It's a shame really. There is a fascinating Premier League season going on (beyond the non-existant race for the title) and somehow, Arsene Wenger and Arsenal are stealing all of the oxygen from what should be a rich set of stories. At this point, it is hard to wrtie about anything but what happens with Arsenal and Wenger but I'll try to get past that to comment on some of the other things going on elsewhere around the league.
Is This Really Worse From Arsenal?
On one hand, the notion that this year's failure at Arsenal is somehow different or worse than previous years seems a bit sensationalist. Yes, they've been embarrassed by Manchester City in the League Cup final and in the Premier League on back-to-back occasions but is that really that different to the destruction at the hands of recent Champions League conquerors? The narrative on Manchester City, and rightly so, is that they are better suited for being in the conversation with the elite of European football rather than their so-called peers in the Premier League. When faced with the elite of the elite in the Champions League in recent years, this is what Arsenal have done, they've been beaten badly. Maybe there's a perception difference because the competition in question wasn't the Champions League and we still aren't REALLY fully on board with City being at the level of Barcelona, Real, or Bayern. Here's the thing, we should be. They haven't won the Champions League yet but I don't think it would shock anyone if they did.
The loss to Brighton on Sunday also has equivalents in previous seasons. They lost to Crystal Palace 3-0 last season in April and 3-1 to West Brom in March. The year before it was a nil-nil against Sunderland in April and a 2-1 loss to Swansea in March. The year before that it happened earlier in the campaign with losses to Stoke City in December and to Southampton on New Years Day.
My point is that we've seen all of this before. What has changed is the strength of the teams around them. Liverpool seems to be gaining momentum with Mo Salah and Roberto Firmino starring in the attack and the sale of Coutinho presumably providing cover to balance the books ahead of Van Dijk and Keita while giving them a chance to buy others. Spurs have, thus far, kept the band together which has sunk the Gunners even further below the Champions League places. Chelsea are stumbling at the moment but it seems like they have a ways to go befoe they are at Arsenal's current level of crisis. Finally, the two Manchester sides have the money, talent and management to ensure that the question is really whether they're going to contend for the title in any given year and maybe in the Champions League rather than if they're going to be top four.
My point is that this is really the same season that we've been watching for years from Arsenal but with more severe consequences due to the teams around them.
Can They Possibly Justify Wenger Staying?
Despite the sentiment above, that doesn't alter the fact that things have changed. In years past, it was easy to rest on the notion that finishing in the top four was essentially a trophy. Throw in a few recent FA Cup titles and it was pretty easy, from a business standpoint, to take the easy way out and keep Wenger around. The Champions League money (and the interest of sponsors that comes with the Champions League) was flowing in as regularly at the Emirates as just about anywhere in Europe. No, they never really challenged for the Premier League title anymore but they had the "we run this as a responsible business/we don't have petro dollars" mantra to sell to supporters and the public at large.
Looking at the situation now, it's hard to see even the most cynical business-first Chairman not making a move. The Champions League money isn't there this season and doesn't look likely to return next season and will get progressively harder to regain with every year that Liverpool and/or Spurs are allowed to consolidate their positions while the Gunners languish. Spurs will finish ahead of the Gunners for the second season running and will move into a brand new palace of a stadium which, combined with repeated Champions League appearances, will help them pregressively cut the revenue gap with their North London neighbors.
The most damning part of the entire situation is that Wenger, though he wants to stay, doesn't seem to have anything resembling a solution to how to make things better. I'm all for a long leash given his service to the club over 20 years but thinking about this as someone who has been at the executive level of companies, I would at least demand that there be some sort of plan to change approach. Failing that, the strategy seems to be merely hoping that Wenger hits gold with his next transfer and that the club's fortunes will be transformed as a result.
More likely the Kroenke family will look at what will surely be dwindling attendance numbers, season ticket and membership renewals, and merchandise sales and finally come to the conclusion that everyone else arrived at a couple of years ago, it's time for Arsene to go. Yes, it would be ideal if he took the graceful way out and retired but, failing that, it is time to say that the damage to the here and now and the future now outweighs any good will that has been accrued over the years.
So, What Next?
I saw two interesting rumors related to Arsenal and Wenger this week that are fun to speculate on even if neither are likely to come to pass. The first is that Arsene Wenger and Antonio Conte switch places over the summer with each providing a counterpoint to the failings of the other. The fit for Conte at Arsenal is obvious. Someone needs to kick the Arsenal squad in the @ss and he's just the guy to do it. In Ozil, Mkhitaryan, and Aubameyang there is more than enough talent to score goals. If Conte could get the other eight players to play harder and more disciplined and with something approaching a tactical plan then you could see Arsenal at least returning to the top four.
The case for Arsene to Chelsea is a little harder to see but, I think, it goes something like "the residual discipline from the Conte era will persist long enough for Wenger's lighter touch to let Hazard, Morata, Willian, etc play more freely and remind them of their potential". My problem with that logic is that we saw under Mourinho how quickly discipline can deteriorate even when there's a ton of talent on hand at a club. Throw in the pinch of reality that I can't see Chelsea handing the reigns to a manager they would view as having failed at a club smaller than their (yes, that was a painful sentence to write but none-the-less true). Like I said, fun to consider but Wenger may be an icon but he is no longer big enough for Chelsea.. Oh,and Conte is absolutely going back to Italy over the summer.
The other rumor I saw that I actually did like for all parties involved was Arsene Wenger heading to Everton. I'm not sure who says "no" here unless Wenger's ego needs a bigger club. Everton absolutely have some talent to work with along with a surprising amount of depth for a club their size. What would be fascinating to me is if Wenger got the band back together with free agent-to-be Jack Wilshere and spare-part-to-be Olivier Giroud rejoining Wenger and Theo Walcott at Goodison Park. Wenger's name and the financial commitment he'd surely demand from the club could help Steve Walsh recruit a center back or two and another target forward to round out what could be a very good side.
A starting eleven of Pickford, Baines (plus a new, younger LB), new CB #1, Michael Keane, Seamus Coleman, Idrissa Gueye, Jack Wilshere, Yannick Bolasie, Gylfi Sigurdsson, Theo Walcott, and Olivier Giroud with new CB #2, new CF, Cenk Tosin, Tom Davies, Morgan Schneiderlin, Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Mason Holgate, Oumar Naisse, etc in reserve would be a nice side. It might not be top six but it should get the Toffees back to their David Moyes era place as "the best of the rest".
Just something fun to think about as I doubt that Wenger's ego would let him move to a non-Champions League side in the Premier League. More likely he'd take a national team role somewhere or a job at a top club back in France.
Brighton - I heard someone on one of the Sirius XM morning soccer talk shows - don't remember which one saying that they weren't sure if Brighton's current haul of 34 points had them safe. The answer was "no" which seems sort of insane. Are the mathematically safe? Absolutely not. Is their run-in pretty rough? Yes. Would a smart manager say to this group, "yup, we're good with what we've got"? Certainly not. That said, they're good. Time to start looking at what they can do to improve for their sohpomore season in the Premier League. Oh, and Pascal Gross should be making room on his shelf for this season's Gylfi Sigurdsson Memorial Awesome-Fantasy-Player-On-Bottom-Half-Team award.
Got Wood? - First, heh! Second, if you're looking for a draft forward from the waiver wire for the run-in then the return to action and goal-scoring by Chris Wood should have you thinking about a transfer in. He's been good when healthy and the Clarets are due for a run of good form.
Son Rising - The great tragedy of my draft season across multiple leagues has been Son Hueng-Min. I drafted him in both "Experts" leagues I'm in (on PL.com with the Fantasy Football Scout crew and on Togga with Togga and Rotowire writers). I, and I hope I'm not alone here, got frustrated when he was not only not scoring but not even playing regularly in the early part of the season. I dropped him in both leageus and didn't get the benefit of his crazy-effective second half of the season. He's exactly where I'd have hoped him to be goal/point-wise at this point in the season, he just didn't get there in a very smooth way. Kudos to those managers who jumped in on a distressed property at the right time and have been enjoying the fruits of the risk they took with that roster spot.
Whither Richarlison? - Dude, what happened to Richarlison? At this point we have to be asking if he just had a lucky run where everything he touched just seemed to work out just right - we've certainly seen marginal wingers have stretches like that in the past only to revert to mediocrity. There are a few confounding factors here. Watford have been a mess which has led to few overall chances for anyone on the team. What looked like it was going to be a tug-of-war between big clubs over the summer now looks more like it might be either a gamble by a big club or a great buy from someone closer to the middle of the table. Ordinarily I'd say Everton but they've spent any potential Richarlison money on Walcott already. This is where Dortmund cashes in for an insane sum on Pulisic and turns around and buys Richarlison for a fifth of the price and he turns out to be just as productive, isnt' it?
Zaha Destination - With Crystal Palace looking more and more like they might go down, the eventual destination for Wilfried Zaha will be fascinating. Spurs seems like the obvious choice but with Lucas Moura, Son, and Erik Lamela already occupying similar space and bigger needs for reserves behind Harry Kane, Christen Eriksen and Dele Alli, it seems like it wouldn't be the best use of money at the New White Hart Lane. Liverpool seems stocked up on wide attackers unless they want to switch out Sadio Mane for Zaha (which isn't a bad idea if the money works given what else they need to do), he's already flamed out at Manchester United and City are full up on wide attackers. Could Chelsea be the spot? It's either that or Arsenal as part of a major overhaul. That, along with the fate of veterans like Jonny Evans or Chris Brunt from relegation-bound West Brom will make up some of the more interesting transfer plots of the summer.
And, yes, this is the sort of column that makes sense to write when the title has been decided for months and we've still got a few more months yet to run.