Arsenal capitulated to a 4-1 defeat to Chelsea in the Europa League final in Baku and the result will have big consequences. This undermines confidence in Unai Emery’s ability to rebuild the Gunners and damages the financial capacity to do so too, writes Adam Bate.
Unai Emery might have been the master of the Europa League having won the competition three times with Sevilla but even he could not get the job done with Arsenal. It is a quarter of a century since the Gunners won a European trophy and that wait will go on after this 4-1 defeat to Chelsea in Baku. It is a result that undermines Emery’s efforts to rebuild this team.
For Arsenal, and only Arsenal, there was a place in next season’s Champions League at stake. It was they who had more supporters in the stadium. Only their players were on a bonus for winning this competition. Only their team were committed to an open-top bus parade should they bring the trophy back to London. It was a bigger game for them.
The hope beforehand was that this could be the catalyst to transform the club and they played with some purpose early on. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang had the first chance, Alexandre Lacazette had a good penalty shout and Granit Xhaka clipped the crossbar. But then Chelsea woke up from their slumber and Arsenal disintegrated in dismal fashion.
Olivier Giroud beat Laurent Koscielny to a cross, Pedro steered home a second. Eden Hazard made it three from the spot and though Alex Iwobi pulled one back, the Belgian then scored again to make it four. Make no mistake, this was miserable. Arsenal are the first team to concede four in a single half of a Europa League final in any of its incarnations dating back 47 years.
“I did not promise titles, I promised to compete,” Emery pointed out this week, but this wasn’t competing. This was Arsenal at their worst. Giving it a go for a bit before capitulating in the face of adversity. No wonder Emery mentioned that Arsenal had “lost the competitive gene” and no wonder Petr Cech questioned whether losing mattered enough at this club.
While this result will come as a painful blow to those loyal fans who trekked across a continent to witness it in the flesh, those words of manager and goalkeeper are enough to illustrate that few will be too shocked by all this. Everyone is acutely aware that a rebuild is required. Everyone acknowledges that it will take huge change to take the club forwards.
Emery’s comments in April were forthright but optimistic. “I think we can improve first, by spending money to bring in players,” he said. But the fact that he picked out the example of Virgil van Dijk’s transformative effect at Liverpool is an indication of how much money that Arsenal will need to spend in order to instigate that transformation. Do they have it?
The club’s director of football Raul Sanllehi insists that Arsenal have a “very good plan” in place to strengthen key positions and that offers some encouragement. But what they also needed in Baku was to see some evidence that the team is on the right path and are ripe to develop under Emery, as Liverpool were under Jurgen Klopp before Van Dijk’s arrival.
They did not get it and it is still not apparent in which direction that Arsenal even want to go. Emery has spoken of a desire to play “chameleon football” and be able to transition from possession football to counter-attacking football depending on the situation. But that can appear disjointed when, say, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Mesut Ozil prefer differing styles.
Some supporters have been appreciative of this willingness to adapt after the dogmatic approach of Arsene Wenger. Others crave the sort of commitment to a clear philosophy that has brought such success elsewhere. Emery is still searching for balance but this game showed that he is yet to find it. Arsenal had the ninth best Premier League defence for a reason.
One victory in Baku was not going to make those problems go away, but it would have brought Champions League funding. It would have brought time and trust, qualities that it seems are important to Emery after his experiences in Paris. “At Arsenal, I have the feeling, for the first time, of winning to build, not to survive,” he had said on the eve of the game.