If you're an Arsenal fan for pretty much any length of time, you'll hear a joke about the "fourth place trophy" or some variant on fourth place and ha-ha -- either from a fan of a rival team trying to get under your skin, or from a fellow Arsenal fan trying to have a self-aware laugh of Arsenal's decade-plus string of finishes that are not first. (Since the Invincibles season of '03-'04, Arsenal's finished 4th six times, 3rd four times, and 2nd once.)
Arsenal hasn't finished out of the Top Four since the '95-'96 season, and two wins and a draw would be enough to finish 4th again this season, even if Manchester United manages to win all its matches, unless they also make up a goal differential margin of 12. (United, incidentally, plays a Leicester team this weekend which can win the league with a victory.)
But Arsenal's form hasn't looked so well of late, so what if United (or, possibly but more improbably, West Ham or Liverpool) overtake Arsenal for the fourth place spot? Or, to put the question in the starkest terms possible:
What if we finish fifth?
(Specifically, we asked the Roundtable, "What would your initial reaction be, and then what would you hope that the club does in response?")
My initial reaction would be a shrug. This season has been so brutally underwhelming since the victory against Leicester that the change would almost be welcome. My later reaction, though, would be that it is bad. It just just objectively bad to finish out of the CL, and no amount of "this is what the club needs" will make any sense to me, given that it almost certainly won't result in Wenger leaving, but might well result in him having a good look in the mirror again.
The impulsive and vindictive side of me says, "Good! We deserve it! Serves us right for being the only team in the top five European leagues to not buy an outfield player this summer." Then, I see a cartoon of a winged bag of Euros flying out of Emirates Stadium and think about how much cash we'll miss out on not spending if we don't play any of next year's Champions League matches.
My hope would be that Wenger (because I think it will be Wenger finishing out the final year of his current contract) would remake the squad -- jettison the likes of Rosicky, Wilshere, and Arteta, and bring in players who can handle the Thursday-Saturday realities of life in the Europa League. I don't believe there will be signings above the Morata/Xhaka tier (if we're lucky), and I don't think we've seen the last of Coquelin or Gabriel, but maybe there's a future that doesn't involve Alexis' legs falling off next December after he follows this season with another Copa.
One of the main tenets of my sports fandom is "all things in sports are cyclical". Some cycles are longer than others, but eventually the laws of gravity dictate that what goes up must, in fact, come down. I have loved Arsenal's seemingly perpetual tenure in the Champions League, but I in no way have or will ever take it for granted; nothing is guaranteed, ever, in sports.
That said: I will be very, very unhappy when Arsenal's Champions League qualification streak eventually ends. If it ends this season, though, it may be he best thing that could happen to Arsenal in the short-to-medium term, because it would force everyone's hand. It would force the board to turn up the heat on Wenger, it would (hopefully) force Wenger to revamp his transfer philosophy, and it would force the players to work their asses off even more to ensure that one missed CL campaign is a blip, and not the start of a new, unpleasant streak.
I don't think finishing fifth is the automatic end of Wenger as coach, but I would certainly hope it would mark the end of Wenger's latest evolutionary phase and would force his hand to develop his skills in a different way this summer, a way that lines up more with how the game works in 2016.
I think it wouldn't be great from either a financial standpoint or from a player recruitment standpoint, but I'm more concerned with player recruitment, to be honest. Sure, Chelsea and United and to a lesser extent Liverpool can recruit players even without the promise of Champions League football (or, worse, with the poisoned chalice of the Europa League) but they're all teams who either have a record of winning stuff or who have won stuff very recently. Chelsea and Liverpool are in managerial flux, with United possibly joining in. We'll be the same flat, listless Arsenal that hasn't won the league in a while. I think Arsene Wenger is a great recruiter of talent, and the prospect of playing with Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez should be tantalizing to many players in world football, but I worry that dropping out of the Champions League spaces will cause our targets to look at other places before being willing to come to us.
I would consider this season a massive failure and would be pretty worried for the future going ahead. This club already penny pinches enough with Champions League money, I hate to wonder how bad it could be once that financial boost would be taken away. Additionally, I think it would be difficult to recruit new players to come and try to claw back into the Champions League with a Premier League that's about to see Guardiola, Conte and potentially Mourinho do their thing with much bigger budgets. Additionally, the prospect of flying to the armpits of Europe and Asia on Thursdays is an awful one, even though I really enjoy the league. If this happens I find it hard to rationalize keeping Arsene Wenger onboard for another season.
I don't know. I started supporting Arsenal in the late '90s. This has never been something I've had to deal with. The threat of fifth, sure. We've finished 4th six times in the last decade. I'm comfortable with the precipice. But the reality of fifth? I don't know. I guess I might do the unthinkable...If Arsenal finish fifth...I might get mad online. And in terms of what the club would do in response (to finishing fifth, not to me being mad online), I mean...at that point it's kind of late. We've seen it with Liverpool. And perhaps yet again with Manchester United. It's trying to correct something that's already happened. It's an odd temporal dysfunction. I mean, I guess the answer is sign new players. Preferably good ones. Perhaps bid adieu to Wenger and replace him with a new manager. Preferably a good one. But at that point, I'm already gonna be mad online. Ain't no comin back from that.