Is there a club in European football where so much seems to revolve around transfers as Arsenal? If there is, this writer has yet to find it. Of course, there are many other clubs who spend more money, who make bigger waves in the transfer market, but few are defined so clearly by signings, or more accurately in this case, a lack thereof, as the Gunners.
Whenever the usual Arsenal Fan TV crowd would assemble outside the Emirates, a sight that came to characterise the final few years of the Arsene Wenger era, net spend would be mentioned. The board would be pilloried for failing to spend the money needed to keep pace with City and United. It was presumed that all this would change when Wenger finally left.
Talk is still about the players Arsenal don’t have rather than the ones they do. In January, the club’s policy of only sanctioning loan deals was much discussed, and in many quarters criticised. To some, it was just another sign that Stan Kroenke and the decision makers at the Emirates haven’t truly grasped where the club is right now.
Watching Arsenal slump to a 1-0 defeat away to BATE Borisov in the first leg of their last 32 Europa League tie on Thursday night, the eye was once again drawn to what was missing. At right wing back, Unai Emery fielded the promising, yet inexperienced, Ainsley Maitland-Niles. At centre back, Laurent Koscielny was partnered by the error-prone Shkodran Mustafi and the dependable, but unremarkable, Nacho Monreal. It wasn’t exactly a lineup befitting of a European giant.
The overall structure of Arsenal as a club, where transfers are plotted at a level above the manager, means Emery will always have something of a safety net. Wenger wasn’t afforded the same thing, with the Frenchman exerting a level of control that his Spanish successor has so far been denied.
This isn’t to say that Emery should escape all recrimination, though. He should be doing better with the players they already have, as demonstrated by the performance in Belarus on Thursday night. The scrap for a top-four place was always likely to be a difficult one for the Gunners, but the Europa League presents them with a real opportunity to pull up a seat at the top table for next season and that opportunity might be slipping through their fingers.
Of course, Arsenal can still retrieve the situation in the second leg at home against BATE Borisov next week, but defeat in the first leg only further entrenches an air of doubt that is starting to drag down the Gunners’ dressing room. That was an issue under Wenger and it appears to be an issue under Emery too.
Holes exist in the Arsenal squad, but they boast real quality in the likes of Alexandre Lacazette, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Ozil, the world-class playmaker currently being scapegoated by Emery for reasons unknown.
Even players like Alex Iwobi and Granit Xhaka are good enough to make a mark at Europa League level.
Anyone who thought progress was going to be anything more than incremental under this ownership was kidding themselves, but sitting in fifth place in the Premier League table, above Chelsea only on goal difference, and up against it in the last 32 of the Europa League, have Arsenal made any great strides under Emery?
The January transfer window closed just two weeks ago, but already talk has turned to who Arsenal might sign in the summer. Ramsey has signed a pre-contract agreement with Juventus and Ozil is expected to be shopped around, so some big moves will be required to appease a fanbase verging on late Wenger era levels of frustration. What’s the point of signing new players if Emery isn’t making the most of the ones he has?