Just when a beautiful story, which famously began with a newspaper asking ‘Arsene Who?’ looked to be instead ending with a headline of‘Arsenal Who?’, the Gunners have taken one tiny step torediscovering their identity.
Almost 23 years and three months since a relatively unknown Arsene Wenger walked into Highbury and, to the surprise of his critics, transformed both Arsenal and the Premier League, his former side’s first-half performance at the London Stadium was almost entirely unrecognisable from the brand he created.
The fear amongst Arsenal fans at that stage, as they contemplated their side going 10 games without a win, must have been that everything Wenger built over two decades was in danger of disappearing into the ether; and it has certainly felt that way over the last few months.
How important, then, could second-half goals from young Gabriel Martinelli, Nicolas Pépé and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang be to the future of this Arsenal team?
Brighton defender Adam Webster hit the nail on the end last weekend when he said, after his side’s shock victory at the Emirates, that Arsenal had “lost their identity”.
On reflection, he seemed right. What is the philosophy of this Arsenal side? What is the vision? What is the style of play or the dream they all share? Astonishingly we have gone from everyone on the football planet being able to tell you how Arsenal play football to most people, even their own fans, struggling to identify what this team is about.
So, thank goodness they finally showed a bit of character in the east end of London to halt what seemed to be a perilous and never-ending slide.
The big questions that were always going to be asked after this match — no matter what the result — are still relevant, however. Where do Arsenal go from here, and how big does the revolution have to be?
Any hopes that the installation of a Gunners legend as temporary manager, plus a tweak to the team here and there, would be enough to patch over their deep-lying problems have already disappeared into a cloud marked ‘dreamland’, despite this morale-boosting result. So, now the time has come for reality.
To his credit, Ljungberg took the opportunity to start the ball rolling by dropping David Luiz, always first in line when it comes to managers searching for a victim, and splitting up the Aubameyang-Lacazette partnership — a strikeforce that looks good on paper but somehow awkward in reality.
He was rewarded with the goal and performance of Martinelli but, even in victory, nobody could claim their defensive problems were also solved in a first half in which Angelo Ogbonna headed home unchallenged.
There are so many problems still to fix that many critics believe only root-and-branch surgery can saveArsenal from meandering deeper into the darkness they were heading listlesslytowards until awakened from their slumbers in the second half here.
Ljungberg’s side have at least avoided going a 10th game in a row without winning, something which hasn’t happened since 1977 when Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky won an Oscar for best film, Red Rum won his third Grand National, and a crater on the planet Mercury was named after WB Yeats.
Let’s be honest, there’s more chance of the Moon being renamed in honour of David Luiz than this Arsenal team, which used to provide us with football poetry, returning to those heights any time soon, no matter what Ljungberg can conjure.
Some of the questions asked over and over again in the latter days of Wenger’s reign have still not been answered, even in victory against a poor West Ham side.
Why have they not sorted a defence that has been a problem for so many years? Why do they continue to play short passes at the back when their current players are not good enough to make it work? Why are there no genuine leaders on the field?
You can add to that a discussion around Arsenal’s terrible injury record — which seems to have been going on for a decade.
Yet again they lost men to injury here, Hector Bellerin (only just back from long-term absence) in the warm-up and Kieran Tierney in the first half. Unlucky? Perhaps. But Arsenal’s treatment room has a longer waiting list than the NHS — and it never seems to clear.
Whoever takes over from Ljungberg will need to add that to a very long list of things to investigate and resolve. A list which starts with rediscovering, or perhaps rewriting, the club’s identity.
The number of men wanting to take on the job, despite the club’s obvious problems, is as long as the queue at theArsenal physio’s door, and is currently headed by former Valencia manager Marcelino.
The Spaniard, out of work since September, was named as favourite by bookies today and is joined on the list by the likes of Mikel Arteta, Patrick Vieira, Massimiliano Allegri, and Carlo Ancelotti.
The size of the job cannot be underestimated, even if the pill is sugared by victory at West Ham. Can anyone truly see an Arsenal future in which the likes of Mesut Ozil, Granit Xhaka, David Luiz, Lucas Torreira, Sokratis, and Calum Chambers play big roles? Or one in which Aubameyang opts to stay despite overtures from Real Madrid?
The rebuilding job is a big one, and it will take a special manager to lead it. Whoever does so should ask one vital question straight away: Who are Arsenal in 2020?
At least there was a glimpse of the answer here in east London.