New Season Optimism Dampened by Events off the Pitch

By Sam Limbert

In the week leading up to the first game of every new season, I get an irrational burst of optimism that makes me think Arsenal will win pretty much everything. Even in the more challenging years under Arsene Wenger when the squad was nowhere near ready for the opening match, I’d get that excitement that anything was possible.

Up until Tuesday, I definitely had that blind optimism going into 2018-2019. In reality, a top-four finish is the aim for Unai Emery in his first season, but that doesn’t stop fans dreaming ahead of the new campaign.

There’s no better time for ridiculous amounts of optimism than in August as you can’t embark on another long season already feeling downbeat. At this point in time, we haven’t lost any games and we’re not a few points behind in the title race. It’s the hope that keeps us coming back and supporting the team after all.

And there is plenty to be positive about from the summer. Unai Emery’s first pre-season has been quite interesting with some decent results, a few different formations and combinations to observe and new signings arrived early in the window. There are still a few uncertainties around the futures of
Aaron Ramsey, Danny Welbeck, and other squad players, plus the departure of Calum Chambers on loan has got me scratching my head, but on the whole, there’s been some good business done by the club.

Then there are the attacking options. There’s a full season of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to look forward to. Alexandre Lacazette has looked really sharp in pre-season. Mesut Ozil will hopefully play freely, unburdened by all the negatives that impacted on his summer with the German national team. Along with Mkhitaryan, Iwobi and Ramsey, if Unai Emery gets the system right, this should be a very exciting team to watch and one that could score plenty of goals.

There also appears to be a really good team spirit building among the players. I know the club aren’t going to put out any negative social media content from pre-season, but on the evidence of players’ own social media activity and the reaction of the squad on the pitch during the pre-season games, there does seem to be something genuine there. The squad looks united, there are some good characters in it and that makes it a lot easier to get behind them.

But just as my excitement was approaching fever pitch this week, the news came that Alisher Usmanov was selling his shares in the club to KSE, enabling Stan Kroenke to eventually take full control of Arsenal. It had been mooted that this was a possibility over the summer, and was probably inevitable in the long run, but it does feel like the timing has caught a lot of people out and really impacted on the mood around the club.

In the spirit of being positive before the new season, it’s not impossible that Stan Kroenke taking on full ownership of the club will be a good thing. If he fulfills the ambitions and promises mentioned in the statement released with the news of the deal, then that’ll be great. The majority of clubs have a similar ownership structure, so much like the changes that were made with the hiring of different football executives in the last year, this deal arguably is another step into the modern footballing world for Arsenal.

Although this isn’t an exciting new owner who is swooping in looking determined to make Arsenal Football Club the best club it can be. This is a man who has had a lot of power at the club for years and overseen a period of stagnation on the field. This is where the key issue lies for me. If Kroenke showed himself to be determined to make Arsenal truly competitive again on the pitch in the Premier League and the Champions League, and Arsenal was going to be the main focus of his work, then I’d feel more positive about this. But Arsenal is just another business investment in his portfolio of sports teams, none of which have been significantly successful in recent years. For those of us who emotionally and financially (either through going to games or TV subscriptions, merchandise etc) invest a lot in following the club, that’s a worry. As Kroenke has not properly engaged with Arsenal fans in all the time that he’s been the majority shareholder, it feels like there is a lack of empathy from him to the supporters.

In addition, it is sad to see the club no longer have any fans as shareholders, and for the transparency that came with the club being on the stock exchange to come to an end. This is another source of the negativity around this deal as I don’t trust Stan Kroenke to make decisions that are in the best interests of Arsenal Football Club, in the best interests of the fans or in the pursuit of sporting success, and the fans might not know about some of these decisions as the club will be a private company.

I’ll get to the Emirates Stadium on Sunday and I’m sure I’ll get hit by the child-like excitement I have before every season. It’s still Arsenal Football Club and there are some things to be genuinely excited about. But the atmosphere on Sunday will be an interesting one. Whereas on the footballing side, there should be plenty of positivity and everyone should be behind the team and the manager, there could be an underlying unease that this is now the start of a new era in more ways than one.

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Give me something to get behind

I’ve been incredibly fortunate as an Arsenal fan. I’ve grown up supporting the club in a period of time when there has been some fantastic football, success in the Premier League, the most successful manager ever in the FA Cup, the Invincibles and regular Champions League football. For fans of most clubs, they’d love to have the problems that Arsenal have.
But it’s all relative. As an Arsenal fan, it is painful to see the greatest manager in the club’s history losing control of the team and looking lost as to how to get the best out of his players. It’s painful to see the club looking like it is treading water in trying to be a big club in Europe when the infrastructure should be there for it to flourish. It’s painful to see the divisions developing in the fanbase while the majority shareholder gives the appearance of not caring about how the team does.
In other stages of Arsene Wenger’s reign, it at least felt like there was a plan as to what direction the club was going in. There were debates to be had over whether those plans were the right way to go about things, but they were something for fans to get behind. The acquisition of talented French players, the faith in youth, the stadium move and the self-sustainable model were all things we could understand as fans and at least see how the club were trying to develop. All of those were geared towards Arsenal eventually being successful on the sporting front, even if it meant chances on the field were weakened in the short-term.
It is now beginning to feel like we’ve been sold a dream as fans and now the club, especially Ivan Gazidis, are trying to spin it to lower expectations. In particular, the faith in youth and the stadium move were meant to eventually lead Arsenal to be one of the top clubs in Europe. The footballing landscape has changed in that time with large broadcast deals and billionaire investment in clubs, but the age of austerity was meant to be over for Arsenal by this point with the Emirates Stadium now 11 years old. Some larger sums of money have been spent on players in recent seasons, but the Gunners are still being left significantly behind others.
Arseblog hit the nail on the head earlier in the week in saying that chief executive has known nothing but the big luxury stadium and the place in the upper echelons of the Premier League. The same goes for the owner. They weren’t around when the heart-wrenching decision to leave Highbury was made and didn’t have to go through it as fans. But that move was made easier to take because those who drove the project forward were Arsenal people. I felt as a fan that they had the best interests of the club at heart and were doing it to give the club the best chance of being successful through its own means. From a fan’s perspective, there now doesn’t appear to be much motivation from those with power at the club to do anything to drive it forward and put success on the pitch at the forefront of the business.
The ham-fisted and lacklustre way Arsenal went about their transfer business this summer has only highlighted the lack of a plan at the moment. Apart from the acquisitions of Sead Kolasinac and Alexandre Lacazette, the rest of the summer seemed to be made-up as it went along with numerous players set to be sold, but deals were unable to be done and then the squad wasn’t strengthened as a result. Meanwhile, quite a few players expressed their desire to leave during the summer. Financially, it looks like great business to turn a profit in the mad transfer market at the moment. But this is a football club and the business should be about creating a successful team, and after finishing outside the Champions League places and with rivals all strengthening, it looks incredibly naive to not reinvest in the squad.
Some of the recent comments from Ivan Gazidis are very concerning with reference to Arsenal now looking to the fluke of Leicester City’s title win as justification for how things are going at the club. To overachieve in that way, you need to have a strong collective belief and be incredibly organised on the football side of things. That’s simply not the case at the moment. If that really was the direction the owner and board wanted the club to take, the manager shouldn’t have been given a two-year contract as he doesn’t look a man who can motivate his players, get them organised and play as a collective for each other. They couldn’t have been further from that in the embarrassing showing at Anfield.
I’ve had a feeling in the last few weeks that there’s now a completely muddled picture as to what Arsenal stands for. There’s nothing clear for fans for hang onto or a discernible plan to get behind. The thing keeping me going is simply is that it’s the Arsenal and there’s always a irrational feeling that things will improve. Personally, there’s still an excitement in going to a game and seeing the cannon on red shirt with white sleeves (not this two-tone blue or black and pink nonsense Puma have produced as change kits this season). That irrationality is there because of what Arsenal has represented and meant to me in my life so far, not because of the current mess the club is creating for itself.
There’s no quick fix either. With the two-year contract signed, I can’t see Arsene Wenger being sacked. But the problems run a lot deeper than the manager. While Stan Kroenke has ultimate power at the club, I fear that the culture of mediocrity will only continue as he’s shown no ambition whatsoever to do anything to make Arsenal the major European club it has the potential to be with its history, stadium and global fanbase. Kroenke is just wasting it.
The club motto of Victoria Concordia Crescit, Victory Through Harmony, feels a long way from the truth at Arsenal right now.
UTA.