Over the years of supporting Arsenal, I’ve seen many high and mighty claims made on a variety of topics and these are bandied about as a stick to beat either the club or the manager or players with. I’ve had many a discussion and debate trying to clear the fog of misinformation but the same claims continue to be made. Here at Positively Arsenal, we will look to debunk some of these claims and explain the reality in the hope that people can find it informative and at the same time learn to better see through these myths that get propagated.
I figured I’d start with the most common one, the supposed 7 year decline from challengers to fighting for the top 4. I think it’s a rarity now to see an article in the media or watch a football match on TV without seeing or hearing the mention of 7 years and the words “trophy drought”. To an extent, this media brainwashing has worked on far more people than you’d expect but then again, the human race has always been one that is easily swayed by whatever is seemingly the popular opinion. Most people seem to talk about this decline like it has been a disastrous downward spiral since 2004 when it has been anything but.
The claim of a decline is only even remotely true if you look at a starting point of the Invincibles (the highest peak any team could ever hope to reach) and the players in that and an ending point of today, a point when the season isn’t over. But to look at it in such black and white fashion is such a simplistic and simple-minded dismissal of a very complicated time in Arsenal’s history. A time that I will seek to explain in this post to show what really happened.
We turn the clock back to 2005, to our last glorious cup win, a penalty shoot-out win that we were rather fortunate to get considering we were outplayed for most of that game. More significantly though, we finished 2nd in the league that year, a good 12 points behind then winners, Chelsea. The first signs of the odds we would be up against was there to be seen, that the year after a season unbeaten and finishing 11 points above them, Chelsea had managed to literally buy themselves a 23 point swing by adding Robben, Drogba, Carvalho, Cech, Ferreira and more in just one summer.
While Chelsea were busy buying the league in 2004/05 and 2005/06, our last seasons at Highbury, these were the years of the aging Invincibles team and the years when the first phase of rebuilding began. While this time marked an FA Cup and a dominating run until the Champions’ League final, our performance in the league dropped in comparison, especially in our last Highbury season. It took us some good fortune and dodgy lasagna to finish 4th that year, despite having most of the Invincibles still around. What’s more surprising is the fact that this squad finished 24 points behind league winners Chelsea (who continued their reckless spending)
Our rebuilding during this time was quick, drastic and enforced by a combination of age and the need to offload big earners without resale value (a bit like Chelsea are doing now with Drogba last season and Lampard now). To plan and compensate for these departures, pieces were gradually added with the likes of Hleb, Rosicky, Adebayor, Gallas, Sagna, Walcott and more. While the first season together was shaky in 2006/07 with the expected disjointed nature of new teammates in a rebuilding team, there were still signs of a promising team coming together especially indicated by a run between early December and mid-March that saw us just suffer one defeat in 14 games in the league. However this was another season finishing 4th and this time 21 points behind the winners.
The full potential of this squad was reached in the 2007/08 season where we played the finest Wengerball in years. This team racked up a great set of results and sat on top of the table as true title contenders all the way until late Feb when our season began to shatter just like Eduardo’s ankle did in that infamous game. A string of poor results (and poor refereeing in the case of the Champions League) followed with just one win between then and the middle of April and this decided our fate in the league. Despite a strong finish with a few wins on the trot, we just fell short, 4 points off the title in 3rd.
This team had the makings of a great one that was capable of reaching great heights had they stuck together. However, greed struck with the loss of Flamini and Hleb to teams that could offer a better financial package than we could at a time when the financial restrictions of moving to a new stadium was starting to visibly affect us. At the same time, after an excellent season, the caricature that is Adebayor began to show his temperamental nature while agitating for a move and departed the very next summer to Manchester City. A falling out with then captain, Gallas, meant that Kolo Toure was also let go off to the newly rich team from Manchester.
This forced the second rebuild since the Invincibles, one that built around a youthful core that was showing signs of blossoming. The likes of Alex Song, Nasri, Theo, Fabregas and even Denilson, Diaby and Bendtner contributed greatly towards keeping us in the top 4 and inching closer to another title challenge that was around the corner. We finished 4th in 08/09 and 09/10 thanks to these youngsters and some spectacular play from Arshavin as well and the gap to the top was slowly decreasing, with an 18 point deficit in 2009 narrowing down to 11 in 2010 (a season when we challenged well into March when we were just 2 points off the top before falling short).
Then came the next big push for a title from an Arsenal team since the Invincibles in the 2010/11 season. Nasri, Fabregas, Arshavin and Chamakh were in sparkling form at the start of the season and kept us in the title hunt well into March at the end of which we were 5 points off 1st place United, with a game in hand and a game to face them. This despite a season long injury to our best center back in Vermaelen and a goalkeeping injury crisis that meant we had to call Jens Lehmann back on emergency loan for a game. However once again, bad luck struck and after a devastating defeat in the Carling Cup final and dodgy refereeing knocking us out of Europe again, a limp end to the season saw the title challenge fade and the club finished 4th again, 12 points off the top.
Since then we’ve again been forced to rebuild, losing players to impatience or greed (or both) over the span of two summers just as the financial restrictions were beginning to lift and genuine strengthening would’ve been possible. The following table shows you the changes in the team, in the year of every genuine title challenge. It is so startlingly clear how much we’ve been affected by this rebuilding cycle of players leaving and almost an entire squad getting overhauled due to factors ranging from age to greed to impatience.
It is full credit to the man in charge that despite being forced into doing such a drastic overhaul so frequently in the last few years, he’s kept us within reach and at worst, a year away from the next title challenge. For all his accusation about being too tactically rigid, the evolution of tactics and the adaptation to key players departing is nothing short of remarkable and yet somewhat unappreciated too.
The last section of that table shows you what we have now and what we will continue to build on come this summer. You can see how hard the team has had it when having to cope with such a drastic change after losing two players whom the team was built around (Cesc and RVP). You can also see that there is a fantastic foundation present, one we can be proud of and one which will serve as a platform to future success. And lastly, for the past month or so, you’ve seen evidence of what this team is capable of when it truly comes together. Just like 08/09 or 06/07 before that, the time right now is the teething period before we attempt to take our bite of success.
As for the point about the myth of the decline, by now I think this analogy will make sense. Calling what we have gone through a decline is like being in the Himalayas, and claiming that everything other than Mount Everest, the Invincibles, isn’t high enough and that every valley between peaks we encounter is a disaster. A little more perspective, a little more patience and a little more understanding is all it takes to realize why our last few years have been a rollercoaster and further realize that there is only one way from here, and that is up.