Arsenal face an uphill battle to qualify for the Champions League for the 17th successive season this term under manager Arsene Wenger and if they do fail, it could come to represent not only a hammer blow to the man at the helm from a personal perspective, but a potential tipping point that sees them finally drop out of the league’s elite in a similar fashion to the way Liverpool have over the past few years.
It has to be said that Liverpool’s fall from grace was largely down to financial mismanagement and in Rafa Benitez’s final season, where the side finished 7th in the league in 2009-10, the club came worryingly close to declaring bankruptcy under the corrupt ‘leadership’ of Tom Hicks and George Gillett, which saw the side move from title challengers to a top eight side in just one dramatic season and Arsenal’s slide away from the pinnacle has been an altogether more gradual and some would say, more painful affair because it’s been dragged out over a number of disappointing seasons.
Of course, that is not to say that great amounts haven’t been spent in the pursuit of restoring them to the top four over the past few years, but the quality of player brought in to replace the likes of Xabi Alonso, Javier Mascherano and Fernando Torres has never been the same and while the situation has been somewhat foisted upon them, they are not without blame themselves for their under-performance on the pitch and the subsequent failures of both Kenny Dalglish and Roy Hodgson in charge.
There are plenty of parallels to be found between the two clubs; Arsene Wenger has also seen his biggest and best names leave year on year ranging from Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri to Robin van Persie, robbing them of the precise quality they need to truly challenge not only for trophies but to maintain their current status. The established four of Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool were once referred to as the ‘Sky Four’ due to their domination of television coverage and how comfortably they saw off challengers, but only the first two clubs now remain, with Manchester City’s millions helping them crash the party and a consistent Tottenham side finally pulling their finger out and stepping away from a penchant for internal implosions of a season-defining kind.
Replacing departing players has proved to be a real problem for Wenger in recent years and his record in the transfer market has been filled to the brim with panic buys and people of insufficient quality. It’s simply been a penny-pinching exercise at times in the pursuit of Financial Fair Play (FFP), but this has seen them become less and less competitive, further highlighted by the fact that they’ve taken just one point from a team in the top three in the league this season. A gap has opened and it’s quickly turning into a chasm due to the squad’s failing confidence.
This is a situation completely of Wenger’s own making. He has had money to spend but has largely chosen not to and to operate within net spend means. Arsenal are currently one of the most financially sound clubs in Europe but it’s come at a price to their chances of success. Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson has always been keenly aware of the need to strengthen from a position of strength and sometimes players cost a lot of money, but like Liverpool were forced to for years under Benitez, Arsenal have operated the majority of their deals around the bargain bucket range of the £8-12m value market and you really get what you pay for in the long run.
Under Brendan Rodgers, Liverpool slowly but surely look as if they are making progress, but is has been slow at times and every step forward has inevitably been met with a shock result and two steps back. It’s been that sort of season for the club, which was to be expected of a side in transition, but they require stability above all else and patience. On the flip side, Arsenal fans have been hugely patient with Wenger and they are a club that is the very model of stability behind the scenes, and they present a united front even when supporters groups are clamouring for change and a more representative board. Nevertheless, it has been eight years since the club’s last trophy under Wenger now and the naysayers for the first time during his tenure look in the majority rather than the minority now.
There is talk of the Frenchman being handed a £70m transfer kitty to spend in the summer, but given his recent record, there are no guarantees that he will even spend it wisely. There are plenty of noticeable flaws and gaps within the squad that need addressing and to make them a side truly capable of challenging the Manchester duopoly again, they would need an even bigger budget than that, because they are that far adrift in terms of the sort of mentality and quality needed to sustain a squad capable of competing on multiple fronts over the course of a whole campaign.
The one major downfall that Wenger has made in the last few years has been the amount of trust he has placed in his players who have then only served to let him down, whether it be in terms of their poor performances out on the pitch or the fact that they’ve negotiated moves away to rival clubs in the pursuit of silverware. To an extent, you have to feel slightly sorry for him as he cuts an increasingly agitated figure on the sidelines, but from the club’s failed experiment with their playing style, which they look completely incapable of adapting away from, to their flawed transfer policy, everything comes from Wenger and should they finally fall out of the top four this term, the blame must rest squarely on his shoulders.
It simply didn’t have to be this way and as much as Liverpool’s fall from grace was unexpectedly quick, set against the backdrop of the financial problems at the club, it was inevitable, whereas Arsenal are mainly suffering from self-inflicted wounds and a remarkable degree of stubbornness that their approach is the right one at senior levels.
The state the club find themselves in now, four points adrift of Tottenham and with no silverware hopes as early as February, was avoidable and having crashed out of the FA Cup and all but sealed the same fate with a disappointing 3-1 home defeat to Bayern Munich in the Champions League. A repeat of the run that clinched them third in the league last season looks a long way off and as Liverpool have shown in recent seasons, finding your way back to the top is easier said than done and a path best avoided at all costs.