Some of the responses on The Short Fuse (the Arsenal blog) to Kevin McCauley's piece on Arsenal yesterday seemed to underplay the importance of them placing in the top four. To summarize a few, the sentiment was (I'm paraphrasing) "Arsenal doesn't spend the millions that City and Chelsea regularly spend on players, so next year's CL money isn't as important in the short term" and "Arsenal have lost many top players over the years and still managed to consistently qualify for the CL." And if this were any other year, I would agree with both of those statements as reasons not to worry. But the way I see things, this isn't just any other year, not for Arsenal, and not for the league.
I'll spell out what I'm talking about after the jump, and I encourage Arsenal supporters to tell me what I might be missing. I'm being completely sincere here. I'd love to hear your (friendly) input.
From what I understand, Arsenal have two big contracts hanging over them this season. Robin Van Persie and Theo Walcott each have less than 18 months left on their current contracts and talks have stalled. Do we see either of them electing to stay with Arsenal if they fail to qualify for the CL next year? Personally, I don't think so. And while Arsenal might be able to survive without the inconsistent performances of Theo Walcott, losing Robin Van Persie would be an enormous blow to a club still reeling from losing Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri last summer. In previous years, after losing someone of Van Persie's quality, Arsenal had a deep squad to help lessen the blow. But this year is different. Have Arsenal ever been as reliant on one player to carry the team as they are now with Van Persie? His 35 goals in a calendar year, his talismanic leadership, his ability to take a game over in the dying minutes to salvage points? Van Persie's loss wouldn't just be losing another great player. It would be losing THE great player.
So Arsenal lose the best player in the EPL. They've survived this before, right? Thierry Henry moves on and makes way for Robin Van Persie to blossom. In years past when a spot opened up, Arsene always seemed to have that next young "star in the making" player to fill the shoes and shine. Where is that player now? Especially in attack? Who is going to be scoring Arsenal's goals if Van Persie and Walcott leave in the summer? Maybe it's Oxlade-Chamberlain? Seems like an awful big ask for someone in his stage of development. Maybe it's someone I don't know about yet? But I doubt it.
Which means it's likely Arsenal will have to spend this summer. Only problem is, Arsenal wouldn't have the lure of Champions League football to help bring the quality players they'll need to make an immediate impact. Maybe they'll find someone. Arsene certainly has an eye for talent, but it definitely makes that task a bit more difficult.
And now, add to all that the New World Order of the EPL. In years past, if one of the Big Four slipped it was pretty much a certainty that they'd be back in the next year. Now with the Sky Six fighting for four precious CL spots, next year's qualification is no longer a certainty. And in the case of a Van Persie-less Arsenal, it's not even likely. I wouldn't give them any better odds than Spurs, Chelsea or Liverpool. Those third and fourth places will be hard fought, which means the PROMISE of CL football isn't something that can be taken for granted. Four teams, two spots, plus the occasional Newcastle or whomever making a push. At best it's about a 50% chance.
So what are we looking at? No fourth place this year means risking losing your best player(s) without having adequate replacements, on a team that still needs rebuilding after last summer's exits, but will have to do so without the promise of CL football, be it next year or possibly several years to come. And the league is only getting more competitive. It would be enough to make me nervous, I'll tell you that much. But then again, I'm a Spurs supporter. I'm nervous by nature.
That's not to say it's over for Arsenal if they fail to place fourth or better this year. Spurs have built their team largely without the allure of CL competition or money and they're firmly settled into the Sky Six. Arsene is a great manager, and I have no doubt he can build another great team. He can still discover world class talent and develop it. It will just take him a while. And Arsenal supporters will have to have patience, something us Spurs supporters also know all too well.