Another season is coming down the home stretch, and once again Arsenal are overachieving.
Yes, Arsenal are overachieving.
The Gunners are gunning for the Champions League places with a puncher’s chance at third, and a realistic shot at fourth. Arsenal are favorites to play in Europe’s top club competition for the 17th straight year, a streak only eclipsed in English football by Manchester United.
Sure, Arsene Wenger’s side will go an eighth straight year without adding to the trophy cabinet at the Emirates courtesy of a gallant failure in the Champions League against Bayern Munich, a thoroughly embarrassing exit from the ugly step-child of cup competitions (the aptly named Capital One Cup), and a poor defeat in the FA Cup (0-1 at home to Blackburn Rovers).
But can Arsenal really expect to win trophies anymore? The fact that Wenger simply has his team in line for the jackpot that is the Champions League for another season suggests that Arsenal may be the biggest overachievers ever in the Premier League.
Out of all the clubs in the top flight this season, over the last five years, Arsenal has the lowest net expenditure in the transfer market. Arsenal have a net transfer market tab of +£36,700,000. That puts the Gunners in 20th place for net money spent. They’ve been long relegated in the money race.
Sure, Arsenal have spent quite a bit of money over the last five years, but the money going out to buy new players is nowhere near the amount of money their rivals are spending. Arsenal have spent less than Manchester City and United, Chelsea, Tottenham, Liverpool, and even Aston Villa, while Sunderland are trailing closely behind.
But Arsenal are a selling club. The numbers prove that beyond a reasonable doubt. Wenger has sold players over the last five years to the tune of £182,400,000. Most, if not all, of Arsenal’s true big-name players have skipped out the door, a fact underlined by the startling truth that Arsenal have had a different captain each of the last three years, and will probably have a new skipper next year as well.
So sitting in third place, Arsenal are massively overachieving. And that’s exactly the problem.
None of what I’ve just written is hyperbole. Arsene Wenger has again got his team clicking at the right time. Arsenal are hitting their groove when it matters most, and Wenger has cajoled the most out of a team of players that would look more at home in the Europa League. He has managed to keep the club afloat even after selling stars like Fabregas and legends like Van Persie, year after year after year. That’s impressive.
But since when have the standards been so dramatically lowered that Arsenal are overachieving in third place? Overachieving in a season when they’ve been embarrassed time after time in cup competitions? A season where one of the world’s most storied clubs are 21 points off the league lead? Since when are Arsenal a selling club?
Understanding that Arsenal are outperforming their ability this season should give you a good idea of how far the club has fallen. The Gunners are in a sad state of decline. The club’s competitiveness has been rotting away ever since the Invincibles season in 2003-2004. Apathy has set in. Fourth place has become good enough.
Patrick Vieira has turned into Mikel Arteta. Thierry Henry turned into Olivier Giroud. Jens Lehmann is Lukas Fabianski. The club has gone from demanding and getting great, to asking for and often receiving good. How did the decline occur?
It would be easy to say Arsenal got complacent after they went undefeated in the Premier League in ’03-’04. To some extent, Wenger let the “Le Professor” talk go to his head. Arsenal got cocky. And 2004 was a bad time to get cocky. Manchester United were resurging, Chelsea and big money were bursting onto the scene, and Liverpool, under Steven Gerrard and Rafael Benitez, were making a comeback as well.
Wenger started selling players, thinking he could build his team from the ground up, coax young players into playing the beautiful game, while opening up a beautiful new stadium. He thought he, not his world-class team, was the most important part of Arsenal’s success.
At the time, his argument carried weight. The Emirates Arsenal were young, they played pretty, and Wenger said they only needed time. But when the kids grew up, they were sold. And once you’re a selling club, it’s hard to break out of being a selling club.
In fact, we’ve known that Wenger’s way hasn’t worked for half a decade. But Arsenal won’t fire him. And why should they? Wenger is still a top coach in terms of performing on the field, and he’s getting the best out of the team he has assembled. Problem is, he’s assembled a mediocre team, a team that looks worse than the previous year’s mediocre team, just as he has done for the better part of a decade.
While Chelsea’s way of doing business – sacking managers every half season – is inhumane, grotesque, stupefying, and often plain stupid, it keeps people well aware of the club’s expectations. Excellence, nothing less.
Manchester City, Real Madrid, Barcelona, PSG and Bayern — all of the top clubs all follow the same principle. They have no patience. Win, maintain and exceed the club’s high demands, and you may just keep your job.
Arsenal are like an old amusement park that had its heyday in the 1960’s, and has been slowly breaking down ever since, but isn’t willing to renovate for fear of losing the park’s old charm.
So the question to Arsenal fans is, is it acceptable to finish fourth every year? Acceptable to make a late season surge, but never gain silverware? Acceptable to sell the club’s best players? Wenger doesn’t need to be fired, he’s been to the mountain top, and he can find it again. He just needs a GPS.
The club needs to completely rethink its strategy, methods and expectations. They have a long way back to the top of English football. Arsenal are overachieving right now. And with the season they are having, that should never be good enough.