Yesterday Arsenal announced a new two year deal for Arsene Wenger and I have to admit that at first I was angry. Would any other club that has ambitions to win the Premier League and Champions League re-hire a coach who just finished 5th in the League after spending £110m on players? Man U didn’t. Man City wouldn’t. Chelsea fired a coach after he won the Champions League, so I’m certain that they wouldn’t. Imagine what would happen at Barcelona if they finished fifth or let’s say third and got beat 10-2 on aggregate by Bayern Munich. And imagine the shockwaves at Bayern Munich if they had the season Arsenal had: everyone would be fired.
But on the other side of this anger and frustration is the joy that Tottenham and Liverpool have this season. For Spurs fans, this is the greatest moment in the last 20 years. They have finally finished above Arsenal for once! And for Liverpool, they are jubilant about their club finally making it back into the Champions League! This is similar to last year with Leicester, whose fans will probably be sustained by their title win for the next 40 years. Their expectations for their seasons were not only met but exceeded.
The problem then is very simple. The problem is the root of all anger: unmet expectations.
And it’s true. I expect this club, the seventh richest club in the world, to compete for the Premier League and the Champions League. I expect this club to buy the best players. I expect this manager to get the best out of his players. And I expect the players to give everything for 50+ games a season.
Sadly, my expectations are way out of line with reality and I blame the club for this. They are the ones who keep telling me that they are here to win the League. They are the ones who tell me that they are only out to buy “top top quality” players who will “improve the team”. And they are the ones who tell me that the manager and players work tirelessly to improve their game so that they can reach their ultimate goal of winning all the major trophies.
After re-signing Wenger, they all reiterated these points. For CEO Ivan Gazidis “All of this [spending on and off the pitch] is driven towards the ambition of winning the Premier League”. Majority Shareholder Stan Kroenke echoed Gazidis saying, “Our ambition is to win the Premier League and other major trophies in Europe.” And Wenger issued a similar, albeit softer, set of goals “We’re committed to mounting a sustained league challenge and that will be our focus this summer and next season” and added “We can move up to the next level, I’m convinced of that.”
It is Premier League or bust for Arsene Wenger.
But hasn’t that been the ambition all along? Didn’t they want to win the Premier League title in 2015/16 when Leicester took the League by surprise? Wasn’t that the point of getting into the Champions League every season for the last twenty years? So that they could have the money and prestige to recruit the players that would allow them to compete for the League title or, heaven forbid, WIN THE CHAMPIONS LEAGUE?
Of course that has been their line. These are not new statements from these men. They have been telling us this same story now since 2004. The ambition has always been to win the League and we were told that the new stadium would bring the new money to buy the shiny new players, and it has.
So, it’s their fault. They inoculated me with the belief that Arsenal were a team who could win the Premier League. First through the project youth program where we were told we don’t buy talent we make it. Then into the big-player buying days where we could afford players like Mesut Özil and Alexis Sanchez. And now in the free-spending days where every season Arsenal have tons of money to spend on new players.
But objectively this is not a team who can win the Premier League. Every season that we got a whiff of a title challenge we collapsed. Every season for the last ten years we have been eviscerated by bigger clubs in the Champions League.
The evidence suggests that this is a manager and club who can’t realistically mount a title challenge. So I am adjusting my expectations and I think you should too.
First, the expectation should be that we finish somewhere above 10th place. Top half of the table. That’s where clubs like Arsenal belong. We are too big to be a bottom-half of the table club but it’s unrealistic of us to expect that this club finish in the top four every season. Totally unrealistic, since we finished fifth and all of the other teams who have won the League have finished as low as 7th in the last few years.
Second, since Arsenal are now in the Europa League, that means more games and more matches in far away lands. It also means matches on Thursdays which will be followed by lots of Sunday and Monday Premier League games. This is going to be a gruelling schedule for the club, the players, and the fans.
Add in that Arsenal are one of the most injury-prone teams in the world and I just can’t see us having the depth needed to sustain a challenge on all of these fronts. For example, Arsenal’s best center back revealed last month that he has a chronic Achilles problem which requires daily treatment. If he plays more than 20 games next season I’ll be shocked.
I’m going to be using injury and lack of cover as an excuse for why Arsenal can’t realistically finish above 5th place next season. Heck, a repeat of 5th place would almost be a trophy. I would also not be surprised if Arsenal get kicked out of Europa League some time in February. I’m certainly not expecting us to win that trophy, because if I start expecting that I might get frustrated when we get dumped out early.
As for player recruitment. Well, this is a team that struggles with player recruitment at the best of times. Top young players are refusing to join Arsenal and have been for five or six years. Players like Aubameyang, Mahrez, and Vardy openly laugh at the prospect of joining Arsenal. And Arsenal flat out refuse to pay the agents, to grease the wheels, to get the top players in. Plus agents, teams, and players all know how much money Arsenal have to throw around. Arsenal spent a fortune on Mustafi last season, a defender who is often called “a decent defender”, there will be more fortunes required for more players like Mustafi.
Added to that toxic stew, now that Arsenal are in the Europa League and they have lost the prestige of being a Champions League club they will find recruitment is costlier and more difficult than before. Wenger is notorious for his “valuations” of players and now that players are going to immediately require larger wages to join a Europa League team, I’m not expecting recruitment to go easily at all. We may get a free agent in but the idea of luring a top name player like Griezmann is more fanciful than the most fanciful edition of Cat Fancy.
I also keep getting told by Arsenal supporters that despite the over £100m in the bank and the new TV contracts kicking in, Arsenal just can’t compete with City and Chelsea when it comes to player recruitment. I used to think this is a defeatist attitude but I’ve realized the error of my ways: they are right. Arsenal can’t compete. Arsenal cannot compete in terms of recruitment for top top quality players and by extension they can’t compete for trophies, unless we get lucky and pull a Leicester.
I’m not even expecting Arsenal to retain Alexis and Özil this summer. As far as I’m concerned they are both gone. Alexis is already being recruited by Vidal at Bayern Munich and Özil is upset because the fans don’t love or appreciate him as much as he thinks we should. If you think I’m going to get my hopes up that we will keep either of them, pfff, you’re wrong.
After signing Wenger, all of the management and ownership of Arsenal urged the fans to “get behind the team” and “support the manager” and I’m going to do exactly that. I will support them by expecting nothing.
I expect nothing in terms of recruitment this summer, other than that Arsenal will have to pay way too much for Mustafi-level talent and may get in a free agent. I do not expect Arsenal to get too far in the Europa League. I do not expect Arsenal’s current best players to re-sign for the club. I will expect key injuries to shake Arsenal’s depth. And I expect that Arsenal will finish somewhere above 10th place in the Premier League. Fifth place would be glorious! That’s exactly where Wenger finished this season and got a new contract. So that must be the expectation of the board, manager, and owner.