In almost exactly one month, Arsenal will travel to Wembley for the 10th time in the last five years. In those games, they’ve won nine times.
The Gunners have won three of the last four FA Cups, and if they’re out of the title race, well, so is everyone else.
It’s stats like these which do Arsenal no favours because despite all of that it’s still hard to make any argument that the north London club is in anything other than a state of stagnation at best and decline at worst.
But it makes you wonder what ‘success’ means, and not just for Arsenal, but for any of the Premier League’s top six clubs.
There are four trophies up for grabs at the start of the season. If you’re lucky enough to be in a super cup of some kind, counting it as anything other than a pre-season frolic in a nice stadium is universally considered embarrassing.
But of the four which can be won, only two are now available to the Gunners.
Perhaps it’s disappointing to be out of the title race in January, but Arsene Wenger’s side are hardly the only ones. The only real disappointment so far is the FA Cup, and even then Arsenal’s record in that competition – which is second to none – has still not been enough to stave off critics.
That is, of course, because Arsenal deserve to be criticised. But the anger directed towards the club and its decision makers is presumably aimed more at the general state of the club than the failure to win silverware. Especially this season: already the Gunners are in one final and there’s still another to play for. And so being out of the running in two of the four competitions isn’t, by itself, a disaster.
It’s tempting to compare the successes of Manchester United last season to Arsenal’s current situation. But whilst it’s strikingly similar, there is a fundamental difference.
Jose Mourinho’s side finished the season with two trophies, but the only reason they can qualify their year as a success is because, by winning the Europa League, they qualified for the Champions League.
There is little doubt that, for Arsenal, two trophies – not to mention two cups that Arsene Wenger has never won as a manager, and thus Arsenal haven’t won for decades – would represent some sort of progress. But it’s that very word which separates the United of last season and the Arsenal of this one.
When Jose Mourinho blew off the Premier League in order to win the second tier European competition, he did so because the prize he won was something which could be cashed the next season. The Champions League group stage spot and the momentum his side gained from the victories was almost like a training regime before the big fight. United’s players were back in the big time and could still taste the blood in their mouths before the former Chelsea boss’s second season in charge.
This year, City may have won by knockout in the second round, all but wrapping up the title by Christmas, but that was the idea. When the world decided to cautiously qualify Mourinho’s first season at Old Trafford as a success, it was well before this season has kicked off.
Besides, United still have FA Cup and Champions League to play for, and after a rocky festive period, they are at least back in the hunt.
For Arsenal, the question is not about whether they can emulate United’s material success of last season, but the sense of momentum they built.
In terms of silverware, Arsenal are in the same position now as United were last year. But there’s little evidence of a change in momentum just yet. If the Gunners can overhaul their squad, and if they can win a few trophies to build that sense of momentum, the feeling that this is a running start at something bigger, then and only then will the comparison apply. A decent January transfer window would be a start.
But if Arsenal are hoping to repeat the success of Manchester United one year later, it’s worth remembering that Mourinho’s success wasn’t in winning two competitions that most top clubs see as second tier competitions when taken in isolation. Instead, it was about what it meant for the next year, and a sense that victories in the Champions League and Premier League could be achieved because of the momentum which had been built.
This season, success for Arsenal won’t be about how many trophies they can put in their cabinet at the end of the season: it’ll be about the feeling we’re of change, hope and optimism we’re left with afterwards.