They say there’s no such thing as standing still in the Premier League; you either keep up with the pace on the pitch and in the transfer market or inevitably fall behind.
Rather miraculously, however, Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal are the rare exception to that rule.
In the last nine years, whilst Chelsea have won their first three Premier League titles, Tottenham have reached the top four twice, Manchester City have risen from mid-table to mediocrity to the table’s summit and Liverpool have dropped out of the Champions League before eventually returning to it last summer, Arsenal have finished fourth six times and third thrice.
Arsenal’s Champions League status has never come under serious threat, a feat Arsene Wenger is annually praised for. Equally, however, they’ve never been a genuine factor in the Premier League title race since their last crowning in 2004. It’s like the north Londoners are in a league of their own – a one-club league, with no titles, promotions or relegation zones, where nothing ever actually happens.
Even last season, whilst the Gunners held pole position for 128 days, the most of any Premier League side, an underlying fear of the campaign imploding persisted and eventually proved true, as Arsenal dropped from first to fourth in the space of five springtime fixtures amid defeats to Liverpool, Stoke City and Chelsea.
History is once again repeating itself like a Sci-Fi B-movie. Already twelve points behind league leaders Chelsea, Arsenal’s planned title charge – inspired by the momentum gained from last season’s FA Cup, combined with the summer addition of world-class forward Alexis Sanchez – is over before it’s started. After a shock 2-1 defeat to Swansea City, in which the Gunners squandered a one-nil lead, Wenger’s conceded the title is all but Chelsea’s – in November, after just eleven games.
Once again, Arsenal fans will likely have to settle for the unrecognised, unofficial and non-existent 4th place title. A more cynical, accurate description would be the title race’s wooden spoon.
The ultimate question marks circulate Arsene Wenger, and whether he’s failed to move with the times. Upon his Premier League arrival in 1997, the Frenchman was viewed as an innovator, Le Professeur of modern management, transforming views on discipline, health, fitness and investment in young players from abroad.
No one can doubt his initial successes; to this day, Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson are the only managers to win three (or more) Premier League titles. But whereas Fergie, a prolific adopter of developing Premier League trends, won his final league crown in 2013, Wenger hasn’t bagged a Premier League title for over a decade.
Arsenal’s training particularly, used to be revolutionary. The likes of Patrick Vieira and Theirry Henry have claimed Wenger’s intense sessions – in tandem with his strict diet plan – extended their careers by a good five or six years. But that was the early 2000s; a decade later, and opinions on Arsenal’s training sessions are far more divided. Stand-in skipper Per Mertesacker claims the players aren’t working hard enough, whilst fitness guru and former Wales assistant manager Raymond Verheijen blames the Gunners’ relentless injury problems on Wenger’s inability to modernise his practices – even labelling the Frenchman pre-historic.
One can question the validity of both, but clearly, Arsenal’s training sessions aren’t as encapsulating, convincing or innovative as they once were.
Tactically, too, the Premier League had never witnessed an attacking side quite like Arsenal’s Invincibles, who went 49 games undefeated to win the Gunners’ last Premier League title. The predominant change from a tactical perspective was the role of Arsenal’s full-backs, with Wenger swapping the more orthodox Lee Dixon and Nigel Winterburn in 2000 for Cameroon international Lauren, a midfielder at former club Mallorca, and Ashley Cole, a then-forward in the Arsenal youth ranks.
They both provided the north Londoners with far greater quality, and subsequently control, in possession. Over the years however, the entrenched philosophy of attacking-orientated, pushed-up full-backs has made Arsenal far too predictable.
Sir Alex Ferguson, for example, dedicated an entire chapter of his autobiography to discussing the challenges of facing Wenger’s side, highlighting how the progressive roles of Arsenal’s No.2 and No.3 leaves them at their most vulnerable in possession. A well-anticipated interception in the middle of the park is all that’s required to punish the Gunners on the counter, attacking the inevitable space on the flanks.
Ferguson worked this out years ago, as Arsenal’s influence in the Premier League began to wane. Jose Mourinho’s had it figured from day one too – if he and Wenger were in a league of their own, the Portuguese would have 26 points, compared to the Frenchman’s five.
It’s been over a decade since the Special One first took the Premier League, and indeed Wenger, by storm, yet Arsenal are continually cursed by that same intrinsic flaw. Against Swansea yesterday afternoon, the Welsh side’s first goal – a stunning Gylfi Sigurdsson free kick – was the direct result of a turnover in the middle of the park, forcing Keiran Gibbs to bring down the Icelander. The second strike in the 2-1 victory – Jefferson Montero finding himself in an abundance of space out wide.
Think back to the batterings by Chelsea and Liverpool last season – the majority of the eleven combined goals came from centre-backs Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny finding themselves without support as Arsenal’s only defenders behind the ball.
Some will admire Wenger’s consistency, especially those in Arsenal’s boardroom. After all, he’s safeguarded the club’s financial stability amid the essential building of the Emirates stadium by steering the Gunners clear of relegation from the European elite. They could be Spurs or Liverpool right now, or even Manchester United, with their Champions League status seemingly eternally uncertain.
But if fans at Old Trafford, Anfield, Stamford Bridge, the Etihad and White Hart Lane have endured a rollercoaster over the last nine years, featuring as many lows as highs, supporting Arsenal is like being on the teacups; reliable, tedious in patches, enjoyable in others, but never anything close to exhilarating.
Spinning around aimlessly between 3rd and 4th, it’s time Arsenal fans requested a change in ride.