Cycles are as common in football as they are in the rest of existence, and they can be a force for ill or for good. For every happy one (The Cycle of Life, the Water Cycle), there's one that suggests despair and a miserable end (The Cycle of Abuse, The Ring Cycle.) And then there is Arsenal.
This season appeared to be different, as Arsenal's traditional awful start to the season lasted only one game, followed by an unusually early upswing. Grit, consistency and determination appeared as if by magic, and players who had previously flickered in and out of form were now performing at the top of their game every week. Yet somehow, we're at the same position again: Arsenal's league hopes rapidly dwindling, and a battle for fourth place looming.
The standard Premier League manager earns his crust and reputation through one achievement -- keeping a team up against the odds, a good cup run, or establishing a team in the division. Most managers are generally unable to turn bad runs around when they reach a certain point, and their lifespan lasts until they encounter such a streak. Some managers, like Chris Hughton and Paul Lambert, have a gift of being able to pull a win out of nowhere when they really, really need it, but they're stuck on the same cycle too.
Wenger seems to meet this pattern more than a man of his calibre should. People cite the past when talking about his status as a great manager, and he seems unable to break out of the same cycle each year, as brutally identified by Paul Scholes on a rare punditry session recently. Simply put, they struggle against good sides, and can't seem to find a way out of that funk every year.
Cycles lend a form of stability, of course, something that has been oddly fetishised at Arsenal and Manchester United due to their long-serving managers. Combined with the dictatorial control of someone who enjoyed unconditional trust, it helped both clubs to get through some lean years, but in an era of less debt and more TV money, it's questionable whether this should still be considered such an automatic virtue. For a while now, stability has looked like stagnancy at Arsenal, and this season could confirm it.
Defenders of the faith will point to the fact that Arsenal have improved, and while they are certainly a lot closer to the title than they have been in recent years, and are only facing a battle for fourth again because the top end of the table is much more congested than usual, it doesn't tell the whole story. One of the teams they are battling it out with, and will probably finish behind, is Brendan Rodgers' Liverpool, a team they have allowed to overtake them without much of a fight.
It was clear what Arsenal required in the summer, but while opinion may still be heavily divided on Mesut Ozil, what looks more undeniable was that the decision to use the entire budget to sign him was the wrong one.
The chance to win the FA Cup could be valuable, but while much has been said of the fabled 'winning mentality' it could help to instil, it may not be enough for Arsenal. They still need reinforcements, and there is still the suggestion articulated by Scholes that Wenger does not sufficiently take account of the strengths of his opponent when sending out a team to face them.
All of these problems can still be overcome. Even a bad cycle is almost an impressive level of consistency to maintain when one considers the vast upheaval and revolution that has taken place in the Premier League since Arsenal first entered their trophy-less streak. Just as Liverpool have been a worry, and revealed a missed opportunity for Wenger, Manchester United might provide some comfort as to the virtues and benefits of keeping the leader you know. The question is whether Wenger more closely resembles Alex Ferguson or Kenny Dalglish.