MILAN, ITALY - FEBRUARY 15: Alex Song of Arsenal looks dejected with goalkeepeer Wojciech Szczesny and Tomas Rosicky after the second goal scored by Robinho of AC Milan during the UEFA Champions League round of 16 first leg match between AC Milan and Arsenal at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on February 15, 2012 in Milan, Italy. (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
Arsenal have maintained for years that they were a top club just one or two pieces away from glory, but Wednesday's loss in Milan went a long way towards dispelling that myth.
On a Wednesday in Milan, Arsenal hit a new low. A trophy drought that is now in year seven, blowing a 4-0 lead to Newcastle and seeing top player after top player leave a supposed "big club" has stung the Gunners in recent years, but those are nothing like what they endured on Wednesday. An AC Milan team that nobody would call exceptional beat them in every facet of the match and the 4-0 scoreline could easily be called kind to Arsenal.
It wasn't the match, the state of their team or their impending exit from the Champions League that registered as a new low for the club. It was something much deeper than that. Taking everything into consideration -- from their performance in the Champions League, to their long list of embarrassing losses this season, to their place in the Premier League table -- none of it can be categorized as underachieving.
Once upon a time, Arsenal were the darlings of the Premier League. They played beautiful football and were led by legends like Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp and Patrick Viera. The Invincibles earned their nickname with a mind-blowing 2003-2004 season that saw them finish without a loss. They followed that up by winning the FA Cup in 2005. In 2006, they almost brought home the UEFA Champions League crown. Months later they opened their new 60,000 seat Emirates Stadium, which sent their revenue skyrocketing and was supposed to cement the club's place among the elite in England and Europe.
The last six years at the Emirates have not gone as planned. Ashley Cole moved across town in 2006, Thierry Henry, left a year later and Jens Lehmann and Emmanuel Adebayor each saw their time at Arsenal come to an end, too. It wasn't as if the club was afraid to spend on replacements, though. William Gallas, Thomas Rosicky, Bacary Sagna, Lassana Diarra, Eduardo, Samir Nasri, Aaron Ramsey, Andrei Arshavin, Thomas Vermaelen, Laurent Kocielney, Sebastien Squillaci and Marouane Chamakh were all brought in between 2006 and 2010 with millions of pounds shelled out for their services.
In the time since Arsenal's last hurrah as a heavyweight in 2006, the club has not finished in the top two of the Premier League or been back to the Champions League final, all while struggling in the FA Cup and losing in two League Cup finals. Even so, expectations have always been high. Whether it was any one of their many signings or a homegrown player like Jack Wilshere, Arsenal were always a player or two away from regaining their spot atop the league and challenging for tops in Europe. Or at least that was the common refrain around the Emirates as top players continued to leave and those coming in continued to fall short of expectations.
Still, every fourth place finish for Arsenal was an underachievement. A third round FA Cup exit was shocking and another Champions League exit at the hands of Barcelona was proof that they needed just one more player. Hope around the Emirates and among the supporters was always there. Once a couple players came good, they would be able to raise their level.
Last season was another one of those seasons for the Gunners. A struggle or two early on could be fixed by Aaron Ramsey coming back healthy. If they bought a goalkeeper, all would be well. They were once again right on the cusp. That was never more true than in the League Cup, where Arsenal went all the way to Wembley and were on the verge of breaking their trophy drought, only to be beaten by soon-to-be-relegated Birmingham. In the end, it was a season with a fourth-place finish in the league, a quarterfinal defeat in the Champions League and an early FA Cup exit and in reality, that was their level. The team they had played to expectations.
Over the summer, though, that level of expectations should have plummeted. Cesc Fabregas was sold to Barcelona and Nasri went to Manchester City. Their replacements -- Per Mertasacker, Mikel Arteta, Andre Santos, Gervinho and Park Chu-Young -- didn't inspire much confidence.
When Arsenal were blown away by Milan, all hope they are still a great team went away. It left the Gunners looking at a fourth-place league finish at best, with seventh place a realistic possibility. They are out of the League Cup and they are about to be eliminated from the Champions League. So what is this year's Arsenal team? They are exactly what they should be.
If fourth place and the quarterfinals was their level a year ago, then what is their level after selling their best wide player from a year ago in Nasri, their best midfielder in Fabregas and seeing their second-best midfielder go down injured for essentially the whole season? Fifth place and the Champions League Round of 16 sounds about right. In fact, dropping back just one spot despite three key losses might be considered an overachievement.
The Gunners went to San Siro on Wednesday with some dreamers hoping they could do in Europe what they haven't been able to do in the league. Instead, for reasons unknown, the best-looking recent transfer, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, was left on the bench by Arsene Wenger despite being the best wide player in the team. The Gunners were playing against a Milan side that struggles with speed and wide play, and Wenger, inexplicably, waited until the 66th minute to insert Oxlade-Chamberlain into the game.
Once-young players that Arsenal have been hoping for years would come good like Theo Walcott and Johan Djourou showed once again they cannot cut it at the top level. Veteran Tomas Rosicky and new signing Mikel Arteta failed to impress. The Gunners were embarrassed and those few dreamers who managed to ignore six years of misstep after misstep finally woke up.
Arsenal have lost their spot among the Premier League and European elite. There isn't even room to dream about the upper echelon anymore, because there is no excuse to chalk their failings up to. They are not one player away and they are not a victim of horrible luck or terrible refereeing. There is no way to categorize this season as one of underachievement. Their fifth or sixth place and the Round of 16 is a fair representation of this squad's level of talent, and that's the real punch to the stomach at Arsenal.
This really is what they are.