I started writing this post when Arsenal were 2-1 down to Hull. The game finished 2-2 so Huzzah, I guess.
I don’t know what makes a great soccer team great. I mean, I have a rudimentary understanding of what is required, and I can certainly recognize greatness when I see it. But what I cannot do is say: "if you buy X player and Y player and hire Z manager, you will have a great team" and know that I will be right. (Well, maybe if variables X, Y, and Z are Messi, Ronaldo, and Jurgen Klopp, respectively. I would feel pretty confident about that. But even then, who knows?) Of course, this has never stopped me from making these sorts of predictions and tricking myself into believing them.
Which brings me to Arsenal. Last year, Arsenal broke its nine-season trophy drought by winning the FA Cup against Hull City. It was glorious and well-deserved. If Juan and I were not deadbeat absentee parents of this blog, there certainly would have been celebratory posts and pictures and champagne for all.
What made the FA Cup win so wonderful was not just that Arsenal had a trophy to throw in the faces of its critics (albeit only the third-most prestigious trophy one can win in English football these days), but that it seemed to be the first marker on a road to continued success. For nine years, Arsenal and its fans had wandered in the desert, watching teams built on youth and the glittering jewel in the crown, Cesc Fabregas, show great promise (2007-08, 2010-11) and then ultimately crash and burn down the stretch. During these years of debt and thrift and injury (always injury), Arsene Wenger cobbled together starting lineups with spit and duct tape and Denilson and somehow the team dragged its ass over the finish line in third or fourth. Arsenal fans would spend the summer wondering which one of their stars would get picked off by a bigger club. Instead of being used to buy suitable replacements, the proceeds would immediately be sent to the bank to pay for the Emirates Stadium.
Anyway, all of this has been beaten to death, so I'll get to the point, which is this: those years of fruitless frustration are supposed to be over. The stadium is paid off. There is a new kit deal. The naming rights to the Stadium have been renewed. The club is flush with cash. Arsenal spent an extended period of time at the top of the table last year. There is a shiny new trophy in the cabinet. And the last two summers have seen the arrival of two of the most exciting attacking players in world football: Mesut Ozil and
Cesc Fabregas Alexis Sanchez.
Even without the arrival of a defensive midfielder and greater defensive cover following the departure of Thomas Vermaelen (two subjects that deserve, and have received, gallons of ink already), I don't think it is an exaggeration to say that Arsenal fans felt their team would be truly competitive this season. Ozil and Sanchez would be the missing variables to get our once-exciting offense back on track. Welbeck could be the finisher that we've missed since RVP. Things would CLICK. Maybe we would ultimately fall short in the League to the depth of Chelsea or Citeh, but we would be in the fight to the end! We would be outside challengers for the Champions League! We would put up a staunch defense of the FA Cup! Some of us even exchanged texts about the treble being in play. (Full disclosure: some of us are silly.)
As of this moment, Arsenal sit sixth in the table, and they will probably be lower than that by the time the weekend is over. Chelsea are in the lead with twice (twice!) as many points. Ozil is injured. Koscielny is injured. Giroud is injured. Debuchy is injured. Wilshere is (almost certainly) injured. Rosicky and Ramsey have struggled with injuries at various points already. Walcott has not yet returned. This is all very bad luck (or something worse and systemic), but Arsenal have still put out sides that, on paper, ought to be have won against opponents like Hull, Tottenham, Leicester, and Everton. These games have all been draws, some, like today, by the skin of their teeth. We have looked very, very mediocre.
This team is not great. It is not even very good. I don't think it's just the injuries, either. Something is not right. There is a faint whiff of rottenness at the core. The hope provided by that FA Cup victory is long gone. The lack of good defensive depth and cover has been incredibly obvious. And the resignation is setting in that this will be yet another season where we exit the Champions League at the round of sixteen. A season where the FA Cup holds the slim possibility of another trophy and, more likely, the threat of embarrassing ourselves against lower league opposition. A season where the league is far beyond us by Christmas (or, um, today) and we will struggle for the Top 4 Trophy and the lifeblood of Champions League football.
(Still gonna watch, though.)