In 2004, Arsenal’s “invincibles” completed the season undefeated and the world seemed at their feet. Swap a Champions’ League defeat to Chelsea with an FA Cup win over the same club, and Arsenal could have ended the season as undefeated European champions. The club’s place at the pinnacle not just of English football but perhaps also European seemed assured.
The following season was deemed a disappointment – 83 points secured a runners-up spot, and there was a fortunate FA Cup Final victory on penalties. Things still seemed good. In the last season at Highbury, the club reached its first ever European Cup Final.
So ended the first half of Arsene Wenger’s reign, and the second half has not built on the promise. It is worth emphasising that by historical standards it has not been disastrous: consistently top four in England and top sixteen in Europe. Just rarely much better. With a new glittering stadium and a renowned brand of football, people expected at least a bit better – and they may have had a right to.
It should be noted that Arsenal came second in the Premier League last season, ahead of every other big club. Many clubs of similar stature would love to be in Arsenal’s position. Clubs with big support and tradition such as Aston Villa, Nottingham Forest, Leeds United and Newcastle United find themselves not even in the Premier League, after all! Current champions Leicester City may soon be joining them.
Nevertheless, last week’s thrashing by Bayern was one of those moments – alongside the 6-0 at Stamford Bridge or the sale of Robin van Persie to Manchester United – which reminded Arsenal fans that, for all the promise, they do not truly belong to Europe’s elite. Come up against a Barcelona or a Bayern, and the gulf in class is immediately apparent – not just technically but also seemingly mentally.
The problem remains the Board. Arsenal’s Directors do not share the fans’ objective. They do not want to win trophies, they want to make money. The best way to do that is to qualify constantly for the Champions’ League, without ever having to invest enough to challenge seriously to win it (or the Premier League). That is how you make money from a top football club. But it is not how you win trophies.
We are now into the transition phase of Arsene Wenger’s parting and replacement. He cannot be replaced by one man, any more than Sir Alex Ferguson could. We are in an era now of three-year managerial stints, and that is probably what will follow; but equally important will be the new Executive team at the club who will have to fill in the club management (not just team management) role currently carried out by the manager. It is almost certain that this phase will see Arsenal slip out of the Champions’ League altogether – which is why the Board has been so slow to start the transition in the first place.
Fans will need to be patient. It is thirteen years since Arsenal won the League and never since its first title in 1931 have eighteen years passed without one. My bet is it will be more than another five before Arsenal is really up there again. We’ll miss Mr Wenger when he is gone; but he himself will realise he has to go fairly soon.