We all have that uncle who loves his car more than his own family. You know the one – he spends every Saturday and Sunday drinking beers and working on his “baby” in the garage. Despite the fact that you haven’t seen him actually drive the thing in god-knows-how-long, he still talks about the 1976 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am as the greatest American muscle car to ever roam the earth.
You’re sick of it, the family’s sick of it, even the mailman naive enough to get lured into the garage every Saturday is sick of hearing about how this Firebird “used to be invincible.” You can’t deny that it’s a classic ride, but you wonder if he really wants to get it back on the road or simply enjoys the constant tinkering and the nostalgia. Maybe he’s gotten so lost in the process of building something that he’s lost sight of the end product.
I’ve got some bad news, Gooners. Arsène Wenger is that uncle. And Arsenal Football Club is his ‘76 Firebird.
Just like your uncle who swears that his ‘Bird will be “one bitchin’ ass ride” when it’s finished, Arsenal is the team everyone believes is a step away from being great. Many of the pieces have been assembled. You can even see what’s missing from the final article, but it can never quite get there. When you were a kid, you dreamed about seeing that car finally built so that you could ride around it. Maybe your uncle would even let you take it for a spin on your own. But as time went on, you realized that car would never leave the driveway. There was a time when we thought Wenger was going to get serious about building a genuine title challenger again, but who really thinks that now?
The FA Cup win in 2005 was the last hurrah for Wenger’s last great team. When Thierry Henry left for Barcelona in 2007 after deciding that he would rather win trophies as a third banana than babysit Wenger’s young pups, it signaled the definite end of an era. From there, Arsène became a serial monogamist. From overdependence on Henry, it moved on to Cesc Fabregas, to Robin van Persie, and now to Alexis Sánchez. Wenger failed to build a side around those first three world-talents, so each eventually left the club to seek (and find) success. There’s no reason to expect he won’t fail again with Sánchez.
Alexis Sánchez is the real deal. The dog’s bollocks, the cat’s pajamas, the bee’s goddamned knees. He puts defenders on their heels with his skill and electrifying pace, he creates and scores goals, and has been involved in everything good that Arsenal has done this season. A player like that, with the right team around him, can carry a side to a league title. But if recent history is any indicator, he may never get the right team around him.
In Sánchez and Mesut Özil, Arsenal has one-half to one-fourth of a world class attack, depending on whether Özil recovers his Real Madrid form. But ahead of them, Danny Welbeck is missing a killer instinct, and Olivier Giroud lacks guile and consistency. Behind them, Aaron Ramsey has blossomed into a special midfielder. But who partners him? Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini are probably finished at the top level, and Jack Wilshere is the same player he was at seventeen – talented, but raw and unreliable. In defense, Kieran Gibbs and Mathieu Debuchy are good fullbacks, but in the middle Per Mertesacker’s form has dropped off, Calum Chambers is not yet ready, and we were all just imagining that time when Laurent Koscielny looked good. At a minimum, Arsenal are three first team players away from being a real title contender. Just like they have been since 2005.
Navigating the transfer market is obviously much easier done from behind a keyboard than in real life, but for a club of Arsenal’s resources, some of these squad deficiencies are a product of neglect. Wilfried Bony would walk right into Arsenal’s frontline and improve it immediately. Yet Manchester City, which Arsenal is meant to be directly competing with, swoops in and picks him up from Swansea with not so much as a whimper from Arsenal. The Gunners’ scouting network is obviously vast enough to regularly poach fifteen year-old attacking midfielders from clubs no one has ever heard of, so it’s safe to say that they should have been aware that the leading Premier League goalscorer in 2014 was available for half the price of a David Luiz.
Morgan Schneiderlin has (again) been among the best players in his position this season. Even though Southampton took the stance that he was off limits in its fire sale last summer, is there really any doubt that he wouldn’t be lining up at the Emirates had Arsenal thrown enough money early on in the transfer window? You only need to look at the current league leader in Chelsea to see how quickly decisive action in the transfer market can turn a team from “almost there” to “when’s the open top bus parade?”
Unless Wenger swallows his pride and starts aggressively addressing the needs of the team — yes, Arsène, this includes occasionally overpaying for the right player — nothing will change. Sánchez will continue to excite, and may even cover the team’s flaws enough to win a cup or two. But while Sánchez is good enough to be the brightest star on a winning team, but he can’t be the sun and the moon too. Until other players of similar caliber are brought into the first XI, Arsenal will remain what it has been for the better part of a decade: a team on the brink.