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Can Arteta Really Change Arsenal or are they Europa League Bound Forever?

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Arsenal's steady decline nears rock bottom

Sixteen years ago, Arsenal were not just the kings of north London or the capital itself, but the entirety of England – and they did it without losing a single game. Since that magical season, the Gunners have slid down the Premier League table, and when they finally ended their nine-year trophy drought after they lifted the FA Cup in 2013-14, it was supposed to springboard the club back to the top. It has not quite gone as planned.

Yes, Arsenal won the prestigious cup the following year and again in 2016-17, but the club have struggled immensely since, missing out on UEFA Champions League football for the first time since Arsene Wenger had arrived in 1996. After another disappointing season, Wenger headed to the exit and was replaced by Unai Emery, who oversaw a dismal career in north London; a Europa League final appearance was the highlight in his short reign. Now it is former-midfielder and club captain Mikel Arteta’s turn to try and bring the club back to the fore – although it appears even a European place in any capacity is going to be hard to come by at the season’s end.

Since the Premier League resumed in England, Arsenal have struggled. A resounding 3-0 defeat at the hands of Manchester City – and David Luiz – was followed up by a shocking 2-1 loss to struggling Brighton. A win over Southampton has steadied the ship – but for how long?

To Win The 2020/21 Premier League

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Arsenal @ 66/1

Lack of Contracts Shining a light on the mess

Now, this is perhaps the biggest bone of contention amongst Arsenal fans. Has any other major club suffered as many high-profile cases of star players running their contract down and using it as an instrument to leave? Robin van Persie and Alexis Sanchez were the two biggest departures in recent memory as they both moved to Old Trafford for next to nothing, with the former being far more successful than the latter.

It doesn’t stop there, though. Mesut Ozil was famously six months away from leaving the club for free and used his position as a ‘big name’ to engineer a contract that has seemingly battered the finances of Arsenal. Looking back on it, I’m sure both the club and its fans wish that the deal hadn’t been offered – yet another mistake by club bosses. The latest episode of this depressing series of events is the cloudy future of current club captain and star attacker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.

Aubameyang, who has 17 goals in 29 Premier League appearances this season, is highly coveted and many of the European footballing giants are aware of his situation. Barcelona and Juventus are believed to be at the front of the queue, and it remains to be seen whether Arsenal and Arteta can convince their star man to stay and help the club return to glory. On top of that, local talent Bukayo Saka has burst onto the scene this season – and his contract also expires at the end of next season. He will not be short of suitors.

Rather ironically, the Gunners have managed to secure the future of error-prone centre-back David Luiz. Luiz has given away four penalties in an Arsenal shirt since signing from London rivals Chelsea, and fans were left disgruntled – but ultimately unsurprised – when news broke that the Brazilian had penned a one-year deal to stay at the club through next season.

The defence is truly shambolic

When you look at the Arsenal team that were invincible in the 2003-04 Premier League season, the quality of defensive players is often overshadowed by the world-class offensive talent that was at Arsene Wenger’s disposal.

Ashley Cole, Sol Campbell and Jens Lehmann were the highlights in that back-line – and how do they compare to today? Outside of Bernd Leno and Hector Bellerin to a lesser extent, Arsenal’s current defenders inspire little to no confidence and this has been the case for some time.

Gunners fans will be praying that highly-rated centre-back William Saliba can transition to English football and settle quickly, and those at the top may need to bring in more recruits as Arsenal’s rivals all strengthen ahead of the 2020-21 season.

Mikel Arteta has been alright since being hired, and his true progress will be assessed following a transfer window or two. The defence – and midfield – appear to be the most necessary units to address.

Top Six Finish In The 2019/20 Season

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Arsenal @ 12/1

Just get European Football of any kind, for now

Arsenal began the season as contenders for a top four finish and the UEFA Champions League place that comes with it, only to have the harsh reality of Unai Emery and average performances derail such expectations. Arsenal currently sit in ninth position in the Premier League – behind Sheffield United – and the Gunners certainly don’t have an easy run-in.

They face Wolves, Leicester City, Tottenham and newly-crowned champions Liverpool – all in the space of 11 days as four of Arsenal’s final seven games in the league. Each of those teams are above the Gunners in the league – so a tough and unrewarding finale to the season could be on the cards for Arteta’s men.

Missing out on European football entirely might be a blessing in disguise for Arsenal. It certainly was for Chelsea – the Blues went from a tenth placed finish in 2015-16 to winning the title the next year under Antonio Conte. It is obviously set to be a greater challenge for Arsenal, but improvement is needed – and a break from mid-week football may be it. Now, the difficulty lies in convincing Aubameyang and Saka that this is the case.

If Arsenal remain where they are a year from now, fans should be fearful that it could well be the beginning of a new dawn in competing for a Europa League spot, rather than anything greater.

By Andrew Gamble