Since the dark days of lockdown, Arsenal have been engaged in a major branding exercise aimed at reconnecting with supporters.
Club staff have conducted thousands of interviews with fans in the UK and overseas, particularly in Los Angeles and Shanghai, in an attempt to gauge what they had been doing right and where they had gone wrong during the tempestuous post-Arsene Wenger era.
“We wanted to make sure we were keeping ourselves on track after what had been quite a torrid time,” chief commercial officer Juliet Slot told City A.M. last month.
That project remains a work in progress but Arsenal have already used some of the findings to shape a refresh of their public image.
In response to fans highlighting how much they value their links to London and the community, the club launched a campaign promoting local businesses, Arsenal Supporting Supporters.
One of the short, funny promo films, which saw goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale visit a north London fish and chip shop and featured a cameo from former Gunners stopper David Seaman, went viral in February and has racked up 2m views on Twitter alone.
All of this work could be easily dismissed as meaningless window-dressing without good results on the field, however – and, until the last few weeks, Arsenal were delivering them.
Mikel Arteta’s team recovered from a rocky start to the season to establish themselves as surprise contenders to finish in the top four and achieve a return to the Champions League for the first time since Wenger left in 2018.
Built around a clutch of exciting young attacking players – two of them, Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe, home grown – Arteta’s Arsenal were also doing their bit to reconnect with fans and carve out a fresh and compelling new identity for the club.
But in the last three weeks that feel-good factor has evaporated as their campaign has threatened to unravel, with three consecutive Premier League defeats against teams they were fancied to beat in Crystal Palace, Brighton and, on Saturday, Southampton.
Those results have not only left them behind rivals Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United in the race for fourth place but also raised uncomfortable questions about to what extent they truly have progressed this term.
If Arsenal are to salvage their Champions League charge they will have to do it the hard way: in games against Chelsea, on Wednesday, and United, who visit on Saturday.
Arteta is in part carrying the can for the club’s January transfer window gamble of shedding several players without signing replacements.
Arsenal attempted to recruit a new striker but failed, released Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to Barcelona anyway, and have scored just 12 times in their last 10 matches.
Injuries to Takehiro Tomiyasu, Kieran Tierney and Thomas Partey, meanwhile, have exposed how threadbare the squad is when first-team players are unavailable.
Qualification for the Champions League could be transformative for Arsenal, unlocking tens of millions of pounds of additional income and attracting a higher calibre of summer signing with which to strengthen the squad.
With wins over Palace, Brighton and Southampton, those plans could have been well advanced by now. Instead they are, at best, on hold; at worst, in tatters.
Arsenal were not banking on a return to the Champions League next season, Slot said a few weeks ago, but “hopefully [being] in Europe would be really helpful”. Even that is by no means assured as long as they remain in freefall.
Arteta has already steered his team back on track after mini-crises in August and January. He will need to do it a third time or risk much of the progress, both on and off the field, going to waste.