Arsenal’s decline has been sad to witness, no matter which team you follow. Under Arsène Wenger, the Gunners produced some sublime football over the last 22 years. Wenger introduced a host of world-class stars to English audiences and helped bring innovative changes to English football.
But, other teams caught up with Wenger’s ideas, and the weight of money shifted the Premier League balance of power, leading Arsenal to slip from their perch. Years of failing to challenge for the league title were offset by regular Champions League football and, in recent seasons, a string of FA Cup victories. However, this season, the Gunners slumped to new lows and the club has an end-of-an-era feel to it.
The only remaining bright spot is the Europa League. That Arsenal are in this competition rather than the Champions League is a measure of their decline. Yet it remains the one piece of silverware that they can win, and the last four beckons. They are strong favourites with sports betting companies to beat CSKA Moscow after the 5 – 1 aggregate demolition of AC Milan.
They are also clear second favourites with most sportsbooks to win the competition outright. That will give Wenger the first major European trophy of his career and end his unwanted record of being the only manager to appear in the finals of all three competitions but never win them.
Premier League Woes
One look at the Premier League table reveals the depth of Arsenal’s decline. After beating Watford at the Emirates on 11th March, they were two places and ten points behind Tottenham, who held the final Champions League qualification place. They were also an eye-watering 30 points behind runaway Premier League leaders Manchester City.
The obvious place to look for evidence of their problems is away performances. Wenger’s side have lost ten games overall – the same record as Leicester City and worse than Burnley – but eight of those came on the road. The Gunners lost at Stoke, Watford, Bournemouth, Swansea and Brighton; outbattled by teams with more desire and resilience. That this Arsenal squad has top-four ability is not in dispute, but motivation certainly appears to be a problem.
To an extent, you question why the players are unable to motivate themselves. They are, after all, some of the best in the country. However, ultimately, the blame has to rest with the manager and the coaching staff. The players at Tottenham, Liverpool, Manchester United and Manchester City are all able to please their respective managers. Motivation is not a problem for Arsenal’s Premier League rivals.
In the short term, the arrival of former Borussia Dortmund teammates Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Henrikh Mkhitaryan will give the squad a boost. It’s an injection of new voices in the dressing room and new talent on the pitch. Certainly, the encouraging back-to-back victories over AC Milan and Watford were a welcome surprise for the fans. Were they a reminder of the talent in this squad? Maybe but the question is for how long can Arsenal continue that form?
Cue Unbeaten Run
The last few months of the season bring out the best in Wenger’s teams. While a top-four spot in the Premier League is beyond them, there is at least the opportunity to finish the campaign strongly. Progressing in the Europa League offers hope over the summer.
The prospect of major changes amongst the playing staff may also have an effect on squad motivation. With Arsenal’s new head of recruitment, Sven Mislintat, already making his presence felt, we can expect a lot more transfer business to be done this summer, which should have the effect of motivating those players already at the club to raise their game if they want to remain part of Arsenal’s plans next season and beyond.
Ultimately, however, a change of manager is needed to clear the air, to bring new methods. It’s a new voice to the dressing room, and to mark a fresh beginning at the Emirates. Wenger will go down along with Herbert Chapman as Arsenal’s greatest ever manager, that much assured. However, his ability to motivate the team has declined along with their recent fortunes; it is time for another manager to take the club forward.
Only then will Arsenal reclaim their place at the top of English and European football.