Arsenal supporters were warned to be careful what they wished for when they hounded Arsene Wenger out of the club a year ago. That is not to say the Frenchman would have marked 23 years in charge by winning or even reaching this European final, but it is clear that his replacement Unai Emery now faces an even tougher challenge to make Arsenal competitive again.
Failure to take advantage of their prolonged first half dominance in Baku ultimately betrayed a lack of quality and conviction at this level. Chelsea are serial trophy winners — failing to win one in only four of the last 15 years — while Arsenal have not triumphed in Europe since 1994 and were ultimately outclassed. Despite the margin of this defeat and an end of season collapse that cost Champions League qualification via the Premier League, it would be unfair to say Emery has taken Arsenal backwards single handedly.
The owners and people running the club have more than played their part. Emery, like Wenger before him, has maintained Arsenal as contenders of sorts with little or no help from the Arsenal board and disinterested owner Stan Kroenke.
Some pundits said to only judge Emery after a few transfer windows. Well, he did not have a single penny to spend in January and this result means he will be financially restricted again this summer. Ivan Gazidis, the financial mastermind who tied Mesut Ozil down to a huge contract Arsenal cannot afford to break, was the driving force behind Emery’s recruitment from Paris St Germain.
The chief executive’s departure to AC Milan man a few months into his reign hardly showed much faith in the long-term future of the club. Head of recruitment Sven Mislintat, who was part of the three-man selection trio along with Raul Sanllehi, also departed at the start of this year.
And what about Ozil? The German is one of the best paid players in the history of the game and with that comes an onus to play to his best in big matches. He slumped off after being substituted last night without any hint of urgency. Poor Emery was left to soldier on almost alone and was just one match away from pulling it off.
And to think Chelsea are changing managers yet again after regaining Champions League football via the league and winning a trophy. What Emery and Arsenal do next is anyone’s guess but the Spanish coach will not be able to buy his way out of trouble on another season of Europa League money.
For nearly two decades Arsenal supporters laughed at north London rivals Tottenham for playing on Thursday nights, but much more of this and that will all be a distant memory. If Liverpool fail to win the Champions League final on Saturday night then this Chelsea defeat will feel even worse.
Players linked to Arsenal’s revival, and not many aren’t, include Leicester and England defender Harry Maguire, especially with Laurent Koscielny said to be moving on. But his transfer fee alone is more than Arsenal’s revised £40m summer budget.
Emery has long wanted a winger and after a disastrous loan signing of Barcelona’s Denis Suarez last January he is tempted by Lille’s 24-year-old wide man Nicolas Pepe, but that looks an even longer shot now. Aaron Ramsey, Petr Cech and Danny Welbeck are among the big names all out of contract and leaving too.
The likelihood is Emery will have to promote from within and give youth a chance. It is a policy he employed with little success last night in the form of the versatile Ainsley Maitland-Niles. The England under-21 international who turns 22 in August has proved such an able replacement for the badly injured Hector Bellerin.
But, like his team-mates, he faded in the second half after impressing in the right wing-back role for the first 45 minutes, dominating his side of the pitch and creating a couple of dangerous attacks from the flank. His emergence as a player of genuine first team potential is one of the reasons last summer’s recruit Stephan Lichsteiner, the Switzerland captain, will also be allowed to leave just 12 months on.
Other promising players at his disposal include striker Eddie Nketiah, an unused substitute in Baku, who was increasingly being eased into first team action as the season neared conclusion. Attacking midfielder Joe Willock, who did get on and missed a couple of chances, will get more opportunities next season too.
And it will be interesting to see what Emery does with players such as Emile Smith-Rowe and Reiss Nelson, who will both be available after loan spells of varying success in Germany’s Bundesliga. Hardly too exciting for Arsenal supporters or the remaining players and failure in this match will make rival clubs increasingly tempted to lure the likes of forwards Alex Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang away from north London.
Arsenal played for Emery and battled until the final whistle but they were a spent force long before then. The club needs a new vision and so many new players to be competitive again.
Based on their finish to the league season in which they won only one of their final five games and this Baku capitulation they face many years in the wilderness of Thursday night football before they can be regarded as genuine challengers again.