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.