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Assigning Blame for Arsenal's Gradual Decline from Greatness

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Assigning Blame for Arsenal's Gradual Decline from Greatness
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There isn't a central moment you can point to as the starting point for Arsenal's descent from one of Europe's best teams to a side that will have to scrap, fight and claw just to qualify for a top-four finish this year.

There isn't some neat and easy timeline that connects the team's last trophy in the 2004-05 FA Cup to the departure of top players Robin van Persie and Alex Song this year.

And it remains uncertain how the Invincibles turned into a side that has occasionally looked more like the Winceables this season.

But we'll try to figure out how a team that is third all-time in Premier League titles (13), second all-time in FA Cups (10) and was named by Forbes as the 10th most valuable team in the world (fourth most valuable soccer club) has become a side that is built to finish top-four in the Premier League and make the quarterfinals in the Champions League.

We'll assume the club's ambitions haven't been abandoned. No, it can't be that simple. It's not that Arsenal has changed; rather, football has changed around the club and it has refused to react to that shift.

Arsenal's consistency is to be admired, of course, and is a part of its history. The Gunners have been a top-flight team for 87 consecutive years now, an English record. And the club has now advanced to Champions League play for 15 straight seasons.

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It's impressive stuff, to say the least, and Arsene Wenger deserved a lot of credit.

Wenger brought with him a keen eye for young talent, a philosophy toward the game that resulted in Arsenal playing truly beautiful football and a shrewd ability to not only balance the books, but also turn a profit for Arsenal's shareholders.

The result was one of the finest sides in Europe under his watch, and one that still ran on a sustainable business model.

Wenger won three Premier League titles, four FA Cups and had his team in the Champions League final in 2006. His Invincibles in 2003-04 went an entire season without losing a match. He made countless signings of the savvy variety, bringing in Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry, Sol Campbell and Cesc Fabregas, among many others.

But in the past seven years, football has started to change while Arsenal has remained the same. Much as Wenger rails for Financial Fair Play (I'm with him there), the Gunners have slowly been left behind as European teams like Chelsea, Manchester City and PSG (to name a few) have been infused with cash and have begun splashing money on players at will.

In turn, Arsenal has been unable to stop the talent drain as the business model dictates they buy low, sell high, rinse and repeat. Suddenly, the team became a feeder club rather than a squad that was competing financially in the transfer market with the Manchester United's and Barcelona's of the world.

Players come and go at top-flight clubs—that's just the way it works—and players such as Samir Nasri and Alex Song were losses that most fans could understand, even if they weren't popular decisions.

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But losing players over the years such as Fabregas, Ashley Cole and Robin van Persie were huge losses and the type of players you hope to see remain at a club for the duration of their careers. 

And those losses have grown exponentially. In the last two years alone, Arsenal has lost Nasri, Fabregas, Gael Clichy, van Persie and Song. That's an enormous amount of talent, and the Gunners haven't splashed the cash to replace them.

What they have done is add a slew of veterans and mid-level players, though I was fond of the 2012 additions of Santi Cazorla, Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud as individual additions. The problem was, those three didn't make up for the losses of van Persie and Song.

In turn, the aura of Arsenal has waned. Suddenly, Arsenal has become the team that develops young talent, makes the Champions League and stocks the big-spending clubs with stars at the transfer window. 

It's no secret that Arsenal will cap how much it pays even its elite players as opposed to other clubs. When it comes to courting top players around the world, that matters.

Arsenal practically prints money, of course. While they do have bills to pay—the beautiful Emirates Stadium didn't build itself—Arsenal has high ticket prices, sells out every game, makes a ton of money off of sponsorship and merchandising and has popularity in other countries, including a large American fanbase.

But the board and Wenger won't open up the paychecks despite the ability to spend more and still run a responsible business. And because of it, Wenger doesn't have the players needed to run his system, which has really become apparent this season.

Take away Giroud (the jury is still out on the Frenchman), and the Gunners don't have a pure striker or potent finisher on the squad. Podolski might fit that bill, but he's needed out wide on the wing.

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Theo Walcott thinks he's a striker even though he has a winger's skill set. Gervinho flashes moments of brilliance wherever he plays but his touch often betrays him and his finishing is lukewarm. Only Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain plays truly naturally on the wing.

The team lacks a true holding midfielder, though Mikel Arteta has at least held down the fort while Abou Diaby nurses yet another injury. And the defense has suddenly evaporated, which might have been covered on past Arsenal teams due to an ability to score goals and control possession.

But on this group, well, not so much. Arsenal still plays a pretty brand of football, but unfortunately it's not as winning a formula as it once was under Wenger.

If Financial Fair Play comes to fruition, perhaps the gap between Arsenal and the top teams will narrow. Perhaps business as usual will once again attract top talent and win trophies. Perhaps Wenger, Stan Kroenke and the Arsenal board will be vindicated.

What is the biggest reason for Arsenal's decline from greatness?

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After all, it's not as though the Gunners have sunk to the depths of another prominent EPL side, Liverpool, whose top finish in the past three seasons was sixth in 2010-11. And Arsenal can be forgiven for the lack of silverware in the FA and Capital One Cups given the team's streak of Champions League appearances.

But Arsenal is supposed to be a side gunning for championships, not a team fighting for top-four finishes. The Gunners are supposed to be an "A-team" in Europe alongside of Manchester United, Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, not one of those pesky teams just outside the top sides. 

The Gunners haven't allowed the game to pass them by, but they have allowed themselves to stay stagnant as the elite clubs in the world distanced themselves. That shouldn't be acceptable for a club with the history of Arsenal.

That shouldn't be acceptable for Wenger, Kroenke or the board. There's more to sports than balancing the budget, and somewhere along the way this club forgot that fact.

 

Hit me up on Twitter—my tweets can handle as many Hall of Fame egos as you like.

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