Having failed to qualify for this season’s Champions League thanks to a disappointing fifth-place finish in the Premier League last term, Arsenal now face the serious prospect of missing out for the second season running. Prior to the 2016/17 campaign, the Gunners had made it into Europe’s elite competition every season since 1997.
While such a record may not seem like anything to panic about, it should be taken into consideration the impact that finishing outside of the top four can have a on a club over the long term. Former Champions League regulars such as Liverpool and more recently, Manchester United, have struggled to get back into the competition after repeatedly missing out on the top four. In fact, the Manchester side only returned to the competition this season after a two-year absence thanks to a rule change which offered the Europa League winners a spot in the group stages.
For Arsenal, a decision on whether to throw everything they have at the Europa League may have to be made soon with a top four finish looking less likely as each week goes by. Otherwise, they face the prospect of missing out on qualification and suffering the knock-on effects that can bring.
With certain key players set to leave the club this season, the Londoners will need to replace those names while also trying to strengthen in order to maintain pace with the rivals. With no European football to offer and a reduction in revenue at hand, that task becomes harder and harder. If the situation is not addressed adequately, things can soon spiral out of control and the small gap from fifth to fourth place can suddenly seem cavernous.
With that in mind, Arsenal fans will once again find themselves asking if Arsene Wenger is the right man to pull them out of their current hole and lead them back into the top four. And, if not Wenger, then who? Are the club even good enough to finish in a Champions League spot this term, especially given the quality of Liverpool, Manchester United, and the Chelsea side that recently held them to a 2-2 draw at the Emirates, as predicted by Oddschecker back in December? Or have the North London side already fallen out of the elite?
One thing is clear, three of the current top four have all progressed by appointing modern forward-thinking coaches, all of whom could be mentioned as shapers of today’s game. They may not have all achieved the same level of greatness as each other but, in Klopp, Pochettino, and Guardiola, we have three coaches who are having a direct influence on the way the game is being played across Europe today. Could the same be levelled at Arsene Wenger? Or is the Frenchman perhaps in a group, alongside the likes of Jose Mourinho, whose influence was once strong but has since faded.
The Wenger question has started to feel like a dark cloud hanging over the club at the end of every season. And, each year that goes by, it feels less of a knee-jerk reaction and more of a serious situation that the club are refusing to address. The club’s faith in their boss has been commendable but it has previously been backed up by satisfactory league finishes and a style of football that has almost justified any other shortcomings. Now, however, the picture has changed and Arsenal find themselves perched on a very precarious ledge. The football is losing its edge and the league position can no longer be taken for granted. Is it finally the moment to call time on the Wenger era?
Next summer, the club might be forced into making a decision on whether to persist with the current project and risk causing the kind of damage that could take years to undo or whether to open a new chapter in the clubs history. Everything could depend on whether they can scrape their way back into the Champions League, either via a top four finish or a Europa League win. If they can pull it off from their current position, it might just rank as one of Wenger’s biggest achievements yet.