It’s difficult to determine what accounts for success from many teams at the outset of the season. For Manchester United, would simply fighting for the top four have been enough? Arguably, it would not. But if you were to offer them such a luxurious position now, they would snap your hand off. For Arsenal fans, their well-documented trophy drought would have been their primary concern. But having been sitting pretty atop the Premier League table for the best part of two-thirds of the season, league success was not beyond the realms of possibility.
You can only truly determine the success of a side once their season has shaped up. By Christmas, it was clear for Man United fans that league victory was beyond them. And by January, qualification for the Champions League looked unlikely. But for Arsenal, the season has only really been shaped in the past two months. Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City’s domination and interminable march towards to league title have highlighted the flaws that still exist at Arsenal. And as the 2013-14 season winds down, in assessing what’s come before, the Gunners’ success from here until May really is all or nothing.
The only way Arsenal can claim to have truly progressed this season will be by achieving Champions League qualification for a 17th consecutive season, and by lifting the FA Cup and shaking that irritatingly clingy monkey off their back.
Pre-season wasn’t the most positive of periods for the Gunners. A lack of signings amidst the return of Jose Mourinho, the trolley dash at Tottenham, and the lavish spending of Man City pointed towards another season of familiarity. Couple this with a Champions League group containing 2013 Champions League finalists Borussia Dortmund, free-spending Napoli and perennial Champions League participants Olympique Marseille, and the outlook wasn’t positive.
The record signing of Mesut Ozil, the rise of Aaron Ramsey and solidification in defence somewhat allayed the early-season fears as Arsenal proved, to both themselves and keen observers, that they were made of more sturdy stuff than in past years. That was, until recently. The same problems have arisen, the same accusations have been launched their way, and a similar scenario has played out.
After a hiding at Anfield, and an even more demoralising defeat at the hands of Chelsea, intertwined with fairly inadequate displays against Stoke and Swansea, and a level of success has been mapped out for them.
They aren’t quite ready to challenge at the league’s absolute summit. However, despite dropping away in terms of the title chase, victory in the FA Cup is not only likely, but *fingers crossed* probable. A semi-final against a Championship side followed up by a potential final against either a relegation-battling Premiership side, or a League One outfit. If there was ever a time to wipe the dust from the trophy cabinet, now is that time.
With Champions League qualification being a pre-requisite for a club of Arsenal’s stature it’s no longer considered a success of any magnitude. To simply achieve Champions League football itself, from this position, would be immeasurably harmful to Arsenal, both the manager and the players, going forwards. The media obsession with the length of time since Arsenal enjoyed any silverware would intensify here whilst the pressure on Arsene Wenger would be overwhelming.
And regardless of FA Cup success, it will ultimately be a futile achievement if the club doesn’t add to it Champions League qualification. The benefits of European football are something the club hasn’t had to plan for without in recent seasons. Despite being in a strong position in terms of finances, the club can’t allow the chasm between themselves and the mega-rich to open up any further. A year of absence from Europe’s elite has the potential to multiply, and before you know it you’re caught (to re-use that popular phrase of Andre Villas-Boas) in a negative spiral of decline.
The manager and everyone at the club is aware of the significance of the remaining games this season. If they manage to hold off Everton in the Champions League charge, and add to that with some much-needed silverware, the club will have more building blocks to add to the long-term project. Failure to achieve both and the impact, financially and/or psychologically, could be such that the way back is a long and painful struggle.
There’s nothing wrong with pre-season ambitions and expectations, but you can only truly judge success once you’ve contextualised it. For Arsenal, they exist on a fine line from now until May. As the season has finally played out, Arsenal are where they should be in the league. The FA Cup and league consolidation will be a success. They can’t get more, and they can’t afford less.