Can Arsenal stay part of the Premier League race? Photo: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / AFP
Can Arsenal stay part of the Premier League race? Photo: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / AFP

Arsenal’s fight to stay relevant in Premier League

THE conclusion of last season was similar yet very different for two old north London neighbours. Both European finalists, both losers - yet the context of those defeats could not have been more different.

Given it was their first Champions League final and the nature of their passage against Manchester City and Ajax, Tottenham's Champions League loss to Liverpool was tough for the club to endure, but it was not hopeless. If anything it set a new benchmark for Spurs' expectations under Mauricio Pochettino.

Arsenal's Europa League final capitulation to Chelsea, however, stuck to the script that the club has been reading far too long. It's a story of heart failure, on the field, in the boardroom, in the stands.

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For a club of Arsenal's standing and resources, the nature of that defeat was offensive. It was as shattering as anything under the late stages of Arsene Wenger's reign. This was Arsenal's fifth European cup final since 1994 - and they have lost every one.

Unai Emery was never going to be a transformative figure like Jurgen Klopp or Pop Guardiola, but the "Weng-over" lasted longer than anyone predicted at the Emirates, with the lack of a clear vision on the field often ending in familiar ways. Like the nine goals shipped against Crystal Palace, Wolves and Leicester at the end of the domestic season that stopped short in fifth place.

The Europa League final, then, was a chance to give that season of underachievement a silver sheen and sneak into the Champions League through the back door. The disintegration against familiar foes and the lack of heart shown by the players illustrated that Arsenal didn't even deserve that.

Brazilian David Luiz makes the switch from Chelsea.
Brazilian David Luiz makes the switch from Chelsea.

The failure on the field has been matched by a lack of vision in the boardroom with Arsenal fans growing increasingly antagonistic towards American owner Stan Kroenke, whom they see as holding the club back as he skims the cream off the inflated Premier League earnings.

Missing the Champions League for the third season in a row does nothing for the club's ability to attract top players, either financially or by reputation, and Gunners fans feel Kroenke sees the club as little more than an investment vehicle.

Moving into their glittering Emirates Stadium was supposed to be a new era for Arsenal; instead the club appear to be going backwards in such a fashion they might actually slip through a hole in the space-time continuum and wake up at Highbury one Saturday morning.

But, new season, new hope. Even Kroenke must have seen what was at risk if the club didn't significantly invest in talent, and the signings of three defenders plus a club record fee for a forward shows Emery's priorities, as well as the problems Arsenal face this season.

There will plenty of expectation on Nicolas Pepe this season.
There will plenty of expectation on Nicolas Pepe this season.

Highly rated 22-year-old Kieran Tierney arrives from Celtic for $44 million and Gunners fans will no doubt be hoping for an Andy Robertson-style impact for their new Scottish leftback.

The next face to shore up Emery's defence was more surprising but hopefully much more influential. Centreback David Luiz was a snip at $14m from Chelsea, and the 32-year-old Brazilian brings a vast amount of experience, even if it does come at the cost of some occasional hilarious defensive bloopers. Luiz is often portrayed as something of a clown in the Premier League but you don't play for Brazil at the World Cup without being quite good at football.

But it is the $128m spent on attacking winger Nicolas Pepe that caught most people by surprise. Not simply because it is the sort of money Arsene Wenger would've once snorted at, Gallicly. But because Pepe was one of the hottest names in Europe, after a blistering Ligue 1 season with Lille, during which he delivered 22 goals and 11 assists.

But Pepe isn't the man to save Arsenal's relevancy in the Premier League. Emery must show he can build a team with an identity. And one preferably more like Wenger's Invincibles, rather than the more recent Unconvincables.

Last weekend's unflattering 1-0 win over Newcastle was unfortunately more like the latter. Yes, Arsenal were missing at least five first choice selections and Pepe's introduction was a 20-minute cameo but it was a flat, uninspiring performance, save for the determination not to roll over for a Newcastle team that look destined for the drop.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang scored the only goal against Newcastle. Photo: Owen Humphreys/PA via AP
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang scored the only goal against Newcastle. Photo: Owen Humphreys/PA via AP

What will be more enlightening is the performance against Burnley on Saturday evening, Australian time. This home fixture is just the sort of game the old Arsenal would have love to have stuffed up.

If only Emery could snaffle some of The Clarets' identity when Burnley travel down to London for the early kick off. Without the anchor or European football dragging them down, Sean Dyche's confrontational side will be a pain in the backside for the top teams once again this season. Burnley will not back down and Arsenal will be forced to match their boldness and beat their desire if the Emirates is not to be a very grumpy place 90 minutes later.

These are the games Emery will have to impose his will on if Arsenal are to have any role in the top four discussion. Expect the fight, be ready for it and overcome it. If not, Arsenal will spend the rest of their season looking over the shoulders at the likes of Everton, Leicester and Wolves.

Emery's side have not earned the arrogance of Liverpool or the single-mindedness of Manchester City but they must start playing like they have. Or perhaps they can carve out their own identity once again. Arsenal don't have to be invincible - they just have to be relevant.