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Who are Arsenal now?

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What exactly did yesterday mean, anyway?

Arsenal v Aston Villa - Premier League Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images

Yep, yesterday happened. Yesterday was ugly. The last two months have been ugly. I’m not going to talk about the details of why that is today - you know the broad strokes of it, and there’s plenty of time this summer to talk more about specifics. What I want to talk about today is what I said in the headline - who are Arsenal now?

To answer that question, we need to look back a little bit. People look at Arsenal’s big stadium, fat payroll, and rich ownership and think “this is a big club”. But is it? And more accurately, was it previously, and are we right to bemoan Arsenal’s lot in life today?

First, we need to define what “big” means in this context. If we’re talking in terms of the entire history of the game, Arsenal are very much a big club - 13 league titles, 13 FA Cups, and two UEFA cups. Those 13 league titles put them third all-time behind Manchester United (20) and Liverpool (18), and the 13 FA Cups is the most of any First Division/Premier League team. So far, so good.

Then, in 1992, Sky Sports invented soccer, and the answer to that question starts to get a little...fuzzier as time goes on. Arsenal have three Premier League titles, which is not nothin’, but Manchester United have 13 league titles in the Premier League era, and Arsenal haven’t won one since 2003-04. Arsenal are fourth (of only six winners of the Premier League) behind United, Chelsea, and Manchester City on the list of multiple winners of the Premier League, and they’re not particularly close to winning another one. Arsenal in 2019 are not quite so big when viewed from that perspective.

And most damningly, let’s look at things since that fantastic 2003-04 season. In that time, Arsenal have won:

- Four FA Cups
- Two Community Shields

Don’t get me wrong, I am fully in the tank for the FA Cup - it’s my favorite competition. But, even I would not attempt to convince you that winning four FA Cups (even three in four years), and no other competitive trophies, in 15 years is the mark of a big club. It’s just not.

At this point, there are any number of you who may be fans of smaller, relegation-threatened or financially-challenged clubs that are saying SHUT UP YOUR TEAM IS FINE WHAT ARE YOU WHINING ABOUT. And I assure you, I’m not whining.

What I’m trying to do, to put it in corporate parlance, is to level-set. No matter how much money Stan Kroenke has, if it doesn’t get spent, it’s as good as non-existent; no matter how many seats Emirates Stadium has, if the team playing in it is not good enough to fill it every week, capacity is not relevant. It’s really easy to get wrapped around the axle of “Arsenal should be (name your measure of “big club”)”, and look at things through that lens, but, as with my work, I prefer to deal with the operational reality of “Arsenal are”, and look at things that way.

And right now, Arsenal are...becoming Everton. You may not want to hear that, I may not want to write it, but it’s true. Arsenal are very much not a club with ambitions to win the Champions League; they’re very much not going to challenge for the league title next season, or for the foreseeable future. They’re not going to be in the market for expensive players, and any signings this summer are probably not going to be above-the-fold names that make the pulse race. I want all of those things to be incorrect; sadly, they’re just not.

So, as we enter this summer of penury, at least relative to the clubs whose taillights are rapidly disappearing miles up the road as they pull away from the 1994 Plymouth Acclaim that is Arsenal right now, it’s good to keep that in mind. Arsenal are not going to remake themselves into what we all want them to be this summer. They’re not going to all of a sudden be a juggernaut that puts the last four seasons of stagnation behind them and runs riot over the league.

That doesn’t mean there won’t be good moments, or a reasonable amount of success; I’m not that pessimistic. Arsenal aren’t about to get relegated, and they’re not going broke, so yes, it could be a lot worse. But that first sentence is the key. For me, it’s time to recalibrate what we mean when we talk about “success” for Arsenal, because what most of the upper echelon of teams in the Premier League means by success is no longer what Arsenal mean by it.

For Arsenal, next season and over the next few seasons, success means not getting worse. Success means developing a few youngsters into first team regulars and building a new core that way instead of by spending a ton of money. And success, in this new-but-not-as-new-as-it-feels-like world, will have to mean being happy with the occasional FA Cup run and maaaaaaybe, if things go just right a decent amount of a season, making a bit of a title challenge.

I’m not writing this because I’m happy about the state of Arsenal right now. I’m not. But I’m also trying to make my peace with what late 2010’s Arsenal have become, because I think this, and not the powerhouse late 90’s/early 00’s Arsenal we are all desperately hoping to see again, is the club’s new normal, and I’d like to enjoy watching the club for what it is rather than condemning it for what it is not.