What was initially billed as the likely denouement to the contrasting Chelsea careers of Maurizio Sarri and talisman Eden Hazard has, following the West Londoners’ second-half evisceration of Arsenal in last night’s Europe League final, instead switched the focus to Unai Emery’s underachievers and indeed the Spaniard’s own future at the Emirates.
The speculation over the future of Sarri at Stamford Bridge was such that it provoked a strong reaction from the Italian prior to Europe’s second-string conclusion in Baku; the former Napoli manager even suggesting he would depart prior to the final if his future at Chelsea depended upon the result. Since the Roman Abramovich revolution expectations have always been out of whack at the Bridge, but Sarri has done enough in his first season in English football to warrant at least another campaign, albeit potentially operating under restrictive conditions should the club’s transfer ban spanning two windows be upheld.
The future of Eden Hazard was always going to be decided at the end of the current season, although a protracted end to the campaign by dint of Chelsea’s involvement in the Europa League final has prolonged the agony for the Blues’ supporters, most of whom expect the worst. Indeed, when pushed last night on the issue by a BT Sport interviewer the Belgian, always gracious, patient, and humble suggested a goodbye to West London was likely, albeit without any definitive deal in place with Real Madrid, or any other suitor. Hazard has done his best for the club and whilst some believe there was often more to come from the mercurial 28-year old, an at times need to carry his teammates in sides sometimes vastly out of sync with his top-tier abilities has inevitably impinged upon his efficacy. Seven years of service and over 100 goals from an advanced midfield position will be almost impossible to replace; an estimated transfer fee between £80-120 million will aid Chelsea little in their quest to source Hazard’s successor if their transfer embargo is upheld. With vast playing resources already on the West Londoners’ roster there can never be a more pertinent time for the club to take the money and punishment whilst clearing the path for the likes of Mason Mount, Tammy Abraham, and Kurt Zouma to become first team regulars.
With hindsight Baku’s sparsely populated Olympic Stadium played host to more than just an inconveniently located dust up between London rivals, also representing something of a ‘sliding doors’ moment for both sides. Had Arsenal prevailed a place in next year’s Champions’ League would have been theirs, something they could already have secured if not for an end of Premier League season collapse. Chelsea would then have considered their season a failure, albeit after a third-place finish twenty-six points behind Manchester City and a Carabao Cup final defeat to Pep Guardiola’s all-conquering side. A heavily rumoured switch to Juventus would then have been inevitable for Sarri, seemingly and justifiably discontent with constant criticism of Chelsea’s season and his methods. Whilst the Italian’s stock has shot up in the wake of such a dominant second-half performance in Baku it is the Spaniard Emery who is now being forced to justify his existence at Arsenal following a season that can hardly be considered an upgrade from the final few ‘never can say goodbye’ campaigns overseen by predecessor, Arsene Wenger.
Eden Hazard is everything Mesut Oezil has never been for Arsenal. The German of Turkish heritage has always been over-rated, over-remunerated, and for too long seen as an untouchable despite his telling contributions being all too fleeting. Substituted in Baku with barely a whimper Oezil has for too long drawn a hefty salary from his employer without ever threatening to justify it, often exuding detachment and disinterest. Locked into a lucrative deal for two more years there will be no obligation for the player to leave, even if asked to do so by his employer. Unless the 30-year old is willing to take a significant drop in salary the clubs most interested in securing his services, presumably in both Germany and Turkey, will be priced out of the market. Freeing up a reported £15 million a season paid for what are negligible returns could enable Arsenal to recruit up to three additions to their squad.
Analyzing the component parts of Arsenal’s squad very much reminds me of the haphazard manner in which Manchester United assembled a collection of players mostly unworthy of playing for the club. An amalgam of expensive recruits and low to middle ranking fees paid for those who are not yet ready for the rigours of Premier League football or indeed who never will be suggests Arsenal are still literally paying the price for moving to the Emirates, or are their wings being clipped by majority shareholder Stan Kroenke’s business model in a manner that wouldn’t have occurred if Uzbek Alisher Usmanov had taken the controls?
Supporters expect more quite simply because ‘they are Arsenal’ but the likes of Matteo Guendouzi, Alex Iwobi, Granit Xhaka, Mohamed Elneny, Carl Jenkinson, and Stephan Lichtsteiner hardly represent the stature of the club or have the ability to deliver results based even on realistic expectations. Ironically after arguably his best game for Arsenal Petr Cech has now retired and will leave the club, with injury-prone Danny Welbeck and failed loan recruit Denis Suarez also departing North London. Can though the club dare to make Mesut Oezil available for transfer at the same time their best and most accomplished player, Aaron Ramsey, is leaving on a lucrative ‘free’ to Juventus?
We are now approaching an unprecedented pre-season in which the potential levels of upheaval, even seismic change, at many of Europe’s leading clubs have aligned in a manner that isn’t reminiscent of any other time that I can recall. For every Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, and Barcelona there are Arsenal, Chelsea, and Manchester United – all of whom face difficult decisions of how to replace stars of yesteryear and/or those bought in error who will never cut it. A fascinating few months await supporters and neutral observers alike, but it is unlikely that all of those with the aforementioned clubs at heart will be satisfied by their respective remodelled squads come the end of August.