I know what you’re thinking, but you’re wrong. I know, I know, they’re top of the table going into February you say. Yeah, you’re wrong. But they have Özil now, and Ramsay’s hit POTY form!? Yeah, but shhh, you’re still wrong. Arsenal are not in the title race. In fact, at the risk of making this the epitaph of my writing career and a permanent bookmark on arsenal-mania, Arsenal have never been in this title race.*
Sure they’re top of the league, but to really be in with a shot at the title, one has to have already been in the race. To be in the race, one has to have already had a shot at the title. To conclusively prove the reasoning of this gibberish, we’ll have to go back to the beginning of football itself. 1992.
While it fills me with loathing to attach my thesis so specifically to the Murdoch mandated book of Genesis, it’d be disingenuous to pretend the requirements for success haven’t changed. In the same way no one would use the “beat Borussia Monchengladbach three times and then have a final” format of the old European Cup as a template for winning the Champions League, the machinations of winning the Premier League are so different now that earlier comparisons are irrelevant.
If history has taught us anything (and it has, it’s taught us everything. It’s history.) any side with realistic aspirations of becoming Champions need to warm themselves up with a dry run first. To put it simply, and factually, every side to win the league since it’s big money botox has either taken silver, or silverware the previous season.
All three of Arsenal’s successful PL era title campaigns were preceded by the glorious ignominy of the runner up spot – or at least the second highest points haul – a term earlier. Before their Wiltord wielded behind enemy lines triumph at Old Trafford in 2002 they’d spent three semesters as perennial bridesmaids to Manchester United’s post Treble dominance. Going into their notorious invincible season they’d not only grudgingly grabbed silver, but won the FA Cup twice on the trot to boot.
Even the United team who kickstarted English football’s glorious ascension from the shambolically run pass time of the working classes to the shambolically run plaything of the super-rich did not arrive fully formed in a carton marked “Just add Eric Cantona”. The Frenchman who’s name has become a byword for every prospective catalytic transfer from Shearer to Özil didn’t exactly heave eleven drunken lumps of mashed potato to the title. He added to a side that’d run the victorious 1992 Champions Leeds right to finish line, after leading themselves for most of the race. A side that had also been incrementally absorbing success with an FA Cup win in 1990, a European Cup Winners Cup win in ‘91 and a League Cup win in ’92. Sir Alex Ferguson himself points to these wins as key factors, just as he did in 2007, when United recaptured the title from Jose Mourinho’s all conquering Decepticons with an almost identical build up; Runners Up and League Cup preceded by two years of morale boosting, experience gathering cup triumphs.
Even the Sugar Daddies, coming over here, buying our leagues, aren’t immune from at least some notion of ladder climbing graft. Mourinho himself may have settled into Premier League success like a duck to pancakes but the groundwork for much of his Chelsea side had been laid by Claudio Ranieri, who’d taken the blues to second, bested only by Arsenal’s unbeaten ‘except in the competitions they were beaten in’ 2004 vintage. Like Ferguson, Mourinho also put great stock in winning the League Cup before a title run in, and the subsequent positive mentality lift it provided his players. In fact Chelsea’s ability to continually arrive at occasions John Terry can change out of a suit in has allowed them to stay in contention whoever their manager, just as much as Arsenal’s inability to find au faitness with such occasions inhibited theirs.
Manchester City notoriously struggled in their quest to skip levels straight to the final boss battle. After grudgingly making their way past level 4 – Spurs (at the second attempt) they found themselves locked in a three way title race in 2011, eventually finishing tied in second with Chelsea, whilst also acquiring the bonus experience points of an FA Cup win before they could finally be worthy of completing the game the following year.
Even the original sugar sprinkled build-a-champ club Blackburn finished runners up the year before their one and only triumph.
One does not simply emerge from the pack and claim the prize. The last to get remotely close were Newcastle’s ‘Entertainers’ in 1996, who jumped from sixth to Champions elect before spectacularly imploding under the burden of Kevin Keegan’s fragile emotional perm.
You have to be in it to win it…before you can win it. Thems the rules. (N.B. Thems not actually the rules.) Arsenal haven’t been in it for nearly nine years. They can, and almost certainly will be next year, but much like Liverpool – who sprung from Europa League hopefuls to Christmas front-runners, recklessly trying to leapfrog the pesky chore of top four stability – the drop off will inevitably come.**
The real title race is between last year’s second and third. Winners but one and FA Cup finalists Manchester City, and back-to-back European trophy sluts Chelsea. The best thing Arsenal can do now is enjoy the ride. In fact, the very, very best thing they can do is drop out of the race in the most spectacular, painful and meteoric fashion possible (remember, meteors fall. Lets reclaim that one for Physics!). A way guaranteed to spur on their emerging talents to greater glory in 12 + months. A way that sears the determination deep into their very souls. A way that ideally also picks up the FA Cup along the way.
Until then Arsenal are merely the paper angel on the top of a Christmas tree. A placeholder decoration. Next year is when we’ll find out if they’re the star.
*phrase may have been used for dramatic effect.
** END OF SEASON UPDATE: Despite still inevitably falling prey to the indubitable logic of this article, Liverpool’s title charge spectacularly exceeded my mid-term expectations, and went from a footnote in a screed about Arsenal, to a far more worthy subject in hindsight. If their ever-so-close attempt at rubbishing this idea has a legacy, it’s to replace Newcastle ’96 as the glorious, Icarusian failure who the end only helped to bolster the theory….Or, you know, something a little less ‘Comment Is Free.’