Be careful what you wish for.
It’s an old saying, but it’s one that was murmured by many when a growingly disconcerted Arsenal board and fanbase eventually forced Arsene Wenger into ending his 22-year tenure with the club.
The legendary manager’s replacement, Unai Emery, would last little over a season, but there was optimism around The Emirates Stadium when former player Mikel Arteta took the reins. One year on since the Spaniard’s appointment, things still aren’t as rosy as they once were in North London.
But what do they expect? Seriously… what are the expectations at Arsenal these days? Top four, top six… top half? Do they want short-term success or are they willing to play the long game, hoping Arteta can repeat the feats of his former boss?
Let’s rewind to the period before Wenger. If you don’t know about Arsenal’s famous title win in 1989, look it up. They were champions again in 1991. But when the Premier League was formed in 1992/93, the Gunners racked up finished 10th, 4th, 12th and 5th. And coming fourth wasn’t exactly a thing back then. Pre-Wenger, this wasn’t a club contending for top honours on a regular basis.
We won’t talk too much about Wenger – it was a long time ago. But the relatively unknown Frenchman finished third in his debut season. Then he won the league, and they didn’t finish outside the top two ‘til 2005/06 – which was when Chelsea really came to play.
By this time, a top-four finish was important. And Arsenal didn’t drop out of it until 2016/17. By that point, Manchester City had joined the Premier League rich list and Manchester United were still relatively formidable under Sir Alex Ferguson. Holding off the likes of Tottenham, Liverpool and even Newcastle – yep, seriously – was an achievement.
The Wenger era was quite simply golden. Importing high quality foreign players and developing the likes of Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira and Cesc Fabregas into world-class talent. He raised expectation at the club. He set the bar so high. His shoes – and coat – too big to fill.
Arteta, however, brought instant success to the club with an FA Cup triumph, overcoming Chelsea to grab a famous Wembley win. That secured European qualification and they finished eighth. Under Wenger, the FA Cup was viewed as mere consolation. But a maiden honour for Arteta – a sign of things to come, perhaps. Or perhaps not.
The Gunners sit 14th at the time of writing with five defeats in 10 games. That’s not where they want to be. But there are signs of improvements, right? Well, there were. The second half of last season may have boosted positivity in the capital, but it’s already showing signs of drying up.
In the second half of the season, under Arteta’s guidance, Arsenal improved markedly when it came to defending and pressing. No doubt influenced by mentor Pep Guardiola, Arteta had his side well drilled. But as they head into this weekend’s North London Derby, they look a shadow of that side.
Pressure might already be building – Arteta has dropped from 40/1 to 10/1 with Grosvenor Sport to be the next Premier League manager to leave his post. Roy Keane quipped that he thinks Arsenal have enough about them to stay up. But it’s no laughing matter.
This squad might not be broken, but it’s certainly fragile. Mesut Ozil, arguably Arsenal’s most talented player, can’t get a look in and continues to collect astronomical wages. £70m signing Nicolas Pepe had showed glimpses but is now slipping towards ‘flop’ territory. Mustafi, Sokratis, Kolasinac and Lacazette are all doing very little while on a lot of cash. A lack of creativity is stifling the brilliant Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang – he has two goals this term, one on the opening day against Fulham, one from the spot vs Manchester United.
Arteta hasn’t had – and is unlikely to receive – the financial backing that has helped Frank Lampard and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer make their mark at Chelsea and Man Utd. So it’s all eyes on the up-and-coming players. Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Kieran Tierney and Bukayo Saka are seeing more and more game time. Eddie Nketiah, Reiss Nelson and Joe Willock are getting minutes. Highly rated Folarin Balogun took just a few seconds to notch his first Gunners goal in the Europa League last week.
While Wenger was afforded time to bring through youth, the footballing landscape has changed dramatically. Boards want the big bucks; fans demand instant success – the paying crowds in the stadium do to an extent, but the world of social media and fan channels like AFTV increase the pressure and drive a win-now mentality. Will Arteta have that time?
One thing’s for certain. Whoever’s in charge, there is ALWAYS expectation to beat their fiercest of foes, Spurs. And that’s what they need to this weekend, when making the short trip to Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. To face Jose Mourinho, Harry Kane, Son Heung-Min… the Premier League leaders.
All connected to the club could do with taking a step back and giving their young manager the time and the respect to turn this club’s fortunes around. This is not an overnight job.
But even Mikel Arteta will be in win-now mode on Sunday. Whatever the situation, there’s nothing sweeter for a Gunner than knocking Spurs off their perch.
Three points here and Arteta will have everyone taking notice – for the right reasons.