Maybe Arsenal Aren’t Great

After yesterday’s disappointing loss at Ipswich I started drawing all kinds of conclusions about this Arsenal team. Then, I tooka deep breath and stopped myself. I told myself that it’s just the first leg, it was an away match during a very busy period and the starting eleven wasn’t truly our strongest. And just as I was allowing those excuses to wash over me, ridding me of the foul feeling of another poor performance, I realized that I make excuses like these all too often. Suddenly I wondered why I never allow myself to pass judgment on this Arsenal team.

Football is a results business. Cliche but true. You can debate the merits of a football team all day long, but ultimately it’s the wins, losses, draws and trophies that settle the argument. For the past few seasons this Arsenal team has been labeled promising and lauded for its potential. And while the results haven’t added up the way Arsenal supporters might have hoped, there’s been myriad excuses. The most obvious and understandable excuse was injuries. But this season has seen Arsenal stay relatively injury free, at least by recent standards, and that’s left supporters looking for new excuses.

I think it’s okay every once and a while to draw conclusions. It’s okay to take inventory and see where the team stands. But for some reason, it’s never the right time to pass judgment on this Arsenal team. Well, if we were to pass judgment on this Arsenal team right now, what would that judgment be? Sadly, I think we’d have to agree that this team just isn’t great. That’s the conclusion you get from looking at the results.

It’s easy to look at our position in the league table and say that we’re doing just fine. But you can also just as easily observe that our point total would see us already out of the title chase in a normal Premier League season. In the Champions League we managed to convert a dominant position in an easy group into a second place finish that now sees us likely to be eliminated in the first knock out round. And in the FA Cup we are lucky to have salvaged a replay at Elland Road that could still see us crash out at the first hurdle. As for the Carling Cup, a competition we’ve routinely written off as nothing more than an exercise for the reserves, it remains to be seen what we’ll make of our semi-final after yesterday’s first leg loss.

I’m not suggesting that this Arsenal team is bad. They’re not. That’s obvious. But I am suggesting that maybe this Arsenal team has reached it’s ceiling. Maybe it’s a team that’s capable of clinging to the top four of the the Premier League and making it a round or two into the cup competitions. It sounds like an unfair judgment, but isnt’ that the only conclusion you can draw from the empirical evidence?

Since that fateful day at St. Andrews that saw Eduardo’s career ruined and our genuine title challenge derailed, this Arsenal team hasn’t done much to suggest greatness. If there’s a way to disappoint, they’ve found it. It’s painful, but let’s quickly take inventory of Arsenal’s disappointments.

Until beating a very poor Chelsea side that’s experiencing its worst run of form in the Abramovich era, Arsenal’s record against United and Chelsea over the past three seasons has been beyond atrocious. If you want to be champions, and you want to be considered a great team, then at some point you have to show that you’re capable of beating the teams in your league that also consider themselves great. Arsenal have not been able to do that.

Arsenal don’t seem to win the small games either. Wenger’s teams used to routinely punish the league’s lesser lights, but in recent seasons that hasn’t exactly been the case. Already this season we’ve lost two home games to newly promoted sides. We’re all well aware of the trouble we had with Phil Brown’s Hull City side two season ago, but we also lost to newly promoted Stoke City that season and were knocked out of the Carling Cup by Championship side Burnley. And last season we were the victim of two draws against promoted teams, lost a two goal lead in a crucial game to nearly relegated Wigan and knocked out of the FA Cup by Stoke. Just a few examples of domestic disappointments in games that great teams win.

Our European campaign this season seems to highlight some of the problems with Arsenal. We ran out to a big lead in our group. We dominated the opposition on pace to setting a record for scoring in the first few games of a Champions League group stage. But we couldn’t convert that into a crucial first place finish. The team took it’s away games lightly and lost at Shakhtar and Braga. Those aregames that a great team must win. Say what you want about away fixtures in Europe, but those teams shouldn’t beat Arsenal. But because Arsenal wasn’t able to get the results they needed in those games, we were rewarded with a first knock-out round tie with Barcelona. It’s a draw that will almost certainly see our European campaign come to an early end after beginning with many pundits proclaiming that we could win the Cup.

Another hallmark of great teams is that they dominate their fiercest rivals. We’ve already discussed our woeful record against United and Chelsea, but Arsenal fans hold a special place in their hearts for the North London Derby. It’s a fixture that Arsenal have happily dominated under Arsene Wenger, but we’ve now lost the last two league fixtures against our hated rivals including the latest catastrophe; a 3-2 loss in which we held a two goal lead at halftime. Even more shocking is that it’s the second two-goal lead Arsenal has lost to Sp*rs at the Emirates in the past 3 seasons.

The fact is, when you look at what this Arsenal team has achieved, and the results they garner, it’s hard to keep saying that this is a great team. Other teams lose to lesser sides. Other teams choke. Other teams lose to their rivals. Even great teams do that. The great Barcelona lost to Hercules earlier this season. But no great team does it with the regularity that Arsenal does. Sadly, when this Arsenal team turns up at the stadium, you just don’t know what to expect. I’m not sure that Arsene knows what to expect, or indeed if the players know themselves. But what we should know by now is that it’s rare to expect them to win the big game. It’s rare to expect them to overcome very strong opposition. It’s not rare for them to lose big leads or take lesser opposition lightly and have to scramble to salvage a result.

Great teams play with consistency. That’s a message that Arsene himself delivers regularly. But the only thing consistent about this Arsenal side is their unpredictability.  We’ve just played consecutive games against Championship sides and failed to score a goal from open play. We failed to hold the lead against a 10-man, relegation threatened Wigan just days after a “paradigm shifting” win over Chelsea. And just before that win over Chelsea we turned in a moribund performance at Old Trafford that didn’t demonstrate a hint of the greatness that we keep suggesting lives within this Arsenal side. Anyone else finding it harder and harder to keep making excuses?

For some reason, after every disappointment, there’s an enormous “BUT.” It was disappointing “BUT {insert excuse here.}” Why do we keep doing that? Why do we find ourselves desperately looking for a way to make an unacceptable result acceptable. Isn’t it okay to expect your team to win. If that team is great, if that team is a champion, shouldn’t you expect greatness. If we supported Sp*rs then we could spend our days excusing all kinds of poor results and disappointments, but if we want Arsenal to be considered a great club, then we need to expect results commensurate with that pedigree. Yes there are excuses, but eventually, great teams get past the excuses. This Arsenal team can’t seem to do that.

Now I would argue that the level of success we’ve achieved considering our budget and the economic climate in football is nothing short of astounding. The fact that we’ve remained a top competitor both domestically and in Europe is fantastic. But that’s not what I’m discussing here. I’m assessing the team as it stands. I’m not questioning whether Wenger has done a good job. I’m not questioning whether our accomplishments are creditable. I’m simply drawing some conclusions about the team on its face. And it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that this team, while occasionally spectacular, is not a great team.

That doesn’t mean this team can’t become great. I still believe that the talent and potential is there, although I’m a little tired of being made to look like a fool for believing it. But I think it’s fair to say that the time has come for accountability. If this team wants to be great, then they have to do it now.

If this team wants to be great, then it has to win the Carling Cup. When you’re in the Semi-final with much lesser opposition remaining, a great team pushes forward and grabs the trophy, especially when it’s so desperately needed. And this team also has to head to Elland road and win that replay with Leeds United. With Huddersfield Town waiting for the winner, we have a real chance to march deeper into the FA Cup, and a great team would seize that opportunity.

They have to win the Premier League this season because it’s absolutely there to be won. A great team would grab this Premier League title and run away with it. And in order to do that, it looks like Arsenal are going to have to find the consistency that’s eluded them. And they’re probably going to have to beat United at the Emirates and Sp*rs at White Hart Lane. If we want to make the argument that Arsenal are a great team, shouldn’t we expect them to do that? If we don’t, then what the heck is “greatness” anyway? If they don’t get those results, and we just excuse the disappointments away, are we really getting any closer to our goals? Probably not.

Finally, and maybe most frighteningly, a great team announces itself by vanquishing great opposition. Mourinho’s Inter did it last season against the odds and now Arsenal must knock Barcelona out of the Champions League. As you read that sentence, maybe your reaction is to dismiss the suggestion. But why? Why should that be the response? Do we have a great team? Do we have a team full of incredibly talented players coached by the best manager of the decade? Didn’t Arsene Wenger himself call this the best Arsenal team he’s ever managed? Then isn’t it reasonable to ask those young men to go out and show their class by defeating the teamwidely regarded as the best in Europe? I think it is, and I hope they will, and I believe they can.

That’s what has to happen in order for this Arsenal team to be cast as “great.” If they don’t achieve those goals, or at least a few of them, it doesn’t mean that this arsenal team are rubbish. It’s not black or white. Too often fans want to believe that the only options are either that the team is tremendous or diabolical. But that’s not the case. There’s no denying that this is a good Arsenal team. At times this is a spectacular team to watch. But are they great? Right now, the answer simply cannot be yes.But the opportunity is there for them to change that answer over the next five months. And I will be here, as I have been, whole-heartedly supporting them in their pursuit of greatness.


About Yankee Gunner

Loyal Arsenal Supporter, Obscure Television Personality
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5 Responses to Maybe Arsenal Aren’t Great

  1. @djgbh says:

    Possible the most comprehensive, accurate, well-balanced, assessment of the state of the club I have read. Ever. This piece should be distributed to all gooners, as its very very true. Can you imagine Henry having to look the players in the eye at training today? Disgraceful.

  2. Arse2Mouse says:

    Fantastic piece, constructively critical, and I can’t disagree with any of your brutalist logic.

  3. Deen says:

    Now I’m sad…

  4. Perry Grove says:

    Worryingly accurate, and well written.

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