For Arsenal, genuine fears of stability turning into stagnation, regression

Arsenal always seems to get by with a top-four finish, but with key Premier League foes all loading up, this could be the year the Gunners take a step back.
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We’ve been here before. Nothing is so wearyingly familiar as the sense of not-quiet excitement that greets the start of each season for Arsenal–unless it is the inexplicable midseason collapse that ends all hope of the league title months from the end or the late-season rally that means that no Arsene Wenger season ever looks quite as bad in retrospect as it feels at the time.

Arsenal finished second last season, which is worth remembering if only as a reminder that no stat, not passes completed, not consecutive seasons in the Champions League and certainly not net spending, ever means anything in football unless it is given context.

To say Arsenal never had a chance of winning the title last season would be untrue. When it beat Manchester City 2-1 at home four days before Christmas it really seemed that this might, at last, be the season. It won just nine of the 21 games that followed and that it came second was almost entirely down to Tottenham’s late-season meltdown once its title challenge had fizzled out. In a season in which every fancied side to some extent under-performed, Arsenal failed to take advantage. Its tally of 71 points, in fact, was its lowest since 2012.

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It was impossible not to wonder what might have been had Wenger, rather than signing only one senior player last summer, Petr Cech, bought a tougher central defender, or a commanding midfielder, or a reliably high-class center forward. Since then, Arsenal has added a midfielder in Mohamed Elneny, brought in from Basel last January; another midfielder in Grant Xhaka, picked up from Borussia Monchengladbach shortly before the Euros; 20-year-old defender Rob Holding from Bolton; and promising 21-year-old Japanese forward Takuma Asano.

It doesn’t sound as though the big-name signing fans crave is likely to arrive any time soon.

“I personally believe the only way to be a manager is to spend the club’s money as if it were your own, because if you don’t do that you’re susceptible to too many mistakes,” Wenger said in the book Game Changers, which will be released on Thursday. “You make big decisions and I believe you have to act like it’s your own money, like you’re the owner of the club and you can identify completely with the club. Because if you don’t do that I think you cannot go far.”

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In some ways it’s an admirable stance. It’s one that secured Arsenal’s future after its move to a new stadium and has kept the club financially stable. But it’s also arguably become one that is hindering progress. Everybody in the Premier League is rich these days; the new TV deal has made sure of that. Even a couple of years ago, the £38 million fee Arsenal paid for Xhaka would have drawn gasps; this summer it’s one of nine deals worth £30 million or more, including Paul Pogba’s world-record move to Manchester United.

Of course, spending money for the sake of spending money is pointless, and it makes sense for Wenger to send his scouts to search the lower divisions for bargains in case there is another Jamie Vardy lurking there. His attempt to sign the actual Jamie Vardy foundered when the striker decided he preferred to remain at Leicester, but that Wenger made the offer suggests that he is as aware as everybody else of the need for another striker. Alexandre Lacazette may join from Lyon, but that interest has dragged on so long hopes of completion are fading.

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But equally, stability for the sake of stability is pointless, especially when everybody else seems to be making such progress. Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea have new managers and exciting new signings. All can realistically expect to be better this season than they were last. Jurgen Klopp, reshaping his squad and having a full preseason in which to instill his ideas into his players, and get them as fit as he wants them, should mean a better Liverpool–and the Reds and Chelsea have no European football to tire or distract them. Even Tottenham, whose summer transfer activity has been relatively modest, may be better than last year, given the youth of the squad.

Leicester can be expected to fall back, but even if Tottenham does as well, that’s still four major rivals who should be stronger this season. Can Arsenal say it will be? Stability can quickly become stagnation. And the situation of Wenger’s side is worsened, as ever, by injuries. Danny Welbeck, Gabriel, Carl Jenkinson, Jack Wilshere and Per Mertesacker will all miss the start of the season. There’s a significant possibility that Francis Coquelin will line up against Liverpool on the opening Sunday of the season at center back.

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It’s the same old story repeating once again. Arsenal has a good squad, perhaps even a very good squad, but it is short of the highest quality in a couple of key areas. Xhaka answers one of the three biggest concerns, but Arsenal still lacks a top-class center back and a top-class center forward. But the biggest worry is that it isn’t the same old story, that because others have improved, Arsenal isn't merely treading water but actually going backwards.

Wenger is justifiably proud of his record of qualifying for the Champions League group stage in 17 consecutive seasons but that record has never felt under more threat than it does now.