Arsene Wenger has been stubborn for years, but his team always had the quality to make up for his shortcomings. This season, that may not be the case.
Fulham's victory against Arsenal is not necessarily a sign of bad things to come for the Gunners, but it is a sobering reminder of what could happen to them this May.
There was once a wonderful time where clubs didn't go into crisis mode. The "CLUB IN CRISIS" meme hadn't been invented yet, because there was no reason for it to exist. The top of the Premier League was infallible. A magical place where, no matter the injury or the bad run of form, everyone was safe from harm. There was never any threat of dropping out of Champions League places. There was a "Big Four," and they were sacred.
From the 2003-04 season until the 2009-10 season, the Premier League was a model of stability. The Big Four of Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal was broken up only once, and it was in a year where Liverpool won the Champions League. The top of the table was incredibly stable. Tottenham Hotspur, Newcastle United and Everton mounted challenges, but there was a true big four that could withstand all kinds of injuries and terrible runs of form.
The year 2009 was the culmination of the perfect storm, when the work of Sheikh Mansour, Damien Comolli, Tom Hicks and George Gillett created chaos. Manchester City's millions finally made them into a viable contender while Comolli's signings of Luka Modric and Gareth Bale finally came good, turning City and Spurs into very real contenders. Liverpool's American owners finally managed to run their team into the ground, with the season culminating in a disastrous finish. Thus, the Big Four was dead, the "Sky Six" was born, and the "CLUB IN CRISIS" meme became possible.
Last season was a transitional period. With Tottenham competing on too many fronts and Liverpool in clear rebuilding mode, there was a clear top four again. This group was not nearly as strong as the previous group of four teams that monopolized English football for more than half a decade, and it was obvious that a six-team jumble would eventually emerge. Now, there are six very good teams competing for four Champions League places, and every bad result constitutes a crisis.
On Monday, Arsenal had one of those very bad results. After going into halftime up 1-0 at Craven Cottage, the tired and clueless-looking Gunners were dominated for the next 45 minutes. Johan Djourou picked up two very silly yellow cards to get himself sent off in the 78th minute, after which Fulham scored two very well-deserved goals to win 2-1. This was Arsenal's second bad result against an inferior team in three games, and the 1-0 win over QPR between the Fulham loss and the draw against Wolverhampton Wanderers was hardly impressive.
There are plenty of reasonable explanations for Arsenal's form, with very few of them having to do with them being a bad side or Arsene Wenger being a bad manager. They have been without Jack Wilshere, one of their best players from last season, for the entirety of this current season. Their defenders have been unable to stay healthy. While Arsenal did not play well enough to win on Monday, Lee Probert did not do them any favors with a poor officiating performance.
Of course, Wenger's decisions haven't helped matters. The club is thin at the back, even after the purchases of Andre Santos and Per Mertesacker. Mikel Arteta and Gervinho have been serviceable, but have not replaced Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri. Arteta seemed to be a panic buy, born out of either the fans' whining finally getting to Wenger or the painful realization that his midfield was exceptionally thin. Thankfully for Wenger, there was a very good passing midfielder sitting at a club that was, and still is, flat broke. As far as panic buys go, Mikel Arteta was a good one.
It's like getting blackout drunk, waking up in a strange place and expecting to see that the person you're in bed with is objectively unattractive in every measurable way. Except, once they roll over, you realize that they're actually good looking. Not only that, but they turn out to be a genuinely cool person. The panic buy of Arteta was kind of like that. The drunken hookup you expected to regret that actually turned out okay.
Still, though it could have been much worse, Arteta isn't any more than the drunken hookup. Wilshere is the significant other that Wenger has been separated from by no fault of either party, and Wenger will run back when he returns. Things will get better for Arsenal when he returns, without a doubt.
Things will also get better when Bakary Sagna returns. They'll get better if Thomas Vermaelen can stay healthy. They'll get better if Kieran Gibbs can ever get back to the form that had him on the edge of an England place. Robin van Persie didn't score a goal against Fulham, something he can be depended to do on a regular basis. Theo Walcott had his worst game of the season against Fulham, and there's nowhere to go but up. Similar things can be said about Gervinho and Aaron Ramsey, immensely talented players who haven't yet lived up to expectations.
All of this means that the "ARSENAL IN CRISIS" meme, while all kinds of fun, is demonstrably stupid. It will be stupid if they lose their next two games in the league, away to Swansea and at home against Manchester United. It will be stupid if they are in sixth place at the end of March. Arsenal are a club with a very experienced manager and lots of very talented players who have scraped fourth place with less in previous seasons. It's not a crisis until they're mathematically eliminated from the top four.
That is an easy scenario to construct, however. There are plenty of viable ways in which four of the Sky Six teams finish above Arsenal, and there will be more if their rivals spend in January. Plenty of very reasonable and very knowledgeable people could make compelling cases for Arsenal not being one of the four best teams in England at present. Had Cameroon qualified for the African Cup of Nations, causing Alex Song to go away for a month (including that United match), that argument wouldn't even need to be made to anyone except for the lingering unflappable members of the Cult of Wenger.
For a second, regardless of your current opinion of the Gunners or your favoritism for them or a rival, consider a world in which Arsenal finishes in fifth place and does not qualify for the UEFA Champions League. Financial Fair Play is coming into effect, and this is a club that has never liked spending more money than they have, even when they were playing in Champions League and those rules didn't apply. They don't have the revenues of Manchester United or the big spending ownership of Manchester City, Chelsea, or even Liverpool.
Arsenal would need at least one of three things to happen to get out of their hole and break back into the top four, more likely than not. One, invent creative ways for ownership to spend much more money than the club generates on its own without breaking the rules. Two, the Tottenham route to the top four, finding the world class players that your rivals don't know about or don't rate, like Luka Modric and Gareth Bale. Three, wait for someone to implode, ala Liverpool. If the cases of Spurs and City are any indication, a team on the outside looking in to the realm of the elite probably needs two of these three things to happen to achieve their goals.
Would this situation constitute a crisis? For a club of Arsenal's stature, it almost certainly does. This is probably best left up to long-time Arsenal supporters to decide, but it's at least pretty close to a crisis. Arsenal spent over a decade in the Champions League, investing money in scouting, a youth academy and a new stadium. They're less than a decade removed from the Invincibles. Their revenues are higher now than they were then, even proportionate to their rivals. Their best two players of this current generation, Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie, faced off against each other in the last World Cup final. Falling out of the top four and failing to re-gain a top four place immediately almost certainly constitutes a 'crisis'.
Arsenal's start to the new year does not signal that the team has entered crisis mode, but their performance against Fulham was a reminder that they're not that far away. A fall out of the top four is a very real possibility, and if they're on the outside looking in come May, that's when the real crisis sets in. Their best players will ask to leave, and they will not be able to replace them like-for-like.
In the mid-nineties, Arsene Wenger revolutionized English football. In the 2003-04 season, he coached one of the best teams in the history of English football. He's capable of getting Arsenal out of this situation.
If he doesn't? Crisis mode, engage.