In the darkest moment of his 15 years in football management, Unai Emery reverted to type. “We knew this would be difficult and I want to say to all of the supporters that we are in a process,” he said, having been ushered past the din of Chelsea’s jubilant dressing room and into a harshly lit press conference at half-past two in the morning. “And next year is a big challenge for us to take the next step. I am proud and we will keep improving.”
A new process. The next step. Gradual improvement. Had anybody remembered to slip their Emery bingo cards into their hand luggage, they would have scored a full house.
Unsurprisingly for a fanbase as fractured as Arsenal’s, the knives are already being sharpened for Emery after the annihilation in Baku. Not since 2006, when Middlesbrough were thrashed 4-0 by Emery’s former side, Sevilla, has an English club lost so heavily in a European final. The result was nothing short of an embarrassment and optimism in his much promised new dawn is dwindling.
But while question marks should and will be asked of how Emery’s gameplan completely crumbled into the early morning gloaming, to blame Arsenal’s beleaguered manager feels very much like taking the easy way out. After all: it is hardly his fault that Arsenal are a club perpetually trapped in history by the errors of men now consigned to their recent past.
That Mesut Ozil was so dismally ineffective on Wednesday evening felt bitterly fitting. Against Chelsea at the Emirates, all the way back in January, Aaron Ramsey had been brilliant in a similar position, shackling Jorginho and repeatedly bursting forward to join the attack. In Azerbaijan, Ozil at times resembled a wimpish conductor thrown into a mosh pit, his baton of a left boot given precisely zero time to establish any sort of rhythm by Chelsea’s rabid Sarri-ball shufflers.
The club continue to suffer from Ivan Gazidis’ deranged decision to hurl £350,000-a-week in his direction, having been disproportionately spooked by the prospect of losing him on a free. Ozil, 30, is still under contract until the summer of 2021 and there appears precious little chance of him leaving London anytime soon. And why would he? The Ozil problem was of Arsenal’s own making and now they must continue to labour with the consequences.
As ever, this is a vitally important transfer window as Arsenal prepare once again to scratch and claw their way back into the Champions League, as alluded to by Emery in his miserable post-match press conference. “My idea, our idea, is to carry on our improvement with the players, with the young players that arrived last year and maybe some players need to leave to also take a new way,” he said.
Yet the club still does not have a technical director, nor a head of recruitment, ahead of a summer that was always going to be pivotal regardless of the outcome in Baku. With such a strict transfer budget, Arsenal have to sell before they can buy, but they will struggle to move on the likes of Shkodran Mustafi and Henrikh Mkhitaryan who, like Ozil, have hefty salaries. Ramsey and Danny Welbeck are meanwhile departing the club for nothing.
Perhaps aware of the rising panic, managing director Vinai Venkatesham fired up his laptop and tapped out an email to Arsenal staff urging a sense of perspective in the miserable hours after their capitulation to Chelsea. “I know we are all hurting right now, after a painful and disappointing night,” he wrote. “Let’s keep some perspective. It is a tough moment right now but we have much to be positive about when reflecting on this transitional season and looking forward to the next.
“To achieve our ambition we need to BE TOGETHER in both the good moments and the bad and we know we have the people across our club to do that.”
Venkatesham and Raúl Sanllehí, the club’s head of football, are personable, hard-working men striving to lead the club out of the current slump it is mired in. But their hands are tied. Such an email would have meant more had it arrived from Stan Kroenke but instead the American could not be bothered to join the hardiest of supporters in travelling to Baku. Instead, he sent his son, Josh.
The first season of the post-Arsène Wenger era was always going to be difficult. And it should not be forgotten that Emery fell just one point — and one final — short of meeting the primary objective he was set at the beginning of the season. But without serious investment and direction, Arsenal risk dwindling further, a club more obsessed with buzzwords and memories of the past than a viable return to Europe’s top table.
The transitional season that we have heard so much about is finally, mercifully, at an end. Now the question should be: what are the club transitioning into?
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