As a snapshot of Arsenal’s decline, the photograph taken of the team on a February day five years ago makes compelling evidence. The players were celebrating a 2-1 victory over Leicester City at the Emirates. The camera caught an unexpectedly noteworthy moment: it was the last time it was possible to imagine Arsenal were viable challengers for the title.
The clubs meet again at the King Power Stadium on Sunday in an entirely different set of circumstances. Leicester are riding high, a victory over Mikel Arteta’s side would only solidify their position in the quest for Champions League qualification. Arsenal need to win to climb out of the bottom half of the table.
The picture is a portrait of a declining power about to crumble; the empire striking back one last time and deluding itself that its enemies had been vanquished. The win changed little. Leicester remained top and went on to win the title.
Arsenal lost their next two league games, dropping out of realistic contention. Although Arsene Wenger’s team went on to finish second in the table – propelled to that position by a late meltdown by Tottenham Hotspur – it was the last time the Gunners qualified for the Champions League.
Two FA Cup wins since then have obscured a simple fact. Arsenal have ceased to be part of the elite. The photo illustrates the hubris of overpaid, underperforming superstars masquerading as leaders in a dressing room that was taking the club downhill.
While Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil and co were still celebrating, Jamie Vardy limped out of the Emirates with a grimace on his face. He looked battered and bruised. Like the rest of his teammates he was not broken but resolute. Wenger recognised there was not enough of this trait in his side and tried to buy the striker the following summer. He admitted to offering Vardy a “lot of money” only to be spurned. That may have been the final indignity of the Frenchman’s wonderful career. If he had been able to sign Vardy, some of the turmoil of the ensuring seasons might have been avoided.
Arsenal need a change of attitude that went beyond switching managers. Wenger was replaced by Unai Emery, who in turn was succeeded by Arteta. The club still lacks direction.
An air of staleness had been hanging over the Emirates throughout the final half-decade of Wenger’s tenure but even those underachieving days of the early 2010s seem like a golden age now. The Frenchman was holding Arsenal together. The infrastructure behind him was weak and remains so. It is difficult to point the finger at Emery or Arteta because the complacency at boardroom and ownership level is ingrained.
Arsenal would not look so bad by comparison had Leicester built on the title win and established themselves as a top-four side. They struggled the following season. If anything, there has been even more turmoil at the King Power than at the Emirates. Claudio Ranieri ran out of steam after winning the league, Craig Shakespeare and Claude Puel proved strange and misguided appointments and the owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha was killed in a helicopter crash outside the stadium. Yet the club bought well throughout this period and found the right manager in Brendan Rodgers. Arsenal considered Rodgers when Wenger departed three years ago but decided he had neither the personality nor the gravitas to take on the role. Increasingly that looks like a missed opportunity.
The 3-2 victory over Benfica that allowed Arsenal to progress to the last 16 of the Europa League offers little solace. The possibility of Arteta’s team reaching the Champions League via this route feels unlikely. They may feel like they are slumming it on Thursday nights but the continent’s secondary tournament is competitive. That is something Arsenal are not at the moment.
Losing to Slavia Prague is much less of a setback for Rodgers. Focusing on the league is worthwhile for Leicester instead of the risky business of staking the season on the Europa League. They look like a viable top-four side.
Even throughout the turbulence at the King Power, Leicester’s recruitment department consistently found players who improved the team. This was done on a budget that should embarrass Arsenal.
The fees and wages that have been wasted at the Emirates are mindboggling. Clubs can take a punt on players and sign them against the wishes of the manager, as Arsenal did with Nicolas Pepe, defying Emery’s objections, but not when they cost £72 million and a commensurate salary. For all the high-profile names the team is being held together by Bukayo Saka, an academy graduate. The 19-year-old is a fine prospect but the left-sided wide player is not the finished article and nor should he be. That he is being held up as a saviour already should be no surprise, a tradition of overhype has developed around the Emirates in the past two decades.
Arsenal are a footballing institution. But too many around the club – on and off the field – have enjoyed the benefits that come with this stature without being prepared to put in the effort required to keep the team in the top echelon. Ozil, arguably the biggest offender, departed in January but others remain.
At Leicester, that picture will always be remembered as providing an extra dash of motivation in the drive to glory. At the Emirates the image has a deeper and more disturbing symbolism. The posturing for the camera echoed too much posing on the pitch. Five years on, Arsenal are still like a poorly-taken photograph: they lack focus. Arteta is still a long way from getting them as sharp as they need to be.