The two halves of the Europa League final were a summary of Unai Emery’s first year at Arsenal. The control of the first and the disarray of the second – and the ugly contrast between the two – captured both what Emery is trying to do and also what he is yet to achieve.
A year on from Arsene Wenger’s departure, there is at least the suggestion that different processes have been installed. The ad hoc defensive strategy seems to have been replaced by something more ordered, and the general approach to games is dictated by more tangible objectives.
Wenger believed in the ball’s primacy; it was his great weakness. He had that unwavering, reckless faith in his players’ ability which meant that, invariably, he always seemed blind to an opponents’ strengths.
Emery’s Arsenal are admittedly still a vague concept, but the principles behind their construction are different. They aren’t founded on that hopeless optimism anymore. Instead, they are more analytical and more detail orientated. For 45 minutes at the end of May, that threatened to produce a dividend.
Alas, the old DNA revealed itself: the stage fright, the in-built inferiority that infects Arsenal on the occasions which matter. In the end, they did themselves a terrible disservice in Azerbaijan.
It’s interesting to consider just how different Arsenal’s season may have looked had that not been the case. If, instead of melting in the heat of that Baku farce, their gameplan had held, Chelsea had continued to look ineffective, and the season had ended with a European trophy and passage back to the Champions League.
That was a very binary situation – a chance to roll either a one or a six. Unfortunately, Arsenal threw a one and, instead of a stronger transfer hand and a quick burst of UEFA revenue, there was only gloom.
Two months later, that mood has changed. Indeed, it’s telling that the summer of 2019 has passed without so many of the Arsenal staples.
There hasn’t been a spectacular over-reaction to pre-season results, and some poor youth team player hasn’t, in response to a few good touches, been buried under lavish hyperbole.
An unusual calm
In fact, look beyond the talking heads – that cast of internet types who speak in fluent emoji – and this seems like a fanbase with a much lower pulse.
Which is good. It’s bad, in that it reflects how dispiriting life has been over the past few years, but it’s positive in the sense that rebuilding projects are easier when they happen amid calm.
And that’s a calm that Arsenal aren’t used to. In previous pre-seasons, really for almost all of the last decade, there’s been an assumption that they have been just a few well-placed transfers away from contending.
The lust for big signings is hardly unique, it’s an appetite shared equally throughout the game, but Arsenal have often had the most pronounced case of Missing Piece Syndrome.
That manifested last season in the race to elevate Lucas Torreira beyond his natural place.
Wenger’s wilderness years were defined by an inability to construct a balanced midfield, meaning that Torreira’s arrival in north London – almost by virtue of novelty – became akin to a silver bullet solution. Now everything would make sense.
It didn’t. Torreira is a good player rather than an exceptional one, and his dreadful performance in Baku (and his tearful exit) stressed that reality cruelly.
He’ll rebound, certainly, but his appetite to leave England suggests a player who has already decided that the Premier League isn’t really for him.
Whether that’s the case or not, the lesson learned is that Arsenal would likely benefit from reaching bottom – a situation where all the vague hope of the previous generation is abandoned and the incontinent optimism is replaced by acceptance of where and what this team are.
Seeking a new identity
That could potentially be of tremendous benefit to Emery. In an ideal scenario, he would have started last season with none of the players he inherited from Wenger. Not because they were without merit but because the squad he took over carried so much baggage.
Mesut Ozil is under new management but flecked with the same imperfections. Shkodran Mustafi’s many disasters are Emery’s problem but not his doing. Granit Xhaka still can’t tackle, but Emery never claimed that he could.
They are his team in name, but not in nature. At times last season, the conversations around Arsenal were so similar that it was as if Wenger had never left.
The obvious, long-term way to change that is via the transfer market. Purging the old associations and replacing them.
It’s a process which has already begun, too, with the signing of Dani Ceballos from Real Madrid and, in the coming days, Nicolas Pepe from Lille. William Saliba will join from Saint-Etienne in a year’s time and, given what he’s expected to become, that’s another stride towards a new identity.
But that’s still a new identity that can only develop once the past has been abandoned – when it’s accepted that there is no last piece of the jigsaw that Wenger was never able to complete and, instead, that Emery was appointed to begin something new rather than finishing something old.
And that’s a contrived way of saying that, really, the fatalism around the Emirates might – inadvertently – now be Arsenal’s greatest asset.
The signs now are of a fanbase which has reached its endpoint. It’s healthy, for instance, that Pepe is not being discussed as a mechanism by which to extract the richest form from Ozil and that Ceballos’ arrival isn’t presumed to be a catalyst for full-scale midfield revolution.
Instead, they’re just exciting new pieces and their success or failure isn’t really part of – what had become – a very tedious bigger picture.
It’s a tenuous positive, but it’s real enough. There are no more debates to be had, no more issues to be fought over. Old Arsenal were a failure, but a New Arsenal – now properly distanced from Wenger, and chastened by under-performance which could be spun by a quick cup – has the chance to be something different.
Imagine if Mustafi was sold before the season begins, with Koscielny certain to depart too. Individually, these factors are too minor to be important, but together – combined with this dead-behind-the-eyes acceptance – they promise to start a new conversation and create a sensory freshness that Arsenal have known for as long as anyone can remember.