On Saturday, I did the unthinkable. I left my open beer sitting on the table next to me untouched for 75 minutes in the second half and stoppage time of the FA Cup.
Like many soccer fans, I tend to enjoy a cold adult beverage during my favorite soccer teams’ matches, primarily to calm my jittery nerves. However, during the FA Cup Final, I was too nervous to even think about enjoying the cold one sitting next to me as I watched Arsenal almost choke again in a cup final.
It was more than just the idea of extending the trophy-less streak or having to deal with the taunts of my Manchester United-loving friends. It was the thought that regardless of what happened, Arsene Wenger would be back. The club would again spend money on a few players but lack quality depth, and Arsenal would go into the 2014-2015 season as a team more likely to struggle for fourth than first.
In a way, the FA Cup is a curse almost as much as a blessing. Taken one way, it can be seen as a justification for the club’s practices. Look, the blind faithful can say, we were atop the table most of the season and we won a trophy. If it were not for those free spending clubs like Manchester City, we could win the league. However we play in an unfair system where good citizens like us are doomed to be at an inherent disadvantage to teams throwing around obscene transfer numbers.
But this view is wrong and a dangerous one to have. It is apparent to most fans that Arsenal are a flawed team. Yes, injuries hit the squad particularly hard this season. However, it was in the areas where injuries were not as much an issue where the lack of quality depth was exposed. Theo Walcott’s injury robbed Arsenal of an experienced speedster who could break teams that stacked the midfield and pressed Arsenal to turning possession over; why does Arsenal only have one such experienced player? Olivier Giroud is a quality forward in this league, but what was available when Arsenal needed a different skill set? I think Yaya Sonogo could one day be a top notch forward, but not now and not for a title contender. Thankfully for Arsenal, the midfield was reinforced, otherwise the battle for fourth may have been much closer.
I will not rehash the tactical criticisms of Arsenal or Wenger’s style except to say I am discouraged to hear that regardless of Saturday’s outcome, he would have returned. In one regard, the true faithful are correct in that the Gunners cannot compete completely with the finances of Chelsea or the two Manchester sides. But that does not mean they cannot compete. Arsenal have a global brand and new lucrative sponsorships that free up cash not previously available for investment. The club may not be able to spend £50 million on a couple of players, but they can spend an almost equivalent amount on multiple players that would push into the starting XI or provide little drop off during squad rotation and injuries. The scouting acumen that made Wenger’s legacy still has a place in the modern game, it is just the cash amount that accompanies it has risen.
Among the Arsenal faithful, it is easy to breathe a sigh of relief as we put down Fever Pitch and re-watch our recording of the victory parade in London. After all, it’s been nine years since we’ve had such a parade and the relief is wonderful. Although, we must not give into the temptation to rest on our laurels and assume we have reached a point where competition for trophies becomes easier because “we have our first”.
Environment matters, and the short-term is murky for Arsenal. Manchester City will return their staff after a season of adjustment and have as always money to spend to fix weaknesses. Liverpool have a good core that almost won the title and, again, have money to spend in this transfer window. Chelsea are Chelsea, and the Special One has a chance to continue building his Chelsea team. Manchester United will be without Champions League football and have a new coach, but they undoubtedly will spend to bring in quality and will lack the schedule congestion of a top four club (just ask Liverpool how that feels). Globally, competitors like Barcelona and Bayern Munich will be in the market driving up the prices for quality and making “diamonds in the rough” harder to find.
Doing the same as Arsenal has done in recent years will not be sufficient. Relying on just enough first team talent to survive may again win Arsenal a cup and a Champions League place, but it is only a matter of time before the club falls prey to its negligence. As teams around them spend smarter and tactically adjust to the newest trends, Arsenal will rely on a formula that had failed, but not failed enough to do real damage. Arsenal need to prevent this by not resting on their newfound success and instead work hard, invest harder, and make their FA Cup a first step to competing rather than a high point in this decade.