The 2012/13 Premier League season has certainly had its fair share of ups and downs for Arsenal. A string of disappointing results in the league and in cup competitions brought forth a chorus of "club in crisis!" shouts from the media -- and even from some supporters. But now, nearly halfway through the season, we find our Club sitting fifth in the Premier League table and through to the knockout stages of the Champions League.
So what can we make of all of this? To help figure it out, we once again turned to our panel of supporters in the USA and Canada to find out their views on what has happened so far and what lies ahead in the second half of the season.
First up, our panel addressed the question of where Arsenal should focus most of their attention in the upcoming months.
Question: Which of the remaining competitions would you like to see Arsenal focus the most attention on?
The way in which Arsenal exited the League Cup (whatever it's being called these days), which had represented the most likely chance for silverware this season, has naturally led to supporters questioning where the priority for this season needs to be shifted.
I have maintained that the primary concern every season must always be the league. Whether Arsenal have any hope of catching the leaders is a separate issue; Arsenal's league form this season has been spotty at best, and that requires sorting out before we even discuss pursuing other trophies. That said, the point of focusing on the league is less about the pursuit of actual silverware than it is about maintaining a place in the Champions League next season.
We all know that 4th place is NOT a trophy, nor has it ever been a trophy, neither literally nor figuratively. Yet it is essential if Arsenal are to remain among the biggest clubs in England, and in Europe. The money earned merely by participating in the group stages of the Champions League is immense, and the loss of that would be difficult to recover from.
But it would affect the club in other ways as well. With Arsenal agreeing lucrative commercial deals for kit manufacture and stadium/shirt sponsorship, greater funds should be available for new signings. But the quality of the players willing to come to Arsenal would not be as high were we out of Europe. Arsenal brought in three players this summer: Santi Cazorla, Lukas Podolski, and Olivier Giroud. Of those three, I find it difficult to believe that Podolski or especially Santi would have signed with Arsenal if we could not offer them Champions League football.
When clubs have failed to qualify, it has proven difficult to regain that place. Liverpool last participated in the Champions League in the 2009-2010 season, when they finished 3rd in their group and fell into the Europa League. Three years later, they have yet to rejoin the competition. There have been other factors involved here as well (notably the rise of newly rich Manchester City and the resurgence of Tottenham as realistic contenders for the top 4), but Liverpool have fallen hard and quite quickly, and this is a fate I would have Arsenal avoid at all costs. A football club cannot be taken seriously as a "big" club if they are not qualifying for the Champions League.
I do not mean to lessen the importance of the FA Cup or the Champions League competitions this season. Arsenal have as good a chance as anyone at the FA Cup if the team gets on a run of form in the competition; Chelsea did much the same in the Champions League last season, finishing a disappointing 6th in the BPL but lifting a major trophy (and thereby qualifying automatically for the same cup this season). And an argument can be made that winning the FA Cup could spur Arsenal on to greater things, a "winning-begets-winning" mentality. But in my mind, risking the potential loss of $20 million-plus and the cache of taking part in the biggest stage in European football represents a far greater threat for Arsenal than the realistic return from the current squad in the FA Cup or Champions League.
I realize this in itself represents a steep climb down for most of us as Arsenal fans, but the stark truth is that this Arsenal team has not shown enough to project them as cup winners. As things are, it will be a very difficult challenge for Arsenal even to finish 4th in the Premier League this season. I dearly hope things will turn around over the next month and onward. There is not a great deal of hope among Arsenal fans right now, and it badly needs restoring.
I fully understand the financial implications of dropping out of the Champions League places and have even likened it to a sort of relegation, but I see no reason why Arsenal can't prioritize the FA Cup, qualifying for Champions League, and doing well in the Champions League -- in that order.
It's a bit of a false dilemma to ask which competition Arsenal should prioritize because a club with Arsenal's resources should be able to field a competitive team over three different competitions. That is even more true now that they have been eliminated from the League Cup. Without the League Cup, Arsenal's January schedule is basically once-a-week football.
You also can't discount the value of an old-fashioned winning streak. Between each of the FA Cup matches, Arsenal play Man City, Chelsea, and Liverpool. There's a week of rest between most of those games and if Arsenal can get some real momentum going with some FA Cup wins, it should take some of the pressure off.
That said, winning the FA Cup and finishing fourth in the League require two totally different approaches: the League is all about percentages over the long haul, the cups are more whimsical.
That's why I'd play a core of senior players in both competitions and mix in youth players with the FA Cup; Serge Gnabry and Thomas Eisfeld are two good examples of players who I would like to see start there.
Since the League is more about the percentages than the whimsy of a one-off game, finishing fourth in the League is going to require a lot of good football from now until the end of the season and possibly even some reinforcements in the January transfer window.
Barring substantial additions in January, I think even the most optimistic Gooner would admit that Arsenal simply don't have the necessary depth to put out their first-choice starting eleven in the FA Cup and then again in the Premiership only days later. We'll most likely see Arsène balance his team selections in the FA Cup based on who he believes we can afford to risk losing in the adjacent Premier League games. In current form we need every possible first-choice player ready for the league unless our standing in the table vastly improves by the time we get deep into the FA Cup.
I know that might sound a slightly cynical assessment of Arsenal's cup chances but until Arsenal's form and resources drastically improve, they must focus their best players on regaining ground in the Premiership.
Not only is it important financially and commercially for the club but when was the last time a player thought to themselves, "I think I want to play for (club) because they won the League Cup last season"?
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