For Arsenal, Sunday finished as it began. If morning news of the club’s softening stance on selling Alexis Sanchez was not enough proof of their diminishing reputation, a 2-1 defeat to relegation-battling Bournemouth sufficed.
Bournemouth entered this game with one win in their last 12 matches in all competitions. Only three clubs had lost more Premier League games this season. They were one point above the relegation zone.
Yet Arsenal, without Sanchez and Mesut Ozil, looked like the team in danger of relegation. There was no leader, no impetus, just eleven random individuals wearing the same shirt with little to no affinity towards it.
“Don’t read too much into it, because even I don’t know really what way it will go,” was Arsene Wenger’s response when asked about his decision to leave an uninjured Sanchez out of his matchday squad. But this was not a message that required the services of Alan Turing to decode. The likelihood of a January departure only increases with each passing hour.
Arsenal fans might have been able to stomach Sanchez leaving for Manchester City. Pep Guardiola’s side are in a group of one, Premier League leaders by 15 points, and only a fool would perceive the Gunners as their realistic rivals. The chasm between the two clubs makes selling Sanchez to them regrettable, but not unforgiveable. This is football’s food chain, after all.
But with Manchester United emerging as the favourites to sign Sanchez comes one of the most damning indictments of Wenger and Arsenal yet. The Gunners somehow face the prospect of losing their best player to a club only eight points better off than them in mid-season. It is almost laughable.
Jose Mourinho’s comments on Friday were perhaps innocuous, but were utterly condemning nonetheless. “I don’t think it’s about the transfer window for us or the other teams close to us,” said the Portuguese, before listing Chelsea, Liverpool and Tottenham. Arsenal may only be five points behind the latter two, but they have become a mere afterthought in conversations regarding the ‘big six’.
That much was evident at the Vitality Stadium. After an uninspiring first half, Hector Bellerin gave the visitors the lead after a wonderful pass from Alex Iwobi. It was the one moment of class Arsenal produced in 90 minutes. Rarely before have they ever looked so blunt and unthreatening in attack.
And when the Gunners continue to struggle with the basic concept of defending, the result is inevitable. Bournemouth had more shots, more shots on target, more attacking verve, more confidence, more intent and deserved all three points.
Even when Callum Wilson, who scored the equaliser, assisted Jordon Ibe’s first Premier League goal since joining Bournemouth in summer 2016, it never felt as though Arsenal would respond. There was no overwhelming sense of inevitability that the away side would react. There was no pinning Bournemouth in their own half, or the home side defending for their lives. Arsenal had two shots after Ibe’s 74th-minute strike; Bournemouth had as many in the closing 15 minutes.
Arsenal have reached rock bottom and have now set about excavating. The 0-0 Carabao Cup semi-final first leg draw with Chelsea in midweek was held as proof that they could thrive without Sanchez and Ozil, as was the stalemate against the same side in September. ‘Gunners prove there’s life after Ozil & Sanchez’ read one headline. But this is far more indicative of the club’s future without their two star players, as was the 2-1 defeat to Watford in October. Without Sanchez and Ozil, Arsenal are ordinary, a member of the Premier League elite on a technicality only.
Any club would look worse without their two best players, of course. But the issue with replacing both in the summer is twofold. To entrust Wenger with the money to do so would be foolish, and to suggest that Arsenal can attract that sort of calibre player is naïve. Any player good enough to shine in the Premier League will join Manchester City or Liverpool for the lure of their managers, Manchester United for their trophies and history, or Tottenham for the chance to join an exciting project with hungry, young players.
Arsenal offer nothing unique, and will be feeding off the scraps thrown down by the top table. For they have been removed from their seat, escorted from the premises and had their membership revoked. The big six will be a big five for as long as Wenger’s reign unfathomably continues.