We’ve been here before. Arsenal has finished the previous season on a high – after handily Arsenaling itself out of the title race by February – and Gooner optimism is high. Young Player X is primed to finally take the next step in his development, and New Signing Y is just the right piece to complete Arsène Wenger’s puzzle. The next title-winning Arsenal team is here!
Except that it’s not, is it? We’ve seen this movie before, and we know how it ends: in failure. For the last 10 years, Arsenal’s chief exports have been waifish attacking midfielders, dressing room selfies and complete disappointment.
Last month’s acquisition of Petr Cech was greeted with the appropriate excitement that comes after signing an excellent goalkeeper. He’s a clear upgrade on David Ospina (who is very good himself) and Wojciech Szczęsny (who is a joke). Cech is at least amongst the top three ‘keepers in the league, and possibly even the top two, once David De Gea lands at the Bernabéu. On top of that, he seems to be fitting right in to the Arsenal team culture already by wearing his goddamned helmet at his unveiling – a patently Arsenal thing to do.
The reason that Arsenal fans should temper their expectations is not the unquestionable quality of Cech, but rather the lack of quality elsewhere in the squad. The goalkeeper position is finally sorted out, but what about the rest of it? The longer that Arsenal’s streak of failure to challenge for the league title continues, the more apparent it becomes that what the Gunners need is not just a “missing piece.” They need the better part of an entirely new puzzle.
The declining standards at Arsenal start at the very top: Wenger has gone stale. Is that statement harsh on a man who arguably revolutionized modern English soccer? Possibly. But that doesn’t make it any less true. Wenger changed the game in England by introducing then-newfangled concepts like “proper diet and nutrition” and “signing foreigners.” He forced the other big clubs to raise their level both on and off the pitch. But when his major rivals caught up to, and eventually surpassed him, Wenger stagnated. He still has the same keen eye for young talent, and he can still coax slick, attacking soccer out of his teams, but when it comes to building a champion he has firmly lost his edge.
In defense, Laurent Koscielny is still first choice, which is an immediate disqualifier for a team that wants to be taken seriously. In midfield, Aaron Ramsey and Santi Cazorla are excellent, but Wenger’s midfield options lack both depth and balance. The options behind those two are Tomáš Rosický and Jack Wilshere; a has-been and a never-will-be, respectively. Francis Coquelin has some promise, but he is not the answer to the holding midfield question, and may never be. An upgrade on both Coquelin and the somehow-still-a-thing Mathieu Flamini is required as well.
Last summer’s Superstar Signing and Prophet of False Hope, Alexis Sánchez, is a certified stud. But last season was proof that this Arsenal team is too flawed for even a player of Sánchez’s considerable talent to drag them to the finish line. After all, look at the options that Sánchez has with whom to share the burden of scoring goals. Danny Welbeck, as Manchester United fans well know, despite their denials, is probably going to top out as a “cute” player. Yes, all he needs to add to his game are goals, but he hasn’t. Olivier Giroud, try as he might, cannot turn handsomeness into goals either. Given that every title winning side in the last decade has an attacker finish amongst the top three goalscorers in the league, it’s fair to say that goals are important. Unless Arsenal can find a way to add a striker of the caliber of the two teams that finished above them last season, it’s hard to see how the team can be expected to improve on its third-place finish.
It will be a long time before Arsenal become a bad team. Wenger is too competent, the club is too financially sound, and the city of London will always be tempting to millionaire footballers who need high fashion shops at which to purchase their appalling clothes. As far medium-term worst case scenarios go, Arsenal’s is better than most. The problem is that Arsenal fans have a right to expect more than “we probably shouldn’t finish any lower than fifth” and “at least we’re not Spurs.” They have a right – based on history and resources – to expect a real challenge for the Premier League title that they last won over a decade ago. Unfortunately, that doesn’t look likely anytime soon.