WARNING: May contain rambling. You have been warned.
Arsenal play host to Liverpool this weekend, and I for one think it will be a very informative game, for lack of a better word. I'm not going to reiterate (can something be re-re-re-re-re-re-reiterated?) Arsenal's needs, shortcomings, and challenges again - Ted's doing a proper match preview, and we all know the problems anyway. They're received wisdom at this point, and they're becoming boring. What I am going to talk about is Arsenal and Liverpool in a broader sense.
Liverpool had a disastrous start to last season, to the point where they were in the relegation conversation in the first couple months of the season. I don't think anybody seriously thought they would get relegated, but the fact that they were even IN the lower half of the table set many alarm bells ringing, in Liverpool and elsewhere. Liverpool of course righted their ship, and ended up finishing sixth,
comfortably occupying just missing that (financially) precious last Europa League place.
Arsenal, meanwhile...you know what happened. But, at the end of the season, Arsenal were still in the Champions League - albeit in the qualifying round - and still finished relatively comfortably above their neighbors to the north, thus maintaining the recent Arsenal status quo. So, at first glance, all is right in the world, no? Sure, I guess. But watching Liverpool last season and watching the relative transfer-in inactivity at Arsenal over the last few seasons, all I could think is "That's where Arsenal will be in a couple years".
The difference between me and many Arsenal fans is, I don't think that's such a bad thing.
As I'm sure you're tired of hearing me say by now, I have been an Arsenal fan since the 1990-1991 season (in those dark prehistoric days before there was a Premiership!). In that time, Arsenal have always been a good team, and sometimes a great one. That has, however, come at a cost. The cost is that some Arsenal fans have come to expect that Arsenal will always be a top-three team, will always go far in the Champions League, and will just generally better than most every other team - and worse, that if this is not maintained, that heads must roll, that the natural order of things has somehow been interrupted. It comes at the cost of fans at the Emirates booing Arsenal...after losing a preseason friendly.
To this group of fans, success (as defined by Champions League appearances) is considered a birthright, and anything less than Champions League soccer, top-three finishes, and play so gorgeous it makes supermodels look like crack whores is considered by some to be beneath Arsenal. But what if it isn't?
What if Arsenal, since the end of the Invincibles, have been punching above their weight? What if their natural level is top eight, not top three, and what if European soccer wasn't a guarantee but a goal? I certainly don't want Arsenal to become a perennial 12th place team with nothing ever to play for, but if Arsenal were to fulfill my lowered expectations for this season, finish outside the Champions League places, and spend the next few years "toiling" in the Europa League, I'm 100% OK with that. Why? Mostly because the Champions League has become a tedious bore (a thought that I will expand on at another time, as that is a post-worthy topic of its own).
So, long story short - if Arsenal were to become Liverpool, and be on the outside looking in as far as the Champions League goes, it would not be the end of the world, the end of Arsenal,or the end of anything - it would be the start of a newer, more realistic chapter in recent Arsenal history, a chapter that I would embrace as fully if not more fully than the close-but-not-that-close Arsenal of recent vintage. Give me an FA Cup - give me back the one Liverpool stole from under my nose in the only FA Cup final I've seen in person, in fact - and I'm pretty happy.
I want my favorite teams to be as successful as possible, don't get me wrong - but given that my other two favorite teams are currently not doing so well, I can redefine "success" for Arsenal and still be OK with where they are. This season is what any American sports league or team would call a "rebuilding" year, and I'm fascinated to see where it takes the team and if it takes the team into a "lesser" European competition, that's fine by me.
All that said, this Saturday I'm boldly predicting a 2-1 Arsenal win.