Is Arsenal's predictable season going the same way as every other one?
As surely as December leads into January, the potential positive outcomes for Arsenal’s season are starting to narrow. Stuck back in sixth in the table, 23 points off Manchester City, Arsenal’s Premier League prospects are as grim as ever. On Monday morning they woke up out of the FA Cup too, having launched the worst ever defence of the trophy they won last May.
Where does this leave them, moving into the second half of the season? Their only remaining prospects for a trophy are the EFL Cup and the Europa League. Their best players are either heading for the exit or already have one foot out the door. And any hopes at all that this season would be different have long been dashed.
Now they are back where they always seem to be, trying to rescue face in the cups given their lack of a serious challenge in the biggest competitions. They have a huge semi-final first leg at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday night, and while the League Cup is not always their priority they simply cannot afford the negative spiral – out of two competitions in a matter of days – from a bad result this week. Too many Arsenal seasons have gone that way in the past, six months of tentative buildup before disappearing down the drain before they can draw breath. But at least they usually make it into February or March.
On Sunday afternoon Wenger took a risk that could start the winter unravelling of the Arsenal season. Taking his team to Nottingham Forest for the FA Cup third round, Wenger rested nine of the first-teamers who had played in Wednesday’s 2-2 draw with Chelsea. But his mixture of youngsters and fringe players were simply not up to the challenge and were destroyed by Forest. Wenger was furious afterwards that his senior internationals – Danny Welbeck, Theo Walcott, Mathieu Debuchy and Per Mertesacker – had not stood up and competed.
Now when Wenger takes his team to Chelsea on Wednesday he will have to bring back Mesut Ozil, Jack Wilshere, Alexandre Lacazette and co into the side. He may have to do without Alexis Sanchez depending on the status of negotiations with Manchester City over his sale. His potential departure, five months overdue, will deprive Arsenal of nominally their best player, and give them another headache in terms of how to replace him. Finding a world-class forward in January is never going to be easy.
If there is any faint hope for the season it comes in the Europa League, where Arsenal play Ostersunds FK in the last-32 next month. They are just eight games away from the final in Lyon on 16 May and while that may sound fanciful, the reality of their season is that it may be their best way of playing Champions League football next season. They would need a dramatic league upturn – in which they is no reason to trust – or collapses from two Manchester United, Liverpool or Chelsea for them to scrape into the top four.
There was a point for Manchester United last season when they realised that there was more hope of winning the Europa League than finishing fourth, and Jose Mourinho started to re-deploy resources accordingly. Arsenal’s only hope of anything resembling success is to stay in the hunt, start focusing on Europe and then to triumph in France once the Premier League season is over.
It is a bad place for Arsenal to be in, relying on treading a long tightrope all the way to Lyon just to salvage their season. But then when Wenger signed his two-year extension last summer, did anyone expect this year to be any different?
This is just how the last string of Arsenal seasons have gone and with the same manager and same players – and competing against strengthening rivals – this was always going to happen. The question, as Arsenal had into another transitional summer, and this one worse than the last, is whether they can ever make the real change needed to compete again? Or if this same sensation of dwindling possibilities will be felt again this time next year.