Picture back to 2012. One picture in particular. After years of seeing their best foreign stars leave for pastures new, Wenger posed with 5 young British players signing long term contracts. A year later, Arsenal signed Mesut Ozil, smashing the club record fee to do so. The following summer, the club beat out competition from Liverpool to acquire Alexis Sanchez. This was the template. This was a team with a young British core that has added two genuine superstars to finally push them over the line, just as Ferguson’s dominance had ended and the top spot was vacant in England. The selling club tag had been shaken. Arsenal were ready to compete. So, as these contracts all run to an end this summer, lets take a look back on how this generation has performed so far and consider what lies ahead.
For starters, the British core didn’t exactly work out as planned. Carl Jenkinson has played more Premier League games for West Ham than Arsenal since that contract was signed and is currently on loan at Championship side Birmingham. Kieran Gibbs was unsurped by Spanish veteran Nacho Monreal and is currently plying his trade at Premier League strugglers West Brom. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain fizzled out and finished his Arsenal career as a wing back, only to look much improved in a rotational midfield role at Liverpool, albeit signed for a huge fee. Injuries have stunted Jack Wilshere’s progress and, after a loan spell at Bournemouth, is only just playing his way back in to the first XI with 6 months remaining on his contract. Finally, Aaron Ramsey has teased in stretches, scoring vital goals, breaking from midfield to look like the next Frank Lampard, only to find himself cutting a frustrated figure on the Arsenal bench.
So how about the superstars? What levels of success have they brought Arsenal?
In Ozil’s first season, the club beat out a strong run from Everton to finish 4th without ever threatening the title race, as Manchester City were pushed all the way to the end by Luis Suarez and Liverpool. A poor showing in the Champions League knockout stages made this season feel like par for the course for this squad. However, a comeback victory against Hull City in the F.A cup final brought the club’s first silverware in 10 years. The duck was broken, leaving this season to go down as a starting point at least.
The 2014-15 season began. Arsenal had a big win in the transfer market, acquiring Alexis Sanchez for a fee in the region of £32 million. A convincing 3-0 Community Shield Victory over Manchester City, including a brilliant volley from the new signing, gave the fan base reason for optimism. However, Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea got off to a flying start and nobody really got close. Another typical Champions League exit followed, but it felt like a comfortable third place finish this time round and the season finished with yet more silverware via the F.A Cup. This squad felt only one or two pieces away.
The honeymoon period for this squad had gone by the time August 2015 came around. The time to compete for a title was now. Nobody predicted what was about to happen, as 5000/1 shots Leicester stormed their way to the Premier League title. However from an Arsenal perspective, it was an opportunity squandered. Their second place finish doesn’t tell the full story, as 3rd place Tottenham were the only team to challenge before dropping off at the very end. Arsenal were famously pointed fingers at after celebrating a mid season comeback victory against 10 man Leicester to take control of the league as if they’d won the whole lot. It was infact Leicester themselves who never looked back from that day. Early exits from all the cup competitions left the club empty-handed. Never has a second place finish felt like such a loss of momentum.
That brings us to last season. Arsenal finished outside the top four for the first time in 20 years. It was a devastating blow and really put last years second place in to perspective. The F.A Cup victory, their third in four years, only seemed to paper over the cracks. A technicality to save Wenger’s job. A summer spent fending off Alexis Sanchez transfer rumours was to follow and has only led to another indifferent season.
With only Aaron Ramsey of the aforementioned group still under contract after May, it is time for Arsenal to reflect and reassess. In terms of reflection, three F.A Cups, not one title challenge and failure to win a knock out tie in Europe can only be looked upon as a disappointment. However, to actually recede after dropping out of the top four is nothing short of distinct failure.
Looking forward, the future doesn’t appear any brighter for the club. A second successive season with no Champion’s League could be catastrophic for the club. They quite simply look like the sixth best side in the division. Their only two players who would likely start for the sides above them look increasingly likely to leave on a free this summer. To compound their worries, the sides above them look increasingly well set. Guardiola is taking City to new heights, United are spending relentlessly and Chelsea are always there or thereabouts. With Liverpool ever improving under Klopp and Pochettino turning a balanced Spurs core in to one of the league’s most impressive, the path to a top four finish has never looked more difficult for Arsenal. Take away the carrot of Champion’s League football and it looks unlikely the club will have a realistic shot at convincing players of Ozil & Sanchez’ quality to replace them. Even if they themselves resign, the team looks sixth best as it is?
So what lies ahead for Arsenal? It took hitting on a top five world player to break Liverpool’s Champions League drought. Manchester United spent their way back in to Europe. That tactic has never been Arsenal’s way. It is questionable whether it will even be an option for them, few clubs marketing teams can weather a storm like dropping out of the top four as Manchester United did.
To decide what path to take, Arenal must take stock of their assets. They currently have an ageing goalkeeper, an ageing first choice centre back in Laurent Koscielny, and two veteran stars in forward positions on dwindling contracts. Essentially, in terms of win now world class players in their prime, we’re looking at next to nothing come May. Therefore, we must look at current assets who have a chance of being contributors to the next great Arsenal side. Hector Bellerin certainly fills that category at right back. Come summer, could it be time to accelerate the development of centre half prospect Rob Holding? I would expect a young left back to be on Arsenal’s agenda, with Monreal likely heading for the door. A decision will have to be made regarding Wilshere’s next contract, the next six months will be pivotal for him. Can Ramsey be trusted to reach his potential? Does Granit Xhaka count as a genuine building block? Is Alex Iwobi ready for a bigger role? I can’t imagine Coquelin or Elneny playing much of a role in Arsenal’s next title challenge. You’d think it is time to move on from Theo Walcott, who is currently a non-factor. Giroud also seems to fit that of a different time line, a more win-now centric squad player. He himself may be getting frustrated at the lack of opportunities. Moving him whilst he still offers value and bringing in/promoting a young forward to back up Lacazette in a move similar to Dom Solanke’s arrival at Liverpool seems logical.
It could be a long way back for Arsenal. The possibility of a full scale rebuild lies ahead, from the manager to players alike. A lot of player evaluation, both internally and externally will take place. Tough decisions will need to be made. Do they accept time out of the top four to develop a new, younger side? Are they aggressive this transfer window to try get back in to the picture? There a lot of variables still to go before these decisions are made, most notably their finishing league position come May. The season is far from over. That said, the narrative surrounding Arsenal this next six months is one worth following. Their future is heading in to murky waters at best. Their team is trending down. Questions need to be answered. Do we know which route they should take? No. But they can’t do nothing.