It was getting late and the already palpable tension was starting to squeak onto the pitch at the Emirates Stadium. Arsenal were losing 1-0 to a relegation-threatened Fulham side. for whom victory would represent a last reprieve in their bid for Premier League survival. Bukayo Saka, the Gunners’ teenage sensation turned chief creative threat, scampered down the left wing and cut inside, looking to save Mikel Arteta’s side from another embarrassing home defeat.
Eddie Nketiah equalised in stoppage time but the damage was done. Only Scott Parker, who despite remaining painfully optimistic until Fulham’s return to the Championship was confirmed, felt anything when it went in. For Arteta, it was another troublesome afternoon. However, the context of that result was about to make it a whole lot worse.
That same weekend, Arsenal announced they were joining the other members of the Premier League’s ‘big six’ — Manchester City, Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur — in denouncing the Champions League and, alongside other top clubs, setting up the European Super League. Of all the times to abjectly fall over the line in an undeserved draw against a team who would end the season with just five wins, the moment you profess to be taking your seat at an exclusive table is among the worst.
None of those teams avoided the scorn and mockery of the watching football world — it was so overwhelming that the whole Super League plot, which took years to concoct, completely fell apart within two days — but Arsenal bore the brunt more than anyone except Spurs. Without a Premier League title since their 2003/04 ‘Invincibles’ campaign, their star has faded over a period of close to two decades now, but the fall has particularly accelerated since Arsene Wenger’s departure in 2018.
They haven’t set foot in the Champions League in four years, let alone looked like launching a genuine challenge to win it, and the steady stream of qualifications via the Premier League’s top four used to beat Wenger over the head during his final years have given way to genuine midtable mediocrity.
Since taking over from Wenger’s replacement Unai Emery in December 2019, Arteta, whose reputation is based on potential and working as Pep Guardiola’s assistant at Manchester City, has overseen back-to-back eighth placed finishes for Arsenal. Leicester City, Wolverhampton Wanderers and West Ham United have all finished above them in that time; they are ‘big six’ purely based on history, but even that argument is beginning to grow thin.
The first of those disappointing seasons wasn’t really levelled at Arteta, who was still settling in to the role and credited with an FA Cup win, but patience is waning and there have previously been concerns over whether he would have the funds to turn the tide. Money has been rather scarce during their nadir, while other clubs were spending, and doing so wisely. So far this summer, though, there is evidence to the contrary.
Ben White, the Brighton defender who has enjoyed a rapid rise from Leeds United loanee and Championship star to member of England’s Euro 2020 squad, looks set to join Arsenal in a £50million deal. Evidence of the going rate for homegrown talent at a time when English football is a real commodity, perhaps, but it is a deal that makes sense.
Arteta’s philosophy is based around progressively building from the back and White has thrived in playing that way for Graham Potter at the AMEX Stadium. His versatility menas he is able to play at fullback or in central midfield and looks a real asset. He appears ready to take on a new challenge.
His England teammate Aaron Ramsdale, whom Arteta hopes can create competition for Bernd Leno in goal, and Leicester playmaker James Maddison are both targets. The spending looks like it will go on, after Anderlecht midfielder Albert Sambi Lokonga joined for £15million.
Crucially, Emile Smith-Rowe’s new contract shows that Arteta’s priority is building around the Arsenal academy products he has, like he and Saka, and isn’t interested in the sort of contract saga which has resulted in key players either leaving or signing extortionate new deals and overstaying their welcome in the past. Although the threat of losing Smith-Rowe was never serious despite two bids from Aston Villa, the fact a club who only gained promotion back to the Premier League three seasons ago felt it was worth making cash offers for one of their best young players speaks volumes of the precarious nature of Arsenal’s relevance.
The journey back to the top will be a long one for Arsneal. Their greatest issue has been their incredibly unpopular owners dancing to the beat the fans want and, although a united front between both parties is no more likely now, at least a clear plan is forming, backed by a genuinely competitive budget.
Arteta is under pressure and this spending will only magnify that further. Failure from here will give him nowhere to hide, but if he can build the team he wants after now the financial shackles are off, then maybe the jokes will stop and Arsenal can start to dream of the Champions League music once.
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