Paul Merson says Arsenal need a long-term plan that needs to start right now if they are to have any chance of turning around the club’s fortunes in the future.
It’s been a difficult season for Mikel Arteta, who faces mounting pressure from the club’s supporters, and his side as they face up to the prospect of no European football for the first time in 25 years.
They crashed out of the Europa League semi-finals with a 2-1 aggregate defeat against Villarreal after a goalless draw at the Emirates last Thursday, and while a 3-1 win against West Brom on Sunday provided some relief after a dismal week, the Gunners are ninth in the table, four points behind Tottenham in seventh with three games remaining.
Arsenal’s slim European hopes…
Remaining games: Chelsea (away), Crystal Palace (away), Brighton (home)
Arsenal are now mathematically unable to make the top four, and their best chance of qualifying for the Champions League was extinguished when they were knocked out of the Europa League by Villarreal in the semi-finals.
Amassing enough points to reach the Europa League or even Europa Conference League still looks unlikely, leaving the club without European football for the first time in 25 years. That said, were they to finish the season with three more wins then they would claim 61 points – which might be enough.
Arsenal are now facing a fifth season out of the Champions League and barring a dramatic turnaround in the Premier League, they will not have the Europa League or the newly formed Europa Conference League to fall back on either.
So, what happens next? Ahead of Arsenal’s trip to face Chelsea, live on Sky Sports, former Arsenal forward Merson discusses the disappointing Europa League exit, the steady decline at the club and how they try and move forward after what has been an extremely painful season for the Gunners.
‘Europa League exit as bad as I’ve seen’
Where do Arsenal go from here? It’s a really hard question to answer.
It was as bad as I have seen for a long time in midweek against Villarreal. You are talking about the semi-final of a big European competition. I mean a big European competition. Arsenal have not won one since 1993 and they have only been in a final three times since that, and they never really laid a glove on Villarreal.
Let’s be honest, Villarreal are 23 points behind Real Madrid in La Liga, and we just saw them get absolutely dismantled and embarrassed by Chelsea. When you look at it, Arsenal should be able to take out Villarreal but over two legs, they never got close.
Arteta played a false nine in the away game. Only one team in the world can play with a false nine and that’s Man City. They are the only team at the moment who have the players to play it and, in the past, the old Spain team could do it too.
He then played Emile Smith Rowe and Martin Odegaard in front of Thomas Partey, and that didn’t work, and for me, Arteta just tries to over complicate things. I don’t know whether he thinks he’s Pep Guardiola, but it did not work.
‘Why take Aubameyang off?’
I know Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has not been well, but he had to stay on the pitch against Villarreal. They needed a goal and he’s a goal scorer. How many times have we seen it before? When the ball goes whizzing across the six-yard box, who is the one at the far post tapping it in more times than not? It’s Aubameyang.
He’s not pushing any other Arsenal players out of the way to get to the ball because he’s the only one doing it, so you have to keep him on the pitch. The decision-making was just poor.
If you’d have come into that game not knowing the score and watched the final 10 minutes, you would think Arsenal were through. The urgency from them was non-existent. They were passing the ball along the back line in their own half for about 15 passes.
It was mind-blowing.
It was not working passing the ball out from the back so if it does not work, get everybody on the halfway line and get it forward. Forget about all this total football and playing my way, it’s about getting results.
It wasn’t working. Villarreal knew exactly what to do and Unai Emery had them set up well, especially the way they closed Arsenal down from goal kicks. So, just change it. A manager has got to be flexible. If it’s not working, do something else.
‘Arsenal need a long-term plan’
What happens now? This is a five-year plan and they have got to start it today.
Do you stick with Arteta, have a plan and say let’s start getting rid of people and start bring in people, young players who are going to get better and help Arsenal challenge for the title in five years’ time?
Not next year. It is not happening next year. So, you have to be patient and have a plan. It has to be a four or five-year plan to get Arsenal back to the top. Don’t start saying we need to get Arsenal challenging next year because they can’t. They are a million miles away from that.
Are they going to keep Arteta because he’s going to listen to the board? That’s the key.
When the European Super League came up, Arteta came out and said what a nice man the owner is. He sort of backed him up. Now, if that’s a Sam Allardyce or a Rafael Benitez, someone who has been around a long time in the game, they would go mad. They would call it a disgrace because they would know they are top managers. We saw it with Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola. They came straight out and called the Super League a joke and a disgrace.
With Arteta is he just their man? Is he someone they can just tell what to do? Whatever is decided, they have got to have a plan and stick to it. They have got to start afresh, get some younger players in and get smart again.
‘Arsenal have got lazy’
They have got lazy.
They got lazy with the Willian deal. They thought he’s Brazilian, he lives up the road and he’s a free transfer so let’s give him a load of money. He’s 32.
They let one of the best players in the club’s history go in Robert Pires because he was over 30. He was one of the best players ever to play for Arsenal and was 30 and he wanted a two or three-year deal, and they said no. But now, you are giving 32-year-olds bumper contracts and they are not playing. Until Sunday night, he hadn’t scored a goal. Yes, he was top drawer at Chelsea, but now you look at him and you just think wow!
I find it really frustrating. People say you just give them a hard time because you played there, but no, I know what the club is and what it is about. It’s a massive football club, a class football club and they need better. But, at the moment, I can’t see it getting better. I see them being where they are now next season if they keep it like it is.
I find it really frustrating. People say you just give them a hard time because you played there, but no, I know what the club is and what it is about. It’s a massive football club, a class football club and they need better.
But if they do not keep it like it is and get rid of everybody they want to get rid of, swallow a pill here or there and start bringing in players – young players – and building so you can say, he will be good in the future, he will be good and him. Then that team can gel and then you can go from there.
Don’t bring in 32-year-olds and giving out massive bumper deals of £350,000 to players over 30 as well.
How are you paying someone £350,000-a-week, who doesn’t play and was brought off in the biggest game of the season? It was only earlier this season; it wasn’t four years ago. It’s the same as the Mesut Ozil situation. No one gets quicker as they get older. If that was the case, Usain Bolt would still be racing.
‘This could drift on for years’
There’s got to be a new plan. At the moment, it just feels lazy.
This is where Arsene Wenger and David Dein were great. I know it was a long time ago but look at the players they brought in. They brought players in that had something to prove and all of a sudden went on to become better and they went for more money.
This could drift on for 10 years or more if they don’t.
I’ve said it before but at the moment, they are just also-rans. I could swallow the also-ran tag next year but only if they get rid of certain of players, bring in certain players and start again.
Before you know it, in two or three years’ time, Bukayo Saka will still be young, Emile Smith Rowe will still be young, but they will have 200 games under their belts. It’s a lot of football matches for a young age and all of a sudden you are bringing other players in and the outlook is much better.
They have to take that chance now.
‘Saka, Smith Rowe, Tierney… build around them’
The young players at the club are crucial.
We have mentioned Saka and Smith Rowe but there’s Kieran Tierney, Gabriel Martinelli and Joe Willock, who is doing well at Newcastle. They are the ones.
There are four or five great young players there and you build around that.
There’s also Granit Xhaka and I know he gets a little bit of stick, but he does not let you down in my opinion. I would rather have him on the pitch than not at Arsenal. He’s a massive trier and he cares but it’s just about getting the right characters there and making the right decisions.
Watching Chelsea against Real Madrid the other night, I’m looking and thinking about if any Real Madrid players get into the Chelsea team? There wasn’t anyone. Not one player because Eden Hazard wasn’t the player he was. It was quite clear.
I can now watch Arsenal play Aston Villa and ask how many from Villa get into the Arsenal team? I think you’d take half at least. You’d take the goalkeeper, Emiliano Martinez, you’d take Matty Cash, Jack Grealish, Ollie Watkins, the two centre-halves all day long, John McGinn could get in, Douglas Luiz potentially and maybe Bertrand Traore.
This is Aston Villa playing Arsenal. They have never finished above them for how many years.
I have just named half the Villa line-up who could get into the Arsenal team. When could you last say that? I played in some good Aston Villa sides but when we played in those top Villa teams, you would go through the Arsenal team and none of us would have got in.
This is where Arsenal are at the moment. That has even just blown my mind.
You look at Arsenal and think top-four club, part of the ‘Big Six’ but that’s just Aston Villa we have gone through. We could probably go through the Everton team and the West Ham team as well and they would both get a few in.
‘Who’s going to sort this mess out?’
The people at the very top of Arsenal have not got a clue, in my opinion.
So, how can you leave these massive decisions to the people at the top? They do not have a clue about football.
What are they going to do? They wanted to go into a European Super League and play with no relegation. We have had relegation since the day dot. I did the Derby vs Sheffield Wednesday game and the players were running onto the pitch and cuddling each other at the end. It was a massive thing for them on that day. At the start of the season, they would have gone mad if you had said they would finish fourth bottom, but that’s what the game is all about.
We love the game because of that and when the play-offs start in the Championship, someone’s got the chance of playing in the Premier League at Old Trafford, at Anfield, at the Emirates, at Stamford Bridge, the Etihad and Spurs’ new ground. It’s a dream.
The Arsenal owners have not got a clue so how can you trust them to sort this out? That’s the problem. Someone has to sort this mess out.
Arsenal are buying players who cannot do what Arteta wants to do. Arteta wants to squeeze and he wants to play out from the back. He hasn’t got the legs in his side to squeeze and he has not got the defenders to play out from the back. They are not comfortable on the ball. Imagine when the crowds are back, and Arsenal are trying to play out from the back. It’s going to be a nightmare.
‘Who will want this job?’
This hurts me to say but this job was one of the biggest in world football. It’s a class club, I cannot say that enough.
But how many people will want this job? Let’s be honest, all clubs pay well now so Arsenal is not just a place to boost your wages. You can get that anywhere nowadays. We have just seen Jose Mourinho go to Roma. He’s not going there on a youth training scheme; he’s going because the money is unbelievable.
Who is going to take the job at Arsenal? If you have got a plan, you have got to get a manager that’s going to be there for five years. If you go and get a Benitez, he’s only going to be there for a year or two. He will want to be successful straight away. His plan will be bringing in players like Willian, who you hoped was going to hit the ground running.
I’m afraid, it’s not a good job. For managers now, you are looking at it and thinking where can I take this team, now? This is where they are. If you take the job, the expectation is just mind blowing and that’s a problem.
‘Something needs to change quickly’
Will the owners invest? They won’t release money. They are more interested in ice hockey and American football, but the only way out of this is investment and a plan.
It’s not just giving them £300m or £400m to spend and buying players who are over 30 or bringing people on loan to the club, who are just there to get better for when they go back to their parent club.
Years ago, the first-team players would give the apprentice players their boots to wear in. You’d wear them in to get them ready for them so that they are nice and soft.
That’s exactly what Arsenal are doing with Martin Odegaard for Real Madrid. Arsenal have taken him, played him and Real Madrid will just have him back. Come on, that’s not Arsenal. Dani Ceballos has said he’s going back to Spain and he’s still playing. It’s unbelievable.
Why not just play a young kid? You have got Willock who is scoring bundles of goal as at Newcastle. That’s embarrassing. He’s getting in the box for Newcastle, scoring goals and Arsenal have only Aubameyang in the box.
It’s seriously worrying times for Arsenal. They need to seriously sit down and think about a way forward, and if they go with Arteta, he’s got to be strong enough to have a plan, say this is what we want to do, and stick with it.
Are they going to do that? Who knows but it’s really not good at the moment. Something needs to change and quickly.