The Gunners were again poor in their 2-2 draw away at Liverpool on Sunday and will be lucky to qualify for next season’s Champions League
HAVE WE BEEN HERE BEFORE? ARSENAL DON’T DESERVE TOP FOUR
In the world of Arsene Wenger, there is a separate trophy that exists only for Arsenal and is awarded to the club every year when they sneak into the top four and book their place in the Champions League.
The Gunners have qualified for Europe’s elite competition for the last 17 seasons but extending that record to 18 is in grave doubt this season.
It would be a damning indictment of the quality of the Premier League if this Arsenal team finish in the top four given the dross they have served up in their first 17 matches.
Wenger’s side are lucky that they are somehow sixth in the table, just four points behind fourth-placed West Ham – and their performance in Sunday’s 2-2 draw away at Liverpool was just the latest example of their mediocrity.
Wenger played his get out jail card to escape from Anfield with a point after a game in which his players struggled to string more than a handful of passes together.
Their 36.5 per cent possession was their worst since such data became available in 2003 and more ruthless opposition would have been out of sight by half-time in the same manner that Stoke went 3-0 up in the first half of their previous away game.
They barely looked like scoring but somehow managed to find the net with their only two efforts of note against a goalkeeper that has hardly managed to make a save since being brought into the Liverpool team.
If Arsenal manage to finish in the top four this season, it would be by default.
They are fortunate that Liverpool, Tottenham and Everton have suffered equally this season in a division where Chelsea and Manchester City are so far ahead of the chasing pack it feels like the domination of the big two clubs in Spain.
In one two-minute passage on Sunday, I counted four unforced errors from Arsenal players. Even Alexis Sanchez appeared to catch the bug, and he has been the one shining light in north London this season. Lord knows where they would be without him.
Arsenal were totally lacking in confidence and tactical nous on the ball, and that’s supposed to be their strength.
The defensive frailty and mental weakness we all expect from Arsenal was there too, of course. It cost them the late equaliser when Martin Skrtel was allowed to power home his header despite the Gunners’ man advantage following Fabio Borini’s red card.
Throwing away leads has been a common theme for Wenger’s men this season, whether against better teams like Manchester City and Liverpool, or supposedly weaker opposition such as Swansea and Anderlecht.
Wenger really should have stepped down on a high after the FA Cup final victory over Hull in May. We know that now. Fans are fighting in the away end, split over the manager, controversial banners are being created and angry supporters are becoming minor internet celebrities.
“The first trophy is to finish in the top four,” Wenger famously said in 2012 in a succinct appraisal of the club’s ambitions.
But even that could be beyond Arsenal this year, particularly if their injury problems don’t subside and we keep seeing the likes of Mathieu Debuchy or Nacho Monreal playing at centre-back.
For all Manchester United’s problems – and they still have plenty – Louis van Gaal’s side have nestled in third and have no excuses not to return to the Champions League given their extravagant spending to get there.
But where is the serious challenge to Arsenal’s fourth-placed trophy ambitions?
Liverpool and Everton currently sit 10th and 11th and Brendan Rodgers, last season’s manager of the year, has found himself fending off questions over how much longer he can keep his job.
Tottenham’s wastefulness in the transfer market has been exposed and Mauricio Pochettino’s men have been booed off the pitch several times already after disappointing displays that leave them seventh in the table.
So could West Ham and Southampton be genuine challengers?
It’s not that they are particularly good, but the opportunity has opened up for them and the Hammers in particular have developed some impressive momentum.
If Arsenal book an 18th season in a row in the Champions League this term, it will in no way represent an achievement. It would simply show how bad the rest of the league has been.
For there is no trophy for the Gunners, only inertia.