When a club the size of Arsenal suffers an eight year trophy-drought there are bound to be jokes about it. The website keeping track of the drought is an often referred to gag, as is the number of prizes won by former players ever since that FA Cup win in 2005 (44, since you ask, although you probably didn’t – it’s not funny anymore).
Nowadays the Gunners are recognised as a feeder club to Barcelona and Manchester City, but in all fairness, how many of these players were actually instrumental in these sides' triumphs? Of the class of 2006, only Clichy perhaps? Robin van Persie will undoubtedly win the league title this season and has been incredibly influential, but the likes of Fàbregas, Song, Nasri, Touré, Flamini, Hleb and Fran Merida have hardly set the world alight at their respective clubs.
However, it’s fair to say Arsenal has stopped producing winners. Although moving to another club and winning a trophy there does technically make you a winner, the lack of winning mentality within the club in recent years has perhaps been illustrated best by an on-pitch move of Cesc Fàbregas against Barcelona: the misplaced back-heel pass that gave the ball to Iniesta, allowing Messi to make it 1-0 in Camp Nou in March 2011.
It was a moment of madness by Arsenal’s talented Spaniard, particularly after winning the first leg 2-1, but these are the moments that lose you games and ultimately trophies. Lumping the ball up the field is no solution either, but you hardly see players like Xavi, Scholes, Lampard, Pirlo or Schweinsteiger, to name just a few, make that kind of mistake.
Fàbregas isn’t to blame, though. In the years when he was starting out, he was playing among proven winners: people who could show him how to win a game when things got ugly, how to handle pressure when being pressed upon. Most leaders aren’t born, or at the very least not born leading. They learn from those around them.
Arsenal have dropped from title challengers, being there or thereabouts at the end of the season, to consistently falling away in February. Now, the Gunners are mainly focusing on preserving their annual Champions League ticket, secretly knowing their participation has an Olympic character. ‘It’s more important to compete than it is to win’, after all.
Looking at the teams who have won the title ever since Arsenals last trophy win in 2005, each side was littered with players with title-winning experience: Chelsea in 2005, 2006 and 2010 had players like Claude Makélélé, Ricardo Carvalho and Paulo Ferreira among their ranks, while the eventual leaders in Terry and Lampard were brought in the team surrounded by figures like Marcel Desailly, Didier Deschamps and Emmanuel Petit.
These are inspiring figures who know what it is to win a league. Manchester United (2007, 2008, 2009, 2011 and, inevitably, 2013) have had a vast core of players brought up to win titles: Giggs, Scholes, Neville, Ferdinand just to name a few. When Manchester City won the title last year, the likes of Carlos Tevez and Yaya Touré were instrumental when grinding out results.
Of Arsenal’s current squad, Squillaci, Gervinho, Giroud, Rosický and Podolski have won a league that approaches the Premier League in both quality and intensity, but only Squillaci and Podolski won theirs with a team that has success ingrained in their culture and both were swiftly moved on by their respective clubs. Gervinho, Giroud and Rosický all traded up by going to Arsenal, and were part of incidental success.
Arshavin has won a European trophy with Zenit but his has been a seamlessly endless slump for about two years now. Santi Cazorla might have two European Championship winners’ medals, but he acquired them mainly by being on the subs’ bench. Frankly, Arsenal’s is not an environment that helps the likes of younger talents coming through. This is not how you learn to deal with pressure. This is not how you win trophies.
But just when the call for a change in policy is getting stronger and stronger, Arsenal have a pretty decent week: two away wins, one at Bayern Munich, the other at Swansea. All of a sudden, things surrounding Arsenal aren’t so negative – but let’s be frank. Beating a club like Swansea should hardly excite any supporter of a top team. The Swans are in ninth place at the moment and in meetings with the teams above them, only West Bromwich Albion and (guess what) Arsenal lost.
As impressive it may sound, the victory over Bayern was a hollow one. A feel-good victory. Going out on away goals doesn’t sound too bad, but in the end, Arsenal were in the tie looking to get something out of fit for only nine minutes – and in those nine minutes, they hardly produced a chance and in no way did they come across as a side capable of winning titles.
The epitome of this is in some ways Mikel Arteta. A man who, in all fairness, has been one of the better players since arriving and certainly looks to lead the team, but also a player who took a pay-cut to get the opportunity Champions League-football at 29, presumably because he wasn’t deemed good enough before by other sides. With Arsenal chasing a winner in the Allianz Arena, the sympathetic Spaniard was drawn into making several fouls, ultimately leading to anti-climactic defeat.
The aim for next season should be to attract players who are looking to win titles rather than just to play Champions League football. Those who fight for the title will always claim a Champions League place, while those who aim for fourth place – Everton, Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool in recent years – will have to settle for Europa League. Arsenal need winners, not good footballers looking to improve. Winners get results.