The post-Thierry Henry stature of Arsenal Football Club has been wrapped in the concept of next year. If the Gunners don't win a competition this season, it's because they are young. It wouldn't be fair to judge this team by the in-the-present standards of the oughts' great sides. This is step back - it's a conscious decision, don't you know. Arsenal will not only maintain within their wage budget, they will keep faith in their youth, even if that mean redefining your expectations. This is a long term investment. Don't you know? Arsenal's day will come.
It isn't so much muting expectations as it is putting them off. If Arsenal told their fans that the club would never reach its previous heights, Nick Hornby's next novel would be about the failure of the modern marriage, mid-life crisis, and postpartum depression. The ills of western society would be implicitly attributed to Arsene Wenger's shortcomings as a father figure. But if Arsenal's best days are coming, hundreds of morose pages get wrapped in a couple of happy chapters. Modern marriage becomes a post-modern virtue. Mid-life crisis is benign artifact of the modernism, and Arsene Wenger's adorned in a sage's cloak. All's right in Arsenal and Hornsby's annoying worlds.
Unfortunately for Arsenal, the club can no longer put-off expectations. Next year has come, thanks to Cesc Fabregas's impending departure. To this point, all of Arsenal's hopes have been tied to the 23-year-old Spaniard, but when he leaves, he likely takes those hopes with them. The question is whether there will be a playoff before Fabregas's homage to Catalonia.
Though Arsenal existed before Cesc (B.C.) and will persist after he moves back to Barcelona, next year Arsenal fans will need new reason to believe their faith justified. They will need cause to invest in the next project the same way they invested when Henry was sold in the summer of 2007. The previous reason was success, but it's unclear if this year's team is capable of providing the next project similar building blocks.
If we personified Arsenal, we'd probably have a person enveloped the melancholy of identity crisis. Standing at a climax - looking back on rebuilding, forward on regrouping - holding nothing. Everything I've planned for, this person would say, leads to now. This place, this routine, this moment: I planned to be this person. What that comes tomorrow is part of a different plan, one I knew would have to be drawn-up. But one I was never excited about that plan. Now, I get to live it.
But a club is not a person. People are nothing beyond their present, but as three years of Gooner faith has shown, a club can live in the past. There is an acknowledgment that clubs are designed to produce moments - memories which transcend the times other clubs are creating legacies. That legacy plus the talent of a Fabregas, van Persie, Arshavin-led squad gives supporters reason to think this year's team will repay their faith. Arsenal is one of three teams that can win league, and if not the Premiership, Arsenal is as-good a bet as any to win the FA and League Cups.
Gooners' memories of 2005 - their faith that success can be renewed - has transcended this three-to-five year regrouping, but with the Fabregas era set to exit, it's time to create the next transcendent moment. In 2010-11, there is no concept of next year.
Major Comings: Marouane Chamakh arrives from Bordeaux on a free transfer, giving Wenger a valuable option in attack - a different look with which he can vary the Andrei Arshavin, Robin van Persie, Nicklas Bendtner trio. Laurent Koscielny will be given a chance to fill William Gallas's place along side Thomas Vermaelen in central defense.
Significant Goings: Former captain Gallas is gone, as is Sol Campbell, having finished a short, second spell with Arsenal. Back-up attacker Eduardo has moved to Ukraine.
Still There: Fabregas, Arshavin, van Persie, Bendtner and Vermaelen. The French international pairing of Gael Clichy and Bacary Sagna remain in the fullback positions. To Gooners' chagrin, Manuel Almunia's back in goal. The midfield returns Abu Diaby, Samir Nasri, Alex Song, Denilson, Emmanuel Eboue, and Tomas Rosicky. Theo Walcott adds depth in attack. With the exception of Gallas, all the key components of last year's title threat have returned.
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Why: This is very similar to last year's performance, with the step-forward you'd expect from a young team that's made small improvements. Fabregas may not be quite the same force of nature, but improved health from key players will make up for the dip. The big difference between Arsenal and the team that had the best projection: defense. Arsenal's goals allowed are still high for a contender.
Best Case Scenario: Fabregas becomes one of the best players in the world, all the forwards stay healthy, Almunia reverts of 2008-09 form, Arsenal's healthy issues go away, and the Gunners win the league.
Nightmare: The improvement from the second tier of EPL contenders catches-up to an Arsenal team whose now-habitual injury problems persist into the 2010-11 season. Fabregas is not as good, and neither is Vermaelen. The goalkeeping issues turn from blip to fact, and Arsenal battles at the edge of Europe.
Most Likely: Arsenal contends for the title.