FOR long-suffering Arsenal fans, it was a rare win to celebrate. The only problem, unfortunately, is it was not their team were responsible for the victory.
It speaks volumes for the despair engulfing Gunners supporters that the highlight of their season, thus far, has been Liverpool’s 4-3 boilover last weekend against Manchester City.
By ending City’s 22-game unbeaten streak, Liverpool allowed Arsenal to retain sole ownership (and bragging rights) of perhaps the most remarkable feat by any English football team in the past century – their 2003-04 “Invincible” season.
During that unforgettable campaign, the Gunners won 26 and drew 12 of their 38 games, becoming the first top-flight team since Preston North End in 1888-89 to progress through an entire league season without losing a game. But if that almost-unbelievable achievement continues to warm the hearts of diehard Gooners, it is also a reminder of the vexing juxtaposition they now encounter.
While 2003-04 was a season beyond their wildest dreams, it was also the last time they won the Premier League. And at no point in the ensuing years have they seemed so far away from again challenging for the title.
After last week’s 2-1 loss to Bournemouth – their first-ever defeat at the hands of the Cherries – the Gunners have slipped to sixth on the ladder, eight points adrift of the top-four position that would guarantee entry into next season’s European Champions League.
Even worse, an exodus of quality players to rival clubs is apparently unfolding.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain recently signed with Liverpool, and fellow England international Theo Walcott has joined Everton.
Talismanic Alexis Sanchez, Arsenal’s best player for the past few seasons and, on his day, one of the finest in the world, is set to join Manchester United.
French striker Olivier Giroud, frustrated about continually having to play off the bench, has been linked with Newcastle, and German World Cup winner Mesut Ozil is out of contract and demanding a huge wage rise to stay.
A sense of deja vu has left many fans disillusioned, and the target of their angst is the club’s longest-serving and most successful manager, Arsene Wenger.
In his almost 22 years at the helm, Wenger has overseen a golden era that has delivered three Premier League titles and a record seven FA Cups. Until this season, they had qualified for the Champions League for 17 years in a row.
Last season, when they finished fifth, was Arsenal’s worst result under the French veteran.
All but a handful of clubs can only look on such a record with envy, as they settle for mid-table mediocrity and hope they can avoid slipping into the relegation zone.
Arsenal, nonetheless, are constantly labelled underachievers.
Their fans – who can only attend games at Emirates Stadium if they pay for the most expensive season tickets in the Premier League – are tired of being there or thereabouts.
And this has been a recurring trend, a gradual decline dating back to the first season after the “Invincibles”, offset by Wenger’s uncanny knack of salvaging credibility just as supporters were preparing to lynch him.
Last season, for instance, just when the vast majority of Gooners agreed it was time for Wenger to go, Arsenal completely outplayed Premier League champions Chelsea in the FA Cup final, to collect the famous trophy for an unprecedented 13th time.
Wenger duly signed a two-season contract extension (worth a reported $14 million a year) but, at the time, this columnist had a hunch there were only two possible outcomes.
The first was that he would add a player or two to an already-strong squad and resurrect Arsenal as a team capable of genuinely vying for Premier League and even Champions League silverware. Alternatively, the pressure mounting on the club would result in it imploding.
Sadly, for a fan who first started attending matches at Highbury in the early 1990s, the latter appears a more likely scenario.
Sanchez, like Thierry Henry, Emmanuel Adebayor and Robin van Persie before him, has clearly decided Arsenal aren’t big enough to help him realise his ambitions.
Wenger faces the prospect of having to rebuild a squad, yet there is a nagging suspicion that elite-level players would prefer to join other clubs, who are happy to pay more lucrative wages and offer a better chance to win trophies.
Meanwhile, unless he is able to turn the club around, promptly, the critics will use every disappointing result as a rod for his back.
As one columnist fumed last week in The Sun: “Does he genuinely believe he can turn us into title contenders?
“If yes, he is the most deluded man in football, if no, he's taking us all for mugs and cashing in while he still can. He’s an outdated fraud and a liar.”
Those sort of views are shared by many fans, who vent at games with derogatory chants and banners.
The same fans who, after he won three Premier League titles and three FA Cups in his first eight seasons at Arsenal, had a saying: “In Arsene we trust.”
Trust has given way to doubt, and eventually incredulity. Some of us still believe in fairytales, but we are few and far between.
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