It’s Sophie’s Choice. It’s Solomonic. It’s having our cake and eating it, too. For years, as the debate over Arsène’s tenure and legacy have waxed and waned, we’ve pondered what it might mean for the club’s fortunes to see the manager of the last 20 years—the only manager many fans have ever known—step down. Would we fall out of the top four? Would we see an end to the twenty-year streak of celebrating St. Totteringham’s Day or of qualifying for Champions League play? After all, we’ve watched it unfold over at Old Trafford even as they’ve spent bucketloads on transfers and cycled through managers. Wouldn’t it be better for Arsène to stay on long enough to win one more trophy and hand the reigns over to someone who can build from momentum? After the debacle at the Hawthorns, however, we might just have our compromise solution…
There’s little shame in losing away to Chelsea, Bayern, or Liverpool. Sure, we might have expected to perform better, acquit ourselves well enough to say that the scorelines flattered our hosts. However, it’s more accurate to say that we were flattered in two of the three. That’s troubling. Far more troubling is how flaccid we looked in desultory wins over Hull, Sutton, and even Lincoln. We haven’t looked convincing or confident since, well, early December. As such, we now cling rather desperately to a sixth-place position, closer in points to 15th than to first. Unless the squad can find some source of inspiration after the international break and go on a rather stirring run over our remaining 11 Prem matches and (fingers crossed) two FA Cup matches, we will finish outside the top four, below Tottenham, and out of Champions League play for the first time in living memory.
That might satisfy a significant segment of the WOB-brigade, many but not all of whom are willing to endure a few seasons wandering in the wilderness of mid-table mediocrity as the price to be paid for ousting an obstinate, out-of-touch dictator with no tactical nous and the parsimony of a Depression-era pensioner. On current form, that’s where we’re headed. We have no chance of catching Chelsea, 19 points clear, and are very much on the fringes of relevance with even Mourinho’s milquetoast squad now ahead of us. Even the outcome of our game in hand—a trip to St. Mary’s to face Southampton—seems to depend more on Southampton’s ambitions than it does on our own. Thank whatever force controls the universe that we have two games in hand over Everton.
As to satisfying the AKBs, well, I suppose they can cling to the notion we could still, in theory, win the FA Cup, allowing their exalted leader after whom the club may or may not be named to ride off into the sunset, legacy preserved courtesy of a third FA Cup won in four years. To do so, of course, we’ll have to first beat Man City and then either Chelsea or Tottenham. None of this inspires much confidence. However, with rumours already emerging to suggest that Arsène may have already been offered a new contract, we might be in for another year or two of Arsène. Protests, banners, boycotts, and rented planes are unlikely to change that. If anything, the board will likely dig in to resist such pressure.
That’s it then. In the absence of a nearly-miraculous resurrection, one that sees us fight our way back in to the top four, we’re stuck with that turd-blossom of a compromise: we fall out of the that top four, cancel St. Totteringham’s Day, and miss out on Champions League play on one hand. On the other, Arsène stays on. The WOBs and the AKBs each get half of what they wanted, leaving no one satisfied. In the meantime, we chase an FA Cup that would earn us a Europa League appearance. Meh.
Summer comes. Having no Champions League to offer, transfer-fees and wage-packets inflate. Will Alexis or Özil want to leave? Can we keep them on-board and add the likes of Griezmann, Lukaku, or Mbappé? Let’s face it. Arsenal under Arsène have offered the virtual guarantee of Champions League play (no small inducement) and a chance to play under a legendary manager who is loyal and fatherly to a fault to his players. Alexis, Özil, and others have testified to Arsène’s role in their decisions to sign. Will that same chance shine as brightly without a chance, however remote, of winning the Champions League?