Arsenal’s dismal Premier League campaign took another wrong turn when they lost 3-1 to Liverpool last weekend following the surprise omission of contract rebel Alexis Sanchez from the starting line-up. Arsenal were ponderous on the ball, sloppy in their passing and lacked urgency, and were duly punished. The result leaves the Gunners 16 points behind league leaders Chelsea and they are in real danger of not finishing in the top four for the first time in Arsene Wenger’s 20-year tenure.
Liverpool replaced Arsenal in the top four by beating them, and in doing so they went odds-on to finish in the Champions League places. The bookies currently think Arsenal will struggle to finish the season in their usual top four place: a review of the lines on Betonline shows they are not heavy favourites for their next few games and they have been made 13/10 fifth favourites to finish in the top four, after Chelsea, Man City, Tottenham and Liverpool. Finishing fifth in a four-horse race would be a disaster for Wenger, who has never tasted the ignominy of starting the season in the Europa League.
During the long trophy drought, Wenger could always cling to the fact that he guided Arsenal into the top four year-in, year-out, always assuring the club of the riches that come with playing in the Champions League. He even went as far as to call finishing fourth “a trophy”, which sent many fans into a frenzy of anger. Arsenal’s chances have been written off time after time, but it has never happened. Tottenham were supposed to usurp them several times, but they have not finished above Arsenal since the mid-1990s. Everton have been talked about as a threat, but that has never materialised. Aston Villa, now struggling in the Championship, were even supposed to finish above Arsenal one season, but that did not happen either. The other three places have shifted around, between Man Utd, Chelsea, Man City, Liverpool and latterly Spurs and Leicester, but the one constant has always been Arsenal.
History is on their side. But the Premiership has rarely been as competitive as it is now. All the big teams, bar Chelsea, are frequently dropping points, but Arsenal are currently looking as weak and as spineless as ever.
If they cannot rely on the goals of Alexis Sanchez and the artistry of fellow contract rebel Mesut Ozil, they are in real trouble. The rest of the team is simply not good enough. Laurent Koscielny is a fine defender, but he is surrounded by poor ones and the defensive unit is dreadful. Francis Coquelin has regressed terribly and Granit Xhaka has never got going, so the midfield is a mess, with the absence of Santi Cazorla felt horribly. The likes of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Theo Walcott lack consistency and go missing in games. These are dark times for Arsenal fans and they don’t play another league game until March 18. They really need to get some fire in their bellies going into the home straight or next season’s manager – be it Wenger or the replacement many fans are crying for, such as Juventus’ Max Allegri – will be without the lure and financial muscle provided by Champions League football.