The overriding sentiment was boredom. Arsene Wenger’s empire had long grown stale, the Emirates swayed in creaks and groans, even the mutineers had grown tired of their own voices. A football club can be a vehicle for almost any emotion – joy and anger, love and hatred – and yet, at Arsenal, everything had become numb; stuck in a cycle of hope and disappointment.
As Raymond Chandler once wrote, to say goodbye is to die a little. But when Wenger’s departure was announced two years ago this week, Arsenal was also a club reborn. For years, an antique structure in modern football reflected solely in one man’s image. Suddenly, there was a unique opportunity to harness a new spirit and identity. A revolution against the dated traditions that had, despite having all the necessary financial power and infrastructure, only seen the club drift further behind.
Instead, as Arsenal tore back at Wenger’s foundations, chopping and reshaping at every level of the club, they found that the scale of their problems was laid bare: the corporate vacuum, the estranged owner, the deep fracture between players and supporters. Wenger’s reign may have run far too long, but his presence had always provided a bridge to the past – of Highbury and the Invincibles, the Champions League and the ‘Arsenal DNA’. Without that safety net of nostalgia, little remained to mask the cracks.
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The changes since have been drastic. In terms of personnel, the club is almost unrecognisable. Ivan Gazidis, the lamented figure charged with leading the overhaul absconded to AC Milan after just five months, leaving behind a trail of open wounds. He had promised Sven Mislintat, the club’s ‘Diamond Eye’ talent spotter, the role of technical director. But as Raul Sanllehi reverted to a transfer policy dictated by close relationships and key agents, Mislintat was squeezed out and ultimately replaced by Edu.
The departures, sackings and general tugging over the ropes of power stretched to almost every department at the club before even getting to the pitch, where barely half of Wenger’s final first-team squad remains.
And yet, despite such ruthless and wide-ranging changes, Arsenal are afflicted by the same age-old flaws. The defensive frailties, wild bouts of inconsistency, void of leadership, internal disputes and hostage contract scenarios that make up a familiar narrative. Glimpses of Mikel Arteta’s vision had begun to shine through before football’s suspension, but when play does resume Arsenal will still find themselves teetering dangerously on the brink of Europe.
History may paint Unai Emery’s tenure as time wasted. The sensible experienced option at a time when Arsenal craved a radical innovator. But really, he was a necessary buffer between old and new. A coach who’d bend and adjust while the club as a whole took on its new shape. The end was uncomfortable and acrimonious, a serial winner reduced to an outcast. But while those 18 months did little to heal the divide, it allowed the club time to dismantle “a system that had become built to fail”, as one staff member described it, and finally cement a new structure in place.
Arteta arrived, albeit under chaotic circumstances, with the promise to redefine standards, rip up bad habits and instil new ideas in the same way Wenger did all those years ago. The lockdown may have brought a halt to its implementation, but his discipline in training, ability to reunite the dressing room, and Guardiola-inspired approach had kickstarted a regime change to match what’s already taken place off the pitch.
Two years on, it’s hard to claim Arsenal are any better off. But there is now at least the genuine feeling that the club is at the beginning of something new, with a figurehead to lead them into a new era and all the excitement of the unknown. It’s a hope on the horizon that could just as easily sink as swim. But if the future can guarantee one thing, it will be anything but boring.