With back-to-back FA Cups now safely ensconced in the Emirates Stadium trophy cabinet, Arsenal’s nine-year drought is well and truly a thing of the past. A third place finish in the Premier League this season relieves the North London outfit of the need for arduous Champions League qualification, a factor that’s often impacted the early stages of their league campaigns in recent years. And while winning the FA Cup ain’t what it used to be, these are signs of progress at Arsenal.
With the albatross of an impending decade of no trophies no longer hanging over their heads, the time is right for Arsene Wenger’s team to kick on and truly challenge for the Premier League, and possibly even the Champions League.
It’s been 11 years since Arsenal last won the league with that storied squad of Invincibles, who went an entire season undefeated en route to the third Premier League title of the Wenger era. In the decade-plus since then, Arsenal have gone from being a buying club to a selling club and back again. They’ve moved to a new stadium, one of the finest in England, and played lots of pretty football. They’ve also been a constant source of frustration to their supporters.
But there is a good feeling around the club again, one that comes from having purchased marquee players and subsequently won trophies two seasons in a row. There’s a growing sense that if Arsenal can make similar progress this season they might actually have a legitimate shot at the title.
At the Cup final at Wembley on Saturday, Arsenal were in scintillating form against Villa. Tim Sherwood’s men were totally outclassed from the opening whistle. And while the 4-0 scoreline doesn’t quite do justice to a Villa team that on their day can be quite good, Sherwood must’ve realized he was lucky not to lose by five or six. The danger for Arsenal is that Wenger will take Saturday’s performance as an indication that his team is good enough as is, to take on Chelsea.
With another trophy in the case, no Champions League qualifiers to play, and no World Cup or European Championship to sap the energy of key players, Arsenal are in a good position to start next season strong. There also seems little danger of the team losing one of its star players like Alexis Sanchez or Mesut Ozil. But if Arsenal wants to return to the summit of English football and challenge for the titles that really matter – the Premier League and Champions League – Wenger must seize the initiative and buy.
It’s become a tired refrain about Arsenal just needing “three or four players” to be contenders. There were times during the midst of the Gunners’ brilliant run in the second half of the season when you could almost convince yourself the problems had been solved. Francis Coquelin returned from loan to add some steel in midfield, David Ospina brought more reliability between the sticks then Wojciech Szczesny, and up front, Olivier Giroud and Theo Walcott showed the Gunners are capable of variety in formulating their attack.
But then, there were the big games where the team fell flat, against Monaco in the Champions League, and Tottenham and Chelsea in the league. The matches that cried out for a big-game player to take this side on his back and will it to victory in the manner of a Thierry Henry or Patrick Vieira. As good as Arsenal’s players are, they fall somewhat short in that measure. Diamonds in the rough like Henry and Vieira aren’t as easy to uncover as they once were. And nowadays, acquiring one means spending lots of money, something Wenger is still reluctant to do.
However if Arsenal want to keep their momentum going and use these FA Cups as a springboard to something greater, the Frenchman is going to need to take out his checkbook this summer. A goalkeeper would seem of the first order, followed by a strong defensive midfielder to challenge Coquelin, who may not yet be the finished product. And as good as Giroud and Walcott have been at times, adding a striker on par with the likes of Chelsea’s Diego Costa or Manchester City’s Sergio Aguero, would put the Gunners more on the level of the teams expected to challenge for the title next season. Wenger might also want to consider clearing out a number of players like Mikel Arteta, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Mathieu Flamini, who while not lacking merit don’t necessarily bring much to the table.
The ball, Monsieur Wenger, is in your court.