The first sensation for any Arsenal fan watching Manchester United’s 4-0 defeat at Brentford would have been that of schadenfreude. Fans still bear the scars of the intense rivalry of the 1990s and early 2000s and there are few teams they like to see suffer more.
But another feeling will have accompanied this delight: relief. Relief, it is now United, rather than Arsenal, who are currently the butt of Premier League jokes.
Watching United at the Gtech Community Stadium, Arsenal fans should have seen familiar sights: overpaid but underperforming players; a confusing team building strategy; a disgruntled fanbase; a goalkeeper unable to play the passing game required by the coach. Not so long ago it was Arsenal.
Arsenal have been where United are now. The parallels are clear: the success may have faded, but the histories of these two clubs still seem somewhat connected.
It is important to clarify that Arsenal are still not where they want to be. They have, as Mikel Arteta has regularly stated, achieved “nothing yet”. But it seems that with a clear and consistent strategy and backing their manager all the way – not just in terms of finances, but in terms of his authority – Arsenal are a few rungs higher on the recovery ladder. . United stumbles into a dark alley; Arsenal have at least turned the corner.
So what can United learn from Arsenal’s hard reset? The most obvious thing is the importance of establishing (and enforcing) cultural change. Arteta and Steve Round (who was an assistant under David Moyes at Old Trafford during the 2013-14 season), were almost obsessed with rebooting the London Colney culture when they arrived. They arrived at a club that felt broken.
“The first thing was that I got everyone together, the staff and the players, and told them what I thought of them and why it wasn’t working,” Arteta explains. “If we were to continue like this, it was never going to work.
“We’ve had to create the right culture for our club and it has to be an environment where first and foremost everyone has to respect each other, that we have to work together and we have to express the passion and the chance that we have to be where we are. are… Without this unity, we cannot sail this massive ship that we have to manage with Arsenal, and the expectations that come with the club.
These changes have not been easy. There have been a few costly victims of Arteta’s infamous ‘non-negotiables’ along the way – Mesut Ozil and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang perhaps most notably. It took the technical director (Edu Gaspar), board and club ownership to support Arteta every time, sometimes in cases that result in significant financial costs and many unflattering headlines. It was the only way to ensure the dressing room was run by the manager, not the players.
If United want Erik ten Hag to be that figurehead then they can’t waver in their support – and if the presence of an individual player threatens that authority then they may have to leave. The cost of terminating Cristiano Ronaldo’s contract may seem prohibitive, but it may be the only way out of an increasingly problematic situation.
One of the big changes for Arsenal came with the adoption of a clear policy around squad building. In 2021, Arsenal have made five summer signings, all aged 23 or younger. The intention was to rejuvenate the team, build for the future and create value among its player staff. It was expensive – no Premier League club spent more on transfer fees – but it was an investment.
In addition, they took the opportunity to create a more balanced payroll. Arsenal were mocked for spending £50m ($60.4m) on Ben White when United signed Raphael Varane for £34m. Over the course of their contracts, however, White will be considerably cheaper – and retain greater residual value.
The signings of Tyrell Malacia, Lisandro Martinez and Christian Eriksen offer United a mix of promising young players alongside an experienced veteran. It recalls some of Arsenal’s deals in 2018, when Sven Mislintat signed favorites from his former club Borussia Dortmund, as well as a number of young prospects. It was more of a scattergun than a strategic one.
The case of Martinez is particularly interesting. Arsenal followed him closely and offered to sign him this summer. Their intention, however, was to field him as a left-back. They wondered if a relatively small player could thrive in the middle of a Premier League defence. Based on early evidence, their apprehensions might have been well founded.
At Brentford, Eriksen played in the base of midfield. He was often the first pass for centre-backs but struggled to cope with the Brentford press. Arsenal had similar issues with Granit Xhaka but have since turned him into a more advanced midfielder. When something isn’t working, it’s important that you learn from it. Ten Hag must react quickly to save time.
As Ten Hag’s team evolves, it will be interesting to see how the role of the goalkeeper changes. At Brentford, David de Gea has been asked to play at the back – an area where he rarely looks comfortable. Although considered an excellent stopper, he is a relatively passive goalkeeper and not a strong passer.
Arsenal experienced this with Petr Cech, and to a lesser extent with Bernd Leno. That’s why the club backed Arteta in his desire to add Aaron Ramsdale. He’s still a young goalkeeper with room for improvement, but he mostly fits Arteta’s system and style of play. This is another area that Arsenal have benefited from: the manager has a clear vision of how he wants his team to set up, and afterwards it is easier for the technical director and the recruitment team to broad sense of identifying appropriate signatures.
One of Arteta’s most repeated words is ‘unity’. United, at the moment, feel like a fractured club. We see clips of fan unrest and the occasional infighting. It’s all very familiar to Arsenal fans – the frustration, the fan cameras, the feeling of being besieged by the media.
Things can change quickly. It was just a year ago that Arsenal suffered their own 2-0 humiliation at Brentford – after which Gary Neville’s post-match behavior on Sky looked quite different to what it was on Saturday. A solid finish at the transfer window, the signing of Martin Odegaard, Ramsdale and Takehiro Tomiyasu, significantly improved Arsenal’s fortunes. United can turn things around. It’s too early in the season, too early in Ten Hag’s reign to even guess how this season might end.
But the difference in mood between the two clubs at the moment is clear. Arsenal are not above making the mistakes that currently plague United. They’ve done a lot before. The difference seems to be the speed at which they learned from them.
(Top photo: Getty Images)