Not to rain on Arsenal’s parade following their successful week with a 2-0 win over AC Milan in the Europa League and a 3-0 home win over Watford but the fact still remains that the club is in a very bad place right now. As Arsenal walked off the field following a 2-1 defeat at the hands of Brighton FC — a club that has just been promoted to the Premier League this season this past Sunday — it felt like more than an embarrassing defeat for the former giants of North London. It felt like rock bottom.
It was the club’s sixth loss in its past eight games and its fourth straight defeat since losing the North London Derby to Tottenham. Prior to that, the team suffered consecutive 3-0 losses at the hands of Manchester City. The Gunners only have 13 wins in 29 games this season, achieving a lowly 44.8 win percentage — the lowest mark for the club in all of Arsène Wenger’s 22 years as manager.
Up until the team’s win over Milan it hadn’t produced a clean sheet in 11 games — its worst run in 16 years — and the club has accounted for only 45 points on the EPL table thus far, putting it closer to seventh-place Burnley than fifth-place Chelsea. Finishing fifth in league last season was a new low for Wenger, but his team may be lucky to hold on to even sixth place this year, considering the club’s current form.
Crisis has become the new modus operandi at Arsenal over the last few years, but this current stretch appears to be less an annual hiccup than a symptom of a terminal illness that has been slowly eating away at the organization’s strength and ambition. A club that once won league titles hasn’t finished atop the Premier League since the “Invincibles” of 2004, and a team that historically challenged for Champions League trophies hasn’t made it out of the round of 16 since 2009. The legendary players from Arsenal’s golden age, such as Thierry Henry, Robin van Persie and Dennis Bergkamp eventually left the team, but the one constant throughout the club’s inevitable changes has been Wenger.
The Frenchman was an innovator when he first arrived on English shores, introducing new training methods, a focus on international scouting and a style of play based around possession football with slick passing and swift attacking — but as the game has evolved, Arsenal has failed to adapt along with it.
Arsenal’s construction of a new stadium in the mid-2000s certainly hampered the club’s ability to compete for talent with deeper-pocketed Manchester United, Chelsea (at the time) and Manchester City, but the franchise has long since balanced its books and has remained one of the most valuable clubs in the world. If anything, the Arsenal board and its majority owner Stan Kroenke have demonstrated little ambition or incentive for the club to win more trophies or seriously compete amongst their contemporaries in Europe, preferring instead to increase revenue without seriously investing in roster improvements .
This environment has allowed Wenger to stubbornly hold onto his professional philosophy and produce good — but not great — teams, even as other clubs in Europe began to drastically increase spending and investments in world-class players and managers. The message from the Gunners’ ownership group seemed to be that as long as Wenger made sure that Arsenal competed in the prestigious UEFA Champions League, won a few FA Cups or Community Shields and played an entertaining brand of football, then that would constitute a job well done. Sure, the fans would be disappointed the team wouldn’t win any Premier League titles or come close to a Champions League trophy, but big name signings such as Alexis Sánchez or Mesut Özil would provide the valuable illusion that the club was attempting to do so and offer just enough hope for the fan base to dream of returning to the “good ol’ days” and make sure that the stadium stayed filled on match days. Heck, maybe they’d even luck into an EPL title along the way, providing them even more leeway to maintain the status quo.
Yet the cracks in Arsenal’s strategy of complacency have begun to widen with each successive season the club has failed to bring home titles or even seriously challenge their opponents on the pitch. Arsenal’s predictable round of 16 exits in the UCL became a meme, culminating with consecutive 5-1 defeats at the hands of Bayern Munich — a serious wake-up call that went unanswered in North London.The emergence of perpetual “little brother” Tottenham and the simultaneous regression of Wenger’s squads these past few campaigns appear to have nearly broken the once stout armor of the Arsenal.
All signs point to the Gunners finishing outside of the top four for the second year in a row and failing to qualify for the Champions League (unless they win the Europa League) for the first time under Wenger. If that does indeed happen, Wenger will almost certainly be fired — but even if he does get sacked, the club will still be left with deep structural issues that will take years, if not a decade or more, to fully address. The club is in need of a deep overhaul on an ideological level, with ambition, competitiveness, courage and spirit all in short supply.
The Wenger era may be coming to a close, but even if he leaves, the club will still be left wandering somewhere out there in the desert, still in search of the Promised Land.
Rory O’Toole writes for Bear Bytes, the Daily Californian’s sports blog. Contact him at [email protected]