Arsenal may have won at Southampton, but the damage had already been done. Put simply, their own Project Restart has been a total failure – far more like ‘Project Resume Normal Poor Service’ – and the dispiriting defeats against Manchester City and Brighton & Hove Albion have led to renewed calls for more leadership on the pitch. However, that is surely to miss the point completely, because the one thing that Arsenal need more than on-field leadership is off-field leadership, and they are unlikely ever to get that while Shonky Stan Kroenke remains in charge.
Arsenal Are Suffering From a Lack of Off-Field Leadership From Stan Kroenke
Kroenke’s Fatal Apathy
The charges against Stan Kroenke are many and varied, but the main ones bear repeating. The worst charge that can be made against the reclusive American billionaire is simply that he does not care about the club that he has owned for nearly a decade now, regarding it as just one more of the half a dozen or so sports clubs or franchises that he owns. It is hard to recall the last time that Kroenke actually visited The Emirates for an Arsenal match and it seems clear that he is less concerned with what happens to Arsenal than he is with his LA Rams American Football team and their plan to build a new stadium.
It should be an absolute prerequisite for someone to own a football club, especially one as historic and traditionally successful as Arsenal, that first and foremost they are a fan, but it has always been obvious that Kroenke has only ever regarded Arsenal as an investment vehicle. And worse still, his apathy about owning one of the giants of English football seems to have pervaded the whole club, such that nobody is really running it properly.
In-Fighting at the Emirates
The absence of strong, direct, hands-on leadership from either Kroenke or his son, Josh, seems to have created a power vacuum at Arsenal in which different factions are fighting against each other in a power grab rather than fighting together for the good of the club. Raúl Sanllehí may officially be Head of Football at Arsenal, but the truth is that the club is headless and leaderless. Edu, the relatively recently appointed Technical Director, appears to have his own agenda, in particular palling up with and promoting his Brazilian compatriots. That can be the only logical explanation for the club announcing this week that it was re-signing David Luiz after his utterly disastrous performance at Manchester City, which included giving away two goals and being sent off. As many Arsenal fans have asked, “What did David Luiz have to do NOT to get a new contract? Punch the referee?!”
Arteta’s Impossible Job
It is in that context of apparent division and in-fighting that Mikel Arteta’s job looks all the more impossible. The main qualification that Arteta possessed for the Arsenal job was that he still wanted it after being originally turned down for it in favour of Unai Emery some 18 months earlier. The fact that he was still prepared to take on what looked to most people like a poisoned chalice suggested that he had a genuine commitment to the club that he had captained at the end of his playing career.
However, Arteta also missed a very obvious trick when he went for and eventually secured the Arsenal job at the second time of asking. He should have insisted on absolutely cast-iron, legally binding guarantees that he would receive the backing in the transfer market that he would require to begin to improve Arsenal’s obviously deficient squad. At a bare minimum, that would have meant a transfer fund of £150 million. Now, however, it appears that he never received such a commitment and perhaps never even asked for one, which may just have been his USP as far as the Kroenkes and the other power-brokers at Arsenal were concerned.
More than six months on from his appointment, Arteta is obviously still struggling to make his mark as a manager. In particular, he appears unable to exert the complete control over his playing squad that is a necessity for any manager. The David Luiz situation is bad enough (can it be true that Arteta really wanted him to stay?), but there are plenty of other problems besides. The most pressing is obviously the continuing uncertainty about the future of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Arsenal’s one remaining high-class performer, as he enters the last year of his contract. However, it is not even the so-called “big stars” who appear to be holding the club to ransom, as newcomer Bukayo Saka, who along with Gabriel Martinelli has been one of the few causes for Arsenal fans to have hope this season, also has less than a year left on his current contract. If Arsenal were to lose both Aubameyang and Saka – the established star and the emerging starlet – it would be the most damning indictment of their ability to retain their best players, whatever stage of their career they are at.
Mass Clear-Outs a Thing of the Past
Ultimately, because of the lack of leadership from the Kroenkes, which in turn has led to the factionalism and rivalry between the likes of Sanllehí and Edu, it appears impossible for Arteta to establish control over his squad. The kind of mass clear-outs of unwanted players that marked the start of both George Graham and Arsène Wenger’s managerial reigns at Arsenal appear almost unthinkable now, such is the power of the players and, of course, their agents. And the result is that Arteta will almost certainly be unable to make the kind of clean sweep of deadwood that he would ideally like to make and instead will have to continue with the same sub-standard performers – Luiz, Granit Xhaka, Shkodran Mustafi et al – who have been the absolute poster-boys for Arsenal’s continuing descent into mediocrity and also-ran status in recent years.
Comparisons With Liverpool (and FSG) Are Unflattering
The obvious comparison is with Liverpool, the newly-crowned English champions, which, given they are already European and World Club Champions, means they have achieved the ultimate footballing Triple Crown, or, to put it another way, a truly brilliant treble that puts even Manchester United’s achievements in the 1998/99 season in the shade. Like Arsenal, Liverpool have American owners, but Fenway Sports Group are a world away from the absentee ownership of Stan Kroenke. Far from being overwhelmed, or worse unexcited, by taking over an English football club that had fallen into decline, FSG already had the best possible experience of reviving a fallen giant after leading the Boston Red Sox to their first World Series since Babe Ruth had been at the club nearly a century earlier. Compared with the 86-year wait for success that the Red Sox and their fans had endured, Liverpool’s 30-year wait for the English league title was nothing to be intimidated by.
And of course, the true FSG masterstroke was appointing Jürgen Klopp, who himself had personal experience of leading a team to success after a long period of failure, having led Borussia Dortmund to successive Bundesligas in 2011 and 2012 after the club had nearly gone bust in the mid-noughties. Between them, therefore, FSG and Klopp were perfectly experienced and perfectly equipped to take on the challenge of reviving Liverpool, which they have now triumphantly achieved.
Arsenal Are Headless Off the Field and On It
The comparison between FSG and Klopp’s Liverpool and Kroenke and Arteta’s Arsenal could hardly be more damning. FSG and Klopp were both battle-hardened campaigners, indeed proven winners, who knew exactly what they were taking on when they took over the reins at Liverpool. By complete contrast, nearly 10 years after assuming complete control at The Emirates, it is obvious that Stan Kroenke has neither the experience nor the appetite for the kind of long, sustained squad-building effort that is required at Arsenal, just as it was at Liverpool. And having appointed Arteta, a man with absolutely no managerial experience, he has a head coach who is literally learning on the job and in the process inevitably making mistakes.
The result is the kind of confusion, even chaos, that has become the norm at Arsenal. David Luiz produces a performance at The Etihad so woeful that he finally banishes the memory of his 2014 World Cup semi-final disaster with Brazil, and what do Arsenal do? Why, reward him with a new contract, of course. Whether that was ultimately the choice of Kroenke, Sanllehí, Edu, Arteta or someone else entirely, the result is a decision that is as indefensible as so many of Luiz’s own performances. Quite frankly, in the absence of strong, experienced, hands-on leadership off the field from Stan Kroenke, Arsenal will continue to run around like a headless chicken (or a certain Brazilian centre-back) on it.