What looked a few months ago like a unique and special season for Arsenal has frustratingly devolved into the same old narrative. With other top clubs faltering, the Gunners found consistency and were in the thick of the chase for their first Premier League title in more than a decade. Meanwhile, a disastrous start to the Champions League group stages was somehow spun into an inspirational triumph that saw the club through to the knock-outs.
But then, once again, the club started to come up short when it mattered most. In the Champions League, there’s really nothing but bad fortune to blame. It’s nobody’s fault, including Arsene Wenger’s, that the Gunners drew Barcelona - arguably the best European club in a decade - in the round of 16. What happened on the domestic front, however, requires that someone be held accountable.
It’s almost already hard to remember that following Arsenal’s win over Leicester in mid-February, only two points separated the two clubs atop the standings. Leicester held a 53-to-51 lead over the Gunners with a lot of football remaining. Since then, however, Arsenal has gone a mere 2-2-2 in Premier League play while Leicester has remained hot, opening up an all-but-insurmountable 11-point gap (though Arsenal does still have a possible three-point boost coming in a home match with West Brom that was postponed).
That’s nothing you don’t already know if you follow Arsenal, but laying it all out at once lends some perspective to just how sudden and disastrous the drop-off in play really was on the domestic side of things. This Arsenal team that looked so special at times and so well positioned to end the title drought, succumbed to the same sudden loss of momentum that has continued to plague it in recent years. And that, whether fairly or not, has begun to cast a shadow over Arsene Wenger.
Over the years Wenger has been no stranger to the idea of supporters calling for a sacking, but this season the idea would once have seemed ludicrous. Given the high turnover of EPL managers, there were actually odds posted at the outset of the season as to which managers might be likeliest to face the axe, and Wenger was in a four-way tie for sixth likeliest. With odds of 20/1, the sentiment was basically that his job was safe barring catastrophe. Then again, José Mourinho entered the season with the longest odds of any EPL manager of being fired!
Simply put, Wenger appeared for most of the season to be in a pretty safe position. A manager at a top-tier club will always face some speculation, and because the bar is set so high for such clubs there’s always potential that a manager can underachieve and thus find his job in jeopardy. Keeping that in mind it’s probably not even fair to say Wenger has underachieved. If Arsenal finished third, as seems to be the likeliest outcome, it’ll be about where most expected to see them.
The trouble for Wenger is that most expected to see Chelsea and Manchester City in the top-two.
Seeing Leicester City and Tottenham Hotspur in the top-two spots makes Arsenal’s impending third place finish look like nothing more than a missed opportunity to many fans, even if that might be somewhat illogical. The truth of the matter is that Leicester has played to the same level of the average league champion, while Arsenal has pretty much evened out to its ordinary level, just below the top. But because the Gunners were in such fine position less than two months ago and dropped off so suddenly, the calls for Wenger’s sacking have gained some steam - most famously in the form of a large banner held by fans during a recent match.
But could Wenger really be sacked when Arsenal has at times shown such fine form, and is positioned to finish ahead of the likes of Man City, Man United, Liverpool, and Chelsea? Might the 2015-16 campaign simply be chalked up as a strange season in the Premier League, in which Arsenal handled unexpected turmoil in the standings better than any other traditional top club? Many are still calling it ridiculous that a Wenger sacking would even be discussed at this point.
But after yet another late season disappointment, one has to wonder.