Something is rotten at Arsenal but what exactly? Making sense of Gunners identity crisis

Something is rotten at Arsenal but what exactly? Making sense of Gunners identity crisis

What is wrong with Arsenal? It's not just Arteta's tactics, Ozil situation or Bellerin's throw-ins. It's much deeper—and more difficult to fix.

The disappointing defeat in the north London derby forces some intense reflection about the direction in which the club is moving.

Arsenal fans are quick to put the blame on easy targets. Arteta's negative approach doesn't work so he should be sacked. Ozil should be brought back asap to solve our creativity issue. Xhaka should pack his bag and leave when the transfer window opens. Bellerin must be dropped after his repetitive foul throw-ins. Signing Willian was a mistake.

But I feel this criticism, even in the aftermath of the derby loss, is unfair and somewhat unjustified. Arteta's reactive tactics brought us two trophies, Ozil has not delivered since 2017, Xhaka was a top midfielder at Gladbach, Mustafi was a first-choice centre-back for Germany, Willian was one of the best players in the Premier League just a few months ago.

The problem lies beyond the surface of slamming players for poor commitment or bad defensive positioning. There is something rotten at Arsenal, and it is deeper than poor chance creation and lack of self-belief.

And this is where I should tell you to put on pause any negative feeling towards Bellerin, if you bear one. He did perform poorly defence-wise on Sunday but he is the longest-serving player at the club right now, and if there is a person who possesses the "Arsenal DNA", it's him.

Here are two quotes from him. The first is his words after the recent Wolves defeat.

"I have to say that when you are planning on doing something big—and that's what he [Arteta] is doing, changing the identity of the team, of the club, change the behaviours—he's not trying to make changes just on the pitch but outside of it, this isn't something you can do overnight."

And here is one after the more distant loss at Anfield back in September.

"I think when you build a new identity, a new way of playing football, it's not something that happens overnight. It's something that takes a lot of time, it takes losses, it takes wins, it takes a lot of learning."

It's perhaps telling that Bellerin talks about identity—and while he perhaps means tactics, philosophy and Arteta's famous "non-negotiables", it's not difficult to extend this word beyond football.

Because when you are building a new identity, it means there is something wrong with the previous one—and that's precisely the case with Arsenal.

For quite a long time, the Gunners' identity was that of being a smart-run club that develops exciting young footballers while giving them, and millions of fans worldwide, a chance to enjoy eye-catching attacking football.

In the first years of Wenger's reign, it was about innovation: new training methods, players from abroad, snapping up youngsters, a new approach to footballers' nutrition and so on.

And before Wenger, it was "One-nil to Arsenal", and perhaps there had been something before that. But there always was an identity, an overarching narrative that the club and its supporters firmly believe in.

Now, there is none.

Sometimes identities are born out of tragedies: Hillsborough has become a crucial point in the collective memory of Liverpool fans, while mourning for the Busby Babies brings together the United faithful no matter what their differences are.

Barcelona have an identity based on the dream of Catalan independence, Athletic Bilbao have a distinctly Basque feel. Napoli have an identity formed around Maradona and Naples' historical predicament as the sinkhole of Italy.

Even Millwall have an identity: an outdated and a disgusting one as their fans booed the players taking a knee, but it's an identity nonetheless as it offers a narrative that can glue people together and give them an idea to believe in.

Even Spurs do: an image of habitual underdogs rising, despite all odds and without significant investment, to the Champions League final, is appealing to some.

But what exactly does constitute an Arsenal identity circa 2020?

We no longer play attacking football so the charm of the Wenger era is lost. We are poor defensively, so Arteta's credo is not a revival of George Graham's style. We have been average on the pitch for a few years now, but, most importantly, there has been no clear idea and direction, no footballing philosophy that could lead the team and the club.

Arsenal could have based their identity around progressive values. Having a vegan footballer famously caring for the planet, boasting the country's largest gay fan group, and being the first EPL team to concern themselves with police brutality in Nigeria is something to be proud of.

But Arsenal shot themselves in the foot by refusing to back Ozil's words about Uyghurs and selling the stadium naming rights to an airline. You can't be progressive when you put business interests ahead of actual people dying (Uyghurs) and profiting from an industry that contributes to the climate catastrophe (air travel).

In 2020, Arsenal have nothing to offer to a football fan other than the clips of Henry and Bergkamp combining and compilations of Rosicky–Wilshere–Cazorla passing sequences.

For a long, long time, the word "Arsenal" was associated with the word "class" as that is how the club treated its fans, its legends and its players. Lauren spoke of the "human warmth" at Highbury making Arsenal a better destination for him than Real Madrid.

People like Ken Friar, the club's longest-serving employee who spent 74 years at Arsenal before retiring earlier in 2020, made the club feel like a family—something even Emmanuel Adebayor, who left the club for money and is rightfully hated by many Gooners, has come to acknowledge.

But Arsenal are not a family anymore. This football club has stopped exuding class. The Gunnersaurus case—sacking a lifelong Arsenal fan, a part-timer who has made thousands of kids fall in love with the club, in order to save a couple of hundred pounds—this peak penny-pinching is an example of a football club completely losing the plot. Axing 55 staff members during the global pandemic when job opportunities are scarce, in order to streamline organisation and make the internal structure look more business-like and Americanized, is another case of lack of direction and style.

So when players, some really good ones with lots of money paid to secure their moves, arrive at London Colney, they probably get this faceless sense of void that sucks out enjoyment, this numbness that stems from the club not knowing what it really means anymore.

Everybody says Arsenal's recruitment has been poor—but I believe Xhaka could have evolved into a world-class player at Klopp's Liverpool, while Pepe would have been firing on all cylinders had he joined Napoli instead of the Gunners. We have a decent squad, with some of their players at the peak of their abilities.

Lacazette was great at Lyon, he was brilliant in his first season at Arsenal but it feels as if his love for football has been sucked out of him. The same applies to Willian, who used to smile and laugh all the time at Chelsea—his body language is not as jovial as it used to be.

And, as some fans are starting to realise, even Unai Emery is not a bad manager—he was not up to the task of reinventing Arsenal, but he was never told that this is what he would have to do in the first place.

The reason behind their professional declines at Arsenal is the negative energy that comes from dozens of poor decisions, the years spent between greatness and mediocrity, and the absence of a unifying narrative that could hold the pieces as they fall apart. Put Salah or De Bruyne into this team, and they will wither the way Aubameyang did.

And judging by Arteta's words, the way he speaks about instilling a new culture and introducing new ethics at Arsenal, he has a clear idea of things falling into place in the future. That's something we have not had for a few years now, and that's why he should be given a full season to try to fix the situation.

But the problem remains and it will persist, even if we get out of the current crisis. This football club is directionless. The word "Arsenal" stands for nothing while it used to stand for something. It has a negative effect on footballers, fans, and is the main reason why the Gunners are on this never-ending, excruciating downward spiral.


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