JANUARY 6 — Do you remember those good old days — and they weren’t really that long ago — when Arsenal were considered one of the strongest teams in England, if not the world?
It’s only just over a decade, after all, since the Gunners reached the Champions League Final, and not much longer since they went through an entire English Premier League season unbeaten.
Well, times have changed and now Arsenal are sinking slowly and apparently irreversibly into the well populated realms of also-rans, gradually deteriorating year after year thanks to the stubborn refusal of grizzled old manager Arsene Wenger to either change his ways or step aside.
This month will, I believe, demonstrate in vivid terms just how far Arsenal have fallen.
In fact, it has already started to do so, with Wenger’s team starting the New Year outside the all-important top four places in the Premier League and only avoiding losing further ground by sneaking a 2-2 draw at home against Chelsea thanks to a last-minute equaliser — their third draw in the last four games.
Of course, a point against the reigning champions is not a bad result. But for a team with pretensions of grandeur it’s not a very good result either, and it certainly shouldn’t be the cause for outbreaks of the wild celebrations which appeared to have been prevalent among Arsenal fans after their lucky late escape on Wednesday night.
In the old days, by which I mean no more than ten years ago, Arsenal would have been disappointed to drop points at home against any opposition, not delighted. They would have been embarrassed to be down in sixth position, 23 points off top spot (23!) and as close to Burnley as they are to fourth place, having only won half of their games so far (11 out of 22).
But it’s all a matter of expectations, and Arsenal fans have gradually conditioned themselves not to expect very much at all. Fourth place and winning the League or FA Cup (competitions the truly major teams don’t really even try to win) is regarded as a roaring success, and ideas of actually winning the Premier League or the Champions League are seen as far-fetched and unrealistic.
Things could get worse this month with the departures of star players Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez, both of whom have been strangely allowed to enter the final few months of their contracts and will therefore either be sold cut-price now or leave for nothing in the summer.
The two players have plenty of suitors, with Manchester City set to reignite their interest in Sanchez (who previously played under City boss Pep Guardiola at Barcelona), while Ozil is reportedly being tracked by Manchester United, Real Madrid and Barcelona.
Of course, selling players is nothing unusual. Even the mightiest of clubs lose top stars against their will occasionally, as Barcelona discovered when Neymar jumped ship to join Paris St Germain last summer, and as Liverpool are now experiencing with the likely departure of Philippe Coutinho to Barcelona.
However, Arsenal are a different matter from those truly big clubs because they are extremely unlikely to replace their departing stars with anything close to like-for-like talent.
If Coutinho leaves Liverpool, he will most probably be replaced by either Sanchez, if they can beat City in the race for his signature, or one of Europe’s most highly-rated young players in the form of Thomas Lemar from Monaco.
If Atletico Madrid lose star striker Antoine Griezmann to Barcelona or Manchester United, as looks probable either now or in the summer, they have at least already anticipated that situation by re-signing Diego Costa from Chelsea.
Arsenal, though, will not make moves of that stature. Who will Wenger sign if Sanchez or Ozil depart in the next few weeks? We all know that it will be nobody of any consequence, and that all they can do is cross their fingers and hope that their best players decide not to leave, or that nobody wants them.
Don’t expect things to get any better soon. Unless there’s a significant improvement, the Gunners will fail to finish in the top four this season, and fail to win the Europa League in the face of tough opposition such as Atletico, Napoli and Borussia Dortmund.
That would mean a second consecutive season outside the Champions League, and another summer of being unable to attract top players who are only prepared to join clubs participating in Europe’s top competition.
It would also mean another summer of speculation about the future of Wenger, who would no doubt once again shrug it all off as an unwanted irritation and survive to oversee another season of gradual decline.
And if it carries on like this for much longer, two or three years from now Arsenal will be lucky to qualify for the Europe League, never mind the Champions League, continuing to feed off scraps in the transfer market and competing more closely with Everton and Newcastle than Barcelona and Bayern Munich.
The process is well underway, and it is showing no signs of reversing.
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.