Now seems like as good a time as any to call it, even if it’s not out of the realm of possibility just quite yet: For the first time in 21 years, and the first time in Arsène Wenger’s incredibly long and storied career in England, Arsenal will not finish in the top four.
Now, the numbers don’t look terribly daunting on their face. Arsenal currently sit in sixth place in the league, three points behind Manchester United in fifth, seven points (with a game in hand) behind Manchester City in fourth, and nine points (with two games in hand) behind Liverpool in third. Banking on two of those teams ahead of them—one being injury-stricken Liverpool—slipping up a couple more times in the final eight or so matches than Arsenal do doesn’t feel all that unlikely at first blush.
However, the gap is actually much more difficult for Arsenal to bridge than you might think. Liverpool and City already have more points, less matches to play, and much easier schedules the rest of the way than Arsenal. (The Gunners still have Tottenham, United, and Everton lined up for their run-in, while Liverpool have zero matches remaining against teams in the top seven; City only have one.)
These facts, along with a statistical analysis of each team’s performances, are why Five Thirty Eight gives Arsenal just an eight percent chance of qualifying for the Champions League next season, why soccer analytics account 11tegen11 gives the Gunners an 11 percent chance of finishing in the top four, and why Arsenal are firmly sixth-favorites for a top four spot with practically every sports book. Wenger’s admittedly impressive streak of sustained excellence looks certain to end this year.
This matters for Arsenal in a way that it wouldn’t matter as much to any other Premier League club. After all, the big boys falling outside the top four isn’t all that uncommon, and especially won’t be now that no less than six EPL clubs have the money, ambition, player talent, and managerial quality to expect to claim a top four spot as their own every season. It happened last year to soon-to-be title winners Chelsea, it happens all the time now to Manchester United, and Liverpool too spend more time outside the Champions League than they do in it. And yet those clubs still found ways to rebound, to either win big trophies or lure star players and managers, to build something that will probably win something eventually. Finishing lower than fourth doesn’t have to be a death knell for a team’s future, though the threat of permanently sliding down the domestic hierarchy is real and it only takes a slip or two to happen (hi, Liverpool).
This impending top-four failure is different for Arsenal because, for the first time in a long time, there is a legitimate chance for change at a club that is diametrically opposed to it. When all those other clubs failed to qualify for the Champions League, there were serious consequences: managers losing their jobs, big-name players shipped out, millions upon millions spent to improve the squad. Arsenal as a whole—the manager, the board, even the majority of the fans—have been content with the status quo over the past decade, taking for granted Arsenal’s position in the top four while hoping but never really expecting or demanding anything more.
This is the first season where real change—either positive or negative—is a possibility, in large part because of the likelihood that Arsenal won’t be around to get booted from the Round of 16 in the Champions League next season. Arsenal’s fans are more fed up than ever, protesting the manager and the board before and during nearly every match now, and Wenger has an unprecedented level of pressure on his continued place at the club.
And the pressure makes perfect sense, too. If Arsenal fail to make the top four, what kind of a club are they? The talk for years has been that the Gunners had to play it safe economically for a while to get their new stadium built, after which they would have the financial muscle to keep their stars and buy new ones and finally compete on equal footing with the clubs that regularly finished ahead of them in the table. Instead, though the stadium has been finished and the money is there, Arsenal appear to be regressing.
Their brightest star, Alexis Sánchez, looks to be on the brink of leaving this summer. The club’s other world-class talent, Mesut Özil, also very well might be on his way out. The manager has yet to demonstrate the ability or willingness to shell out the necessary money in terms of transfer fees and—just as importantly—player salaries to attract the kind of talent needed to match the super squads City and United and Chelsea have built and will continue to strengthen. Right when Arsenal should have reached the promised land the manager and board sold everyone on, they actually seem farther away than ever.
This is what makes the Wenger decision so fascinating. Will Arsenal, after for so long being the long-term-minded group that preached consistency and patience as the virtues that would bring success, finally realize that change is needed and refuse to hand Wenger a new contract? Or will they double down on their belief in the manager, support him through what they must hope is just a hiccup, and try to restock and reload once again for the right to finish near but not quite at the top? And even if this is a blip and Wenger can and does reinstate the status quo, will fans and the board remain happy with just that?
There’s certainly no easy answer here. Wenger truly is a legend at the club and in the English game, and nothing can take away the genius of his successful early tenure nor the brilliance of his sustained top four presence during the seasons when he was regularly and comprehensively outspent by multiple competitors. However, Wenger has not shown the ability to adapt to the modern version of the game that favors highly structured attacks and defenses, nor has he found a way to address the glaring and perennial shortcomings that plague his teams season after season. (And for an incredibly interesting if a bit conjectural diagnosis of Arsenal’s woes over the years that paints Wenger himself as the villain more so than the oft-derided board, check this out. I am totally willing to believe that Arsenal have failed to keep their best players because of Wenger’s strict devotion to the tenets of socialism.)
Regardless of what ultimately happens, Arsenal stand at a critical juncture in their history. The club will most likely fail to do the thing that has defined them for some 20 years now by falling outside the league’s top four. Whether that leads them to part with the man who both defined the club and fell short of that standard this season, and whether that decision will make Arsenal something more, less, or the same as what they are now, is anyone’s guess.