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Same old, same old Arsenal

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Two years after Wenger’s exit, the Gunners still struggle with the identical issues that led to the end of his reign. Pic: PA

Two years after Wenger’s exit, the Gunners still struggle with the identical issues that led to the end of his reign. Pic: PA

PA

Two years after Wenger’s exit, the Gunners still struggle with the identical issues that led to the end of his reign. Pic: PA

For Arsene Wenger, April 20, 2018 was the day the vitriol died. "Wenger Out" became "Merci Arsene" over the course of one morning and, just like that, a new era had started at Arsenal.

The announcement of Wenger's departure came at 10.0am, a few minutes after he had told his players of the "bad news", yet by the afternoon thoughts were already turning to the future and what it might look like without the man who had shaped the club for more than two decades.

It was Ivan Gazidis, then chief executive, who spoke that day. In doing so, Gazidis was both owning the decision, even if he did not say it so bluntly, and thrusting himself towards centre stage.

"The process starts today," he said of the recruitment effort to replace Wenger. "We are going to take what Arsene has given us and we are going to take that forward. I will make sure that we do that."

How quickly things change in football, even at a grand old institution like Arsenal. Looking back now, it is hard to comprehend the scale of the transformation in the subsequent 24 months.

Unai Emery has come and gone, players have arrived and left, executives have risen and fallen. And yet it is also true that so many of Arsenal's problems remain the same, and that the clouds of uncertainty created by Wenger's departure have never been cleared.

Struggling

Star players running down their contracts? The team struggling to reach the Champions League? Widespread fears over the direction the club is taking? The cast is almost entirely different but Arsenal's supporters have seen this show before.

The departure of Wenger was once described as triggering a period of "mourning" at Arsenal. Emotions ran high across the club, yet there was a desperate need for cool heads at the top of the organisation.

The team of executives leading the search for a new manager - or head coach, as it turned out to be - consisted of Gazidis, head of recruitment Sven Mislintat and head of football relations Raul Sanllehi. Of the trio, only Sanllehi remains.

The departure of Gazidis, although not as seismic as Wenger's, is arguably the pivotal moment of the post-Wenger era.

He was the man with the masterplan to modernise the club and to oversee the various executives he had brought into the fold. Within five months of that press conference in which he vowed to ensure that the club retained Wenger's values, he had joined AC Milan.

"The reason I am here is Ivan Gazidis, who convinced me of the project and ambition he had for this club," said Sanllehi in his first newspaper interview since being promoted to head of football in the post-Gazidis reshuffle. The first question to Sanllehi that day concerned the huge amount of change at the club. His answer? "It is overwhelming, but extremely exciting."

In hindsight, "overwhelming" almost feels like an understatement. The turnover has been relentless, both on and off the pitch, and Arsenal were still struggling to find an even keel before they were struck by the coronavirus outbreak. Look firstly at the playing staff: of the 25 names Arsenal submitted on their Premier League squad list at the start of Wenger's final season, only nine are currently at the club.

Off the field, Emery and his coaching staff have been hired and fired, the chief executive has gone, Mislintat has left, director of high performance Darren Burgess has been sacked and analytics guru Jaeson Rosenfeld is leaving. Club doctor Gary O'Driscoll was due to depart, too, before a late U-turn on his decision to join Liverpool.

Technical

Meanwhile, Sanllehi, Vinai Venkatesham and Huss Fahmy have all been promoted, Edu has joined as technical director, Freddie Ljungberg has gone from youth coach to first-team coach to interim head coach and back to first-team coach again, and Mikel Arteta and his coaching staff have joined from afar.

Given all this, is it any wonder that Arsenal have struggled to build any post-Wenger momentum? Could any organisation, in sport or elsewhere, survive such turbulence at such a high level without it affecting their performance?

Within the club's walls they talk of "evolution, not revolution" but that would suggest there has been a sustained, consistent strategy during these two years.

The evidence, and the testimony of those involved, suggests otherwise. There is no better illustration of this than the fate of Mislintat, who has said it had been agreed with Gazidis that he would become technical director before the chief executive left.

"The new leadership had their own agenda and other candidates," Mislintat told '11Freunde' last year. "Previously we had a strong systematic approach to transfers, a mixture of watching things live as well as quality data and video analysis.

However, the new leadership work more strongly with what they are offered from clubs or agents through their own networks."

This is not to say there is a right way and a wrong way of doing things. If Sanllehi's connections allow Arsenal to sign a player they want, and that player improves the team, then what is the harm?

Problematic

What is clearly more problematic, and more damaging for the construction of a squad, is the pivoting from one approach to another.

Arsenal crave stability. Off the pitch, they were slowly getting there before the coronavirus crisis. On it, there is plenty of work to be done to reduce the current wage bill and address the problem areas in the squad.

It is club policy to prevent players from reaching the final year of their contracts, as was so damaging for Arsenal in the cases of Alexis Sanchez, Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Ozil, yet that is far easier said than done.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, their top scorer and club captain with one year left on his deal, has proven that the contract issue was not exclusive to the Wenger years.

The stand-off there is further proof that, while so much has changed, from the people to the approach to the players, the grim truth for Arsenal is that all too much remains the same. (© Daily Telegraph, London)