20 February 2013

Is it the end of an era for Arsenal?

Photograph from Flickr

Seven-and-a-half years ago Arsenal defeated Manchester United in a penalty shoot-out to win their fifth trophy in five years. The year before they had gone a whole Premier League season unbeaten and boasted a host of top players such as Thierry Henry, Robert Pires, Freddie Ljungberg, Sol Campbell and Patrick Vieira.

Now their best player is undoubtedly a raw young talent in the form of Jack Wilshere, but with the side in disarray it is unlikely it will be long before he follows Henry, Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri out of The Emirates. 

Although their last 16 Champions League tie with Bayern Munich is far from over, it is almost impossible to see Arsenal winning either 4-2 or by three goals in the Allianz Arena. Bayern are even stronger than when they reached the final last season and haven't lost since it was confirmed that Pep Guardiola would be taking over in the summer. 

It is not as though the Gunners have been a poor side since they won the FA Cup in 2005. In that time they have not finished outside the top four of the Premier League and have reached the League Cup final twice, losing 2-1 to Chelsea in 2007 and 2-1 to Birmingham City in 2011. 

Despite those efforts, their best achievement was reaching the Champions League final in 2006 when they went down 2-1 to Barcelona after having goalkeeper Jens Lehmann sent off. They could count themselves quite unlucky in that match and probably expected many more European finals to follow over the coming years, although those hopes have not materialized. It will be a shock to many that Arsenal have never won the Champions League under Arsene Wenger, in fact they have not been crowned champions of Europe in their history. 

Even though that sounds like a poor record for a club of their size, they are the only British team to have reached the last 16/second group stage every year this century. 

Arsenal in the Champions League under Arsene Wenger
Group stage
Last 16/Second group stage

Since the first two times that they played with Europe's elite under Wenger, when they were knocked out in the group stages both times, Arsenal have since sealed their place as one of the continent's best, although they are desperate to be crowned champions. 

At this rate even being in the Champions League next year will take a huge effort in itself. This season has been another disappointing one for the North London club so far. They sit in fifth place in the Premier League table, four points behind rivals Tottenham Hotspur who occupy the final Champions League spot. After this latest defeat, coupled with their shock FA Cup loss to Championship side Blackburn, and their season looks destined to be another fruitless one. 

For a couple of years now there have been sections of Arsenal's over-paying fans that believe Wenger's time has passed. Fail to seal Champions League qualification at the end of the season and the board might lose patience and agree with them.

However Wenger has been one of the club's greatest ever managers, in the last 17 seasons he has provided three Premier League titles and four FA Cups and countless near misses. What he has also managed is to transform Arsenal from an inconsistent side to a side that always challenges in the higher echelons of the table.

He has also not been backed tremendously by the board in recent years. The signings of Santi Cazorla, Olivier Giroud and Lukas Podolski were big buys, but not bank-breakers by any stretch of the imagination and were never going to win Arsenal the Premier League or Champions League. So who can blame him for trusting in youth? It is all he can really do.

The defence is clearly shaky, but that is as much down to the players' concentration as it is the manager's organisational skills. Despite his unbelievable record though, it would not be surprising in the modern day football cut and thrust culture, if Wenger was shown the door if the Gunners finish outside the top four. 

Whatever happens, Arsenal supporters appear to be witnessing their club fall in a similar, although not as dramatic, way to how Liverpool, Champions League regulars not so long ago, fell from Premier League favourites in 2009 to eighth place last year. 

Although Wenger's men seem to only be suffering a slight slide at the moment, it appears that the slide will become a full-on crash in the near future.

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