Reassess Arsenal’s place in the Premier League
The Premier League has changed and so has Arsenal’s place. There are no more Top 4. There is no longer really a Top 6 either. There is a Top 2 or 3 – title contenders, The Best of the Rest – European contenders, The Irrelevant – good enough not to have to fear relegation but not good enough for Europe, and The Also-Rans – fodder for relegation.
Right now, Arsenal are probably among the best of the rest. But only fair. They are down that second tier, much closer to Irrelevant than to firmly grabbing a place among the contenders for the European place.
Without significant change in the way Arsenal does business AND the spending habits of top clubs (Manchester City and Chelsea), Arsenal will not be an eternal title contender. Maybe never again. These clubs can afford (and fill) every hole in their roster, every season, with a top and top player. It’s not Arsenal.
The youth-focused approach that appears to be Arsenal’s new model, at least based on this summer’s transfers, shows promise. It’s the only realistic and sustainable way for the Gunners to get closer to the rosters and the club that made the Champions League for nearly two decades in a row under Arsene Wenger. (Mr. Wenger really spoiled us, didn’t he?)
I think we all need a strong dose of reality. Apart from Leicester in 2015-16 and Liverpool in 2019-20, you have to go back to the Invincibles to find a Premier League title not won by Manchester City, Manchester United or Chelsea. The other big European leagues are even heavier – Germany, Italy and France have all been absolutely dominated by one club in the last decade. Top-level football is made up of the haves and have-nots, and at the moment Arsenal are at a loss.
Right now, the Gunners’ best hope for a Premier League title is another season like 2015-16 (which incidentally and sadly Arsenal really should have won). Basically the club has to catch lightning in a bottle. Even model club Borussia Dortmund, the most successful “buy young, develop, sell, flush, repeat”, haven’t won a Bundesliga title since 2011-12. And the Premier League is a richer and more competitive league from top to bottom than the Bundesliga. If Arsenal are in the Champions League most often and manage a title every 5-10 years, I’ll be happy.
I will also stress that a key feature of Borussia Dortmund’s model and success is selling good players in their prime. It is a difficult pill to swallow. There will be an inflection point for Arsenal in about two or three years, when Bukayo Saka, Emile Smith Rowe, et. Al. Are reaching their true bonuses and contracts are starting to end where tough and unpopular decisions may have to be made. Will Arsenal try to keep them all or will a very good player, a fan favorite, be sold to fill the coffers and replenish the talent pool?
There is no way to tell at this time which route is the correct one.
One of my go-to stats is that Liverpool spent 6 of the 7 Champions League seasons building their current squad (and the season they made the CL was because Luis Suarez had one of the best seasons in the world. all-time PL forward and Daniel Sturridge has scored almost twice as many goals as he has scored in any other season of his career).
Maybe Arsenal is Liverpool from a few years ago. In a year or two, the Gunners may be in a place similar to the 2017-18 Liverpool squad, rebuilt well enough and advanced enough that they are a Virgil van Dijk-like buy, far from becoming contenders for the title for several seasons. For what it’s worth, Liverpool sold Luiz Suarez and Philippe Coutinho to become what they are now.
Or maybe the Gunners have to bide their time, wait to change gears and do that big “for now” by signing when the next wave of young talent hits their peak. When people like Saka, ESR, etc. are in their late twenties and still contributing, but on the downward slope of their peak seasons.
In the American GM’ing sports chair, we often talk about ‘windows’ for teams – a period of years in which they have a legitimate shot at winning a title and should make shorter-term personnel decisions. It seems like the best way to think about Arsenal’s roster and plan right now. Arsenal have a window that will open soon, perhaps as early as next season, but more realistically in two (or even three) years.
It is a little strange place because of the slush funds that are the European competitions. Making the Europa League is another quality inbound transfer. Qualifying for the Champions League means several entrants / a high-caliber player. So while you want to focus on the future and prepare for those target seasons, it’s also important to be good enough now to give yourself a chance to take advantage of the European ‘bonuses’ if you want. And more generally, you don’t want to “waste” good years of players like Saka, ESR, MØ when you can speed up and increase the rebuilding process.
At the same time, you don’t want to sacrifice player development and mid- to long-term roster building for a quick fix and short-term ephemeral improvement. We have been there with Arsenal. It didn’t work out and is largely responsible for Arsenal’s poor form at the start of the summer.
And at the same time, “trusting the process” won’t get you far. We also need results. Or at least signs that the process is taking you somewhere you want to go. And everyone will have their own measuring stick and ideas for what that looks like.
I would really like Arsenal to return to the Europa League next season. But I think I would be okay with another season if at the end of the season I can honestly say that the team has improved and is still playing better in a way that feels enduring rather than inconsistent.
For what it’s worth, I think it’s pretty close to how Arsenal will approach it as well (but of course I’m going to think so, right?). The club have acknowledged that this is a multi-season situation and not a “we will be back in the top flight immediately” situation. I stand by my prediction that Mikel Arteta will be in charge at least until the end of this season, unless the bottom absolutely drops, and I think he will start at least next season in charge as well.
The Premier League has changed and so has Arsenal’s place. The most important thing to change, it seems, is the number of people who recognize the new status quo.