Over the past six or seven years, Arsenal have been a club striving to achieve one thing – and no, it’s not a trophy. Well, okay, winning some silverware would probably help, but if the Wengerian attitude had ever been ‘just win a trophy, any trophy’ there would have been some won by now, but a few less top-four finishes too – and that’s Rafa Benitiez’s gimmick. There would also have been more painful and – let’s face it – hilarious incidents like the 2011 Carling Cup Final. So no, not simply trophies; above all else, Arsenal desire one thing: to be taken seriously. Seriously.
Since Patrick Vieira ran away celebrating his winning penalty in the 2005 FA Cup Final (and kept on running until he reached Turin), Arsenal have challenged for the title, in the broadest sense of the term, on three occasions. Each time the venture has started promisingly, and each time football pundits have been asked the same question: “is it time we started taking Arsenal seriously?” Of course, the answer is irrelevant. The question itself implies the main problem – Arsenal aren’t taken seriously. Anyone or thing who is considered to be prominent or important doesn’t need a bi-annual vote of confidence to reaffirm their position. They are, or they aren’t.
In the grander scheme of things Arsenal are, obviously, a pretty good football team, but because of the outrageous nature of each of their seasons, it’s very hard to take them seriously – they’re hilarious. Arsenal fans are often accused of being fickle and hysterical, which is pretty fair if you consult the very decent body of evidence they themselves document on social media, but then not many teams are quite as bipolar as Arsenal are. Maybe Liverpool – but their fans are often tarred with the same (or at least a similar) brush.
Arsenal’s 4-4 draw at Newcastle was a perfect example of this. No Premier League side had ever thrown away a four goal lead before, yet no side combined sheer brilliance with slapstick awfulness the way Arsenal circa 2011 did. Which other teams in recent memory would be good enough to take a 4-0 away lead at half-time, yet also bad enough to completely bugger it up in the second half?
This also works on a larger scale, as the conclusions to of each of Arsenal’s three most recent title campaigns have shown. In the 2007/08 season, Arsenal travelled to Birmingham City five points clear at the top of the league, having lost just once in 26 games. In 2009/10, Wenger’s side found themselves top on 27 games in, and were considered in some corners as ‘dark horses’ in a three-way race with Chelsea and Manchester United. The following season (that’s 2010/11), they were second after 27 matches, but just a point behind Manchester United, who were still to visit The Emirates.
Of course, at around each of these respective points Arsenal went from saturation and into decline, resulting in them effectively conceding the title by mid-April. Rather than following through with the potential they showed by winning 6-1 at Goodison Park, 3-1, against then-title holders Chelsea, or 2-1 against Guardiola’s Barcelona, Wenger’s team collapsed in comical fashion, making said victories seem more like build-up to a springtime punch-line than serious demonstrations of ability.
Arsenal should win the FA Cup this season, considering they are the only Premier League side left in the tournament who aren’t Hull City, yet it still feels like another opportunity for everyone to laugh at them if/when it goes Pete Tong. Even if they do avoid embarrassment by winning the competition – which would unquestionably be good – finishing fourth would still raise questions about how much they have actually improved. Since finishing second to Chelsea in 2005, fourth is where Arsenal have placed in five of the last eight seasons, reaching only third in the other three.
Indeed, their late-season collapses could just be viewed as simply as regression to the mean. In the same way as they conspire to actually finish strongly when their Champions League spot comes under threat, Arsenal fade away every time they attempt to perform above themselves over 38 games. In fact, even the few times Arsenal have finished third in recent years is when a team who traditionally perform better than they do in the league have a far more significant collapse – e.g. Liverpool’s demise in 2010 and Chelsea’s prioritising of their Champions League campaign in 2012. Manchester United’s post-Ferguson decline could also fall into this bracket, should Arsenal fend off Liverpool’s assault on the automatic Champions League positions.
Obviously the FA Cup is nice, but would serve as more of a pain-killer than antidote for Arsenal. It would obviously quell the trophy cabinet/empty/dust jokes recycled by Footy Humour accounts, but the truth remains that Robin van Persie and Samir Nasri didn’t leave to win domestic cup competitions; they left to win league titles. There is a train of thought that Arsenal’s side need to learn how to become “winners”, and winning one cup would be the catalyst for more; this theory is often partnered with the example of Jose Mourinho winning the League Cup before going on to triumph in bigger competitions at Stamford Bridge. But let’s not kid ourselves – Mourinho’s Chelsea were the strongest team in the country, and won back-to-back titles because of that. Anyone who thinks they’d have done anything other than win those two Premier Leagues had they lost to Liverpool in the 2005 Carling Cup final is, er, wrong.
If Arsenal do indeed suffer from vertigo, and need a cup-win to remedy that, then the FA Cup needs to be won. However, being able to keep pace with Manchester City and Chelsea until the end of the season could be far more useful for Arsenal. This would, at the very least, prove to everyone (themselves included) that this current project of Wenger’s has more potential than any of those from the previous eight years.