By Jonathan Blaustein
Good morning, everyone.
Hope all is well in your corner of the world. Here in Taos, New Mexico, it’s a sunny Monday morning, and I’m sitting down to write with a freshly made cup of coffee.
It’s been a while, but I thought it was appropriate to at least summarize the 2016–17 Arsenal campaign, now that it’s done and dusted. (Yes, Americans can use English slang, if we’re writing about football/soccer.)
The FA Cup Final is receding into memory, but let’s start there. It was a cracking game, and I think we all know Arsenal could have scored 3 or 4 goals before halftime. We beat the shit out of Chelsea that day, and the scoreline flattered the team in blue.
Despite the negativity that accrued through much of the fan base as the season wore on, I was thrilled with the performance. I was sure that getting through Man City and Chelsea to get a trophy was impossible, but I was wrong.
But I mostly predicted the season trajectory properly. Anyone who’s watched the Emirates Era Wenger teams knows they can, and do, go on a winning run at the end of the season. Arsene Wenger has proven, as I wrote, that he can get his team up for anything, over the course of 10–15 games.
The problem, of course, is that the Premier League campaign is 38 games. I’m sure he won’t win the league again, not so much because he’s totally incapable, but rather, because he has a very limited opportunity in the best of times, being outspent by the Oligarch clubs, and now, he’s facing a slew of mega-managers flush with new TV money.
I can see how winning the FA Cup was enough to keep his job, as he didn’t take down Aston Villa or Hull City this time. He beat the Champions, and as with Leicester last year, he beat them soundly twice in the same season.
Stan Kroenke was never, ever, ever going to kill his cash cow, unless he absolutely had to. And Arsene Wenger was never, ever, ever going to quit, unless he absolutely had to.
Lacking a proper leverage event to end the Groundhog Day scenario that has engulfed the club, here we are again. Even Benedict Fucking Cumberbatch, with an awful American accent, knew how to break the loop in “Doctor Strange,” but not Arsenal Football Club.
So where does that leave us?
If I were the king of the world, I’d give Alexis Sanchez however much money he asked for. Just pay the man. And to ease his worry about being trapped in mediocrity, maybe give him a release clause, so he can get bought for $100 million next summer, if Arsenal haven’t made it back to the Champions League again.
Once he has a new contract, his re-sale value will skyrocket, so no matter how much money he wants in salary, it still makes sense.
If you promise him anything he wants, and then go out and spend $200 million on improving the squad, (gross, not net,) then I think Arsenal will be a strong bet to win the Europa League, and certainly get back into the top 4.
So even if you lose him next year to someone in the Premier League, it will be worth it, both in what he helps achieve next year, and in how much more he’ll be worth once he has a long-term contract.
I’d also commit to the back 3 formation, and let everyone know it. My quibble with Arsene, with respect to the change, is that he waited to make it until after the season was busted. I understand that some people, (I’m looking at you Shard,) will say it’s unfair to criticize him for making a successful and risky change.
But I’m allowed to say whatever the hell I want. That’s the benefit of being a columnist. And it’s clear he didn’t have the guts to make radical change while the Premier League title was still a possibility, because Arsene admitted as much in the press.
He considered it for months, but only pulled the trigger once it was too late to save the title challenge.
Tim is great at doing all sorts of research, in addition to having a strong handle on the narratives surrounding the club. You’re never going to get a story from me that compares young players, or pokes around transfermarkt to unearth the next big thing.
Hell, this year, I think I watched less non-Arsenal-related-matches than at any time since I became addicted to English Football. So I can’t even claim to have seen much of guys like Keita, or Mbappe, or even Pulisic.
That’s not my bag, so I probably won’t write too much this summer, as it’s primarily silly season at this point.
But I think I can tell you a bit about the likely trajectory the club will take.
For one, I’ve read in many places that Arsenal won’t make it back to the Champions League for a long time. To me, that’s a bunch of bunk. If there’s anything that Arsene is great at, it’s making the top 4.
Now that he’s the man in charge, for certain, I think the idea of him improving the club enough to overtake Tottenham or Liverpool is likely. He knows how to win, he just doesn’t know how to win consistently over 9 months.
There’s a difference.
The reason why Arsenal won 3 out of 4 FA Cups is that the talent level is there. And though I thought his players had quit on him during the winter, (maybe they did?) he also knows how to get his guys to play for him when there’s glory on the line.
So thinking we’ll head towards 10th place is not a theory I’d espouse. Not one bit.
Nor do I think we’re back to selling our best players to direct rivals. That won’t happen either.
Basically, Arsenal are an anomaly club these days, with an omnipotent, long-serving manager. As well as that run of 2+ decades of Champions League qualification.
Chelsea, Liverpool, Tottenham, and Manchester United have all been out of the CL in recent years, and Chelsea and Man U won the Europa League when they were there.
Then, all of those clubs bounced back. So I think it’s safe to say that Arsenal will too. Wenger may have lost his title-winning magic, but I’m predicting he’ll be able to get the team playing it’s same brand of Top 4 football next year.
We’ve also proven we can spend money, and make players better, in the last few years. Sanchez had a career year this year, but no one gives Wenger credit for that. Nor the fact that Ozil, flawed as he may be, almost broke the EPL assist record last year under Wenger’s tutelage, and added goals to his game this season.
Now that he’s got a proper defensive line-up, and a good slate of CB’s, I’m not worried about this team falling off a cliff, and I don’t think you should either. (Sorry, Tim.)
Rather, I think we’ve got to settle in for the typical narrative, with the exception being that we no longer have to fear the Champions League hidings that have been so damaging to morale.
While I’d like Sanchez to stay, given what he knows about Bayern, shouldn’t they be attractive to him? They beat his team 10–2, and won the CL during the Obama years, which were not that long ago. (Though the Trump months feel like they’re playing out in dog years, don’t they?)
Only Manchester City has avoided missing out on the CL recently, and they’re just playing on a different level, financially. It’s important to remember that.
Ozil is our record signing, and Man City have, off the top of my head, spent that much (or more) on Stones, Sterling, De Bruyne, Sane, and Bernardo Silva, just in the last 2 years. And I imagine Fernandinho, David Silva and Aguero cost that much, as did Mangala, who’s not even playing for them anymore.
In order for Arsenal to win it all, so many things have to play out just so. That happened during Leicester’s title-run, and AW still couldn’t capitalize. So it’s ridiculous to think a League title is in the cards, until the next manager.
Rather, I think we should just buckle up and enjoy the ride, as I suggested a month or so before the joy of the FA Cup victory. Winning the Europa League is realistic, as is another FA Cup defense.
Maybe Wenger will put some chips on the League Cup next year, just because he hasn’t won it before? If you ask Jose Mourinho, it’s a trophy, and that man loves silverware more than a Victorian thief who’s inexplicably been invited to a rich man’s party.
If we do lose Sanchez, they’ll buy someone like James to replace him. And still, Arsene’s going to invest. He gets a lot of stick for not being so great in his talent evaluation lately, but I think Xhaka and Holding are for real, and Iwobi and Bellerin will continue to improve under his guidance.
Basically, I think we have no choice but to hope this next phase is about building to compete in the next title window, after Pep, Jose, Klopp and Pochettino have moved on. Just like in the NBA, where everyone knows the Warriors window of dominance is likely open for another 3–4 years, I think as fans, we have to accept that Wenger is now a bridge to whatever comes next.
There will be some nice wins, the next couple of years, and likely some embarrassing defeats as well. We won’t win the Premier League, nor the Champions League, until after Wenger retires.
C’est la vie.
He has a job until he’s ready to leave, and hopefully we’ll pick up some smaller trophies along the way. But if he creates a succession plan, and builds things well for Arteta, or Simeone, or maybe even Zidane to come in for the 2019–20 season, then who knows what the next decade might bring.
Until next time…