Maurizio Sarri has been ridiculed from all angles this season, but returned from Baku with his first major trophy, at Arsenal’s expense, as the Gunners’ limp display posed more questions than answers as to where they are at.
Four final defeats in a row, even with Europa League expert Unai Emery at the helm, means the perennial chokers tag that has been passed around a host of European clubs can sit proudly on the mantelpiece at the Emirates.
Yet, it was the manner of the defeat that will be most worrying to Arsenal fans who face another season in Europe’s B League competition, which, when you are attempting to attract talent to reinvigorate a sleeping giant, is hardly a key selling point.
Arsenal were widely tipped to take home a first European trophy since 1994 from Azerbaijan, especially with a manager so well versed in Europa League warfare at the helm.
Emery is the epitome of a cup specialist. His league finishes with Sevilla were fine, a little better than was to be expected at best, but on the continent, to guide a club of Sevilla’s stature – one that only the most ardent Sevillistas would label a top club – to three successive European titles? More than impressive.
Only Arsenal, therefore, could turn this seasoned pro on the Europa circuit into a gesticulating bystander, watching on as his hapless charges sink rather than swim.
The atmosphere in the not-so-full Baku Olympic Stadium on the shores of the Caspian Sea did little to energise the players as we approached midnight in the Europa League final on Wednesday night/Thursday morning.
However, with 20 minutes on the clock, there looked like there was to be only one winner as Granit Xhaka nonchalantly sprayed the ball around at will, and Arsenal’s frontmen looked in the mood to pounce.
Arsenal had very strong shouts, from the bench rather than the disinterested fans on the terraces, for a penalty turned down inside the first half hour after Alexandre Lacazette appeared to be felled by Kepa Arrizabalaga, and who knows, had that have been given, the result could have been a very different one.
Nonetheless, what followed cannot be put down to luck, or even Chelsea blowing their opponents away. Yes Eden Hazard stepped it up a gear, with his penetrating running putting the jitters up a fragile Arsenal rearguard, but Arsenal were masters of their own downfall in Baku, as they once again failed to produce the goods when it mattered.
The inquest will have begun, but the outcome will be pretty straight forward – nobody played to their potential, not one player, with the usual protagonists in a capitulation trying to outdo each other in ineffectiveness.
Mesut Ozil is often that figure of ridicule, the poster boy of the limp defeat, but he was anonymous even by his standards, and will only intensify the chatter among Arsenal fans that he is a luxury player, not one you need when searching for improvement.
Yet, Ozil is not the only one, and therefore cannot be singled out. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Lacazette have been unplayable at times this season, but only started to create anything when the game was already lost.
Sead Kolasinac looked like a deer in headlights when Hazard hit full throttle, while Arsenal’s central defence was carved open all too readily. Lucas Torreira left the pitch in tears in the 67th minute, and who could blame him. Just get out of there.
The lack of investment from Stan Kroenke, who was nowhere to be seen in Baku, has been the target of the fans’ ire, but Emery must take a portion of the blame.
Sarri has been forced to work on a much more stringent budget, but look what he has achieved. Arsenal had the top four in their hands, with games against comfortable teams to come, and they blew it.
Part of the reason they fluffed their lines is Emery rotated with the Europa League run-in in mind, and while they swept aside Valencia with aplomb, the same gusto was not present in Baku.
“We need to speak with the club, speak with the players, and do one step more in our way,” Emery said after the match. “But our idea is to continue carrying on improving with the young players who arrived last year.
“Maybe some players need to leave, to take a new way. We are closer to the other teams. At the moment it’s not enough, but we can continue with the same team next year.”
Not exactly what Gunners fans want to hear – the same players, who finished fifth and lost another final - will be tasked with turning the club around.
If this was Arsene Wenger, those famous placards would be firmly held aloft on the streets of north London. Emery, not Sarri, has it all to do.News Now - Sport News