It’s a curiosity of Arsenal’s 2016-17 season that they have, with one game left to go, gained more points than they did last time around.
The 72 they have on the board right now could become 75 if they beat Everton at the Emirates on Sunday, yet despite winning more points, you’d be hard pressed to make a case that Arsenal as a team have improved.
71 points got them second last season; 75 this time around might see them finish fifth, outside the top four for the very first time in Arsene Wenger’s 21 years at the club.
Perhaps the way the last campaign ended helped gloss over some of Arsenal’s own inadequacies. The way Spurs fell apart to already relegated Newcastle meant that the expected finish below the old enemy never materialised, and there was a healthy amount of schadenfreude to take people’s minds off the fact Leicester had a won a league that really should have ended up in North London.
This time around there was no such implosion from White Hart Lane, and despite having the league’s most effective and exhilarating forward in Alexis Sanchez, Arsenal remain as far away as ever from actually challenging for the title.
How they build for next season is anybody’s guess at this point. We don’t yet know whether Arsene Wenger is going to be in charge, although it seems more likely he will remain at this point. If he does sign a new contract, it’s going to cause some dismay to sections of the Arsenal fanbase who would like to see a new man take over.
An announcement about his future could be softened by announcing it after the Gunners win the FA Cup, but equally made more traumatic by a loss in the final to Chelsea. Whatever happens, top four or not, FA Cup win or not, it’s unlikely to make any real difference.
As it stands, even if the board were to decide not to renew his contract, Arsenal are not set up for a new manager. It’s implausible that they have anyone standing by at this point, and by the time an announcement is made, half the summer could be gone, or more, and there’s work to do with a squad that has fallen short once more.
It remains a mess, but if there’s clarity over anything right now, it’s that they have to keep Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil at the club. If Arsenal are to build a squad that can challenge for the Premier League, they need more players of that calibre, not fewer, and losing them would make an already onerous task more difficult.
It’s not impossible to attract top players if you’re not in the Champions League, but it certainly complicates it. Manchester United did it with Paul Pogba last summer, as did Chelsea with N’Golo Kante, and selling the players the idea of coming to Arsenal to play with Sanchez and Ozil would make the job a bit easier.
Attempts to attract top quality players to a club reeling from the departure of one of both of their star players is going to be nigh on impossible. Whether they can get them to sign new deals is another issue, but as a club they have to be aware of how losing players of that quality will reflect on them on and off the pitch.
The worry is that if Arsenal can’t make a timely decision about something as important as who is going to manage the club next season, who is paying attention to these issues? Who is making decisions about Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Jack Wilshere, Kieran Gibbs, and Wojciech Szczesny whose contracts all expire in 2018 – and when you get to 12 months out, the way these players are, you either stick or twist.
So, despite gaining more points, it’s hard to be optimistic about the future, to see progress, to see a plan of ambition, and how exactly they’re going to do all the hard work that must be done this summer if they genuinely want to challenge for the title again.