There was a strange bug in the hugely popular 2000 game The Sims whereby if you, the god of the game’s world, put your poor virtual human into a swimming pool and then removed the ladder, they would happily swim around in circles until they became too tired to continue and then drown to death. “You idiot,” you would un-self-consciously cackle as you watched them turn into a little computerised gravestones. “Your struggles are entirely self-imposed. Why don’t you just climb out over the side like a normal person?”
Watching Arsenal now offers that exact same experience, unless of course you are an Arsenal fan, in which case you are cast as that pitiful Sims family, watching aghast but helpless as their loved one blissfully doggy-paddles their way to a slow and entirely preventable demise.
After nearly 22 years under Arsene Wenger and 14 years and counting without a league title, journalists have complained for long enough about the absence of anything new to say about Arsenal that even the amusing novelty of that point has worn off. Yet Arsenal’s standing is currently on a downward trajectory steep enough that even the decade of stasis that followed the 2006 Champions League final is beginning to take on a headier complexion.
The other three members of the mid-to-late noughties Big Four – Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United – have suffered deeper troughs than Arsenal currently find themselves in: since 2009/10, Liverpool have finished outside the top four six times, Manchester United three times and Chelsea twice. Last year was the first time Arsenal have finished outside the top four since Wenger joined the club in 1996.
But even when Liverpool, United and Chelsea were variously going through hard times, there was a sense that their problems were fixable, whether by bringing in a new manager, new players or through adapting to a new style of play. Yes, they were in a hole, but at least there was a way out. It is far better to find yourself in a deep hole with a long ladder than hopelessly stuck in a comparatively shallow hole with no means of escape.
On current form and with the league table as it stands, Arsenal are closer to joining Leicester, Burnley and perhaps Everton in the mini-league of four vying for sixth place. Three FA Cups in the last four years have fallen woefully short of sating an increasingly unified Arsenal fanbase, so a League Cup final victory is unlikely to move the needle unless delivered in unthinkably stylish fashion against the near-unstoppable Manchester City.
With the league season on the verge of tatters, the League Cup next to meaningless, and the FA Cup already gone after Arsenal’s embarrassing 4-2 exit to Nottingham Forest in the third round, that leaves the Europa League – and the Champions League place that comes along with it – as the only viable source of succour for Wenger and the club’s increasingly beleaguered fans.
Signing Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and renewing Mesut Ozil’s contract is an undeniable boost for Arsenal, but both of them serve as little more than artisan-crafted rugs and curtains to decorate Arsenal’s shallow hole; they may be beautiful, but they neither makes a serviceable ladder.
Petr Cech: Has now committed four errors that have directly led to an opposition goal in the Premier League this season, more than any other player #SWAARS
— WhoScored.com (@WhoScored) January 30, 2018
For that, Arsenal desperately need a new goalkeeper to replace the increasingly unreliable 35-year-old Petr Cech; defenders with enough experience not to make stupid mistakes but not so old or slow as to let opposition attackers coast past them; a midfielder or two with the mental acuity and discipline to know they have to stay with their runners; a leader to inspire confidence. None of these frailties is new, but that they remain uncorrected after all these years bears out the repetition.
As it stands, there is surely only so much longer that Arsenal can keep swimming around waiting for the gods to provide a ladder before they start circling the drain.