances and injury troubles.

 

Braimah is the Publisher/Editor-in-Chief of Naija Times (https://naijatimes.ng)

 

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