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Where is the bottom? Has it been reached yet?
Could one of the world’s biggest clubs, with the world’s most expensive average tickets, actually be relegated?
Or is Arsenal too big to fail?
These are the questions scores of Arsenal fans are no doubt asking themselves right about now, after a weekend that brought a fourth defeat in five league matches. The Gunners remain lodged in 15th place, just four points and three places above the relegation zone and fully 12 points removed from the Champions League berths of the top four.
After winning three of four to start the campaign, the 13-time champions have won just once in 10 games, losing seven and scoring just four goals over that stretch. On Saturday, Everton beat Mikel Arteta and his mirthless men 2-1 in a game that felt more comfortable to the home team than the score suggested.
Arsenal doesn’t score enough goals, concedes too many, lacks creativity and consistency, has no apparent plan and broadly looks worse than it has in a generation.
Still … relegation? Really?
Is that a genuine possibility?
While Arsenal plays crosstown rivals Chelsea on Boxing Day (Dec. 26), its following matches are against Brighton, West Brom, Crystal Palace and Newcastle, none of whom are in the top half of the table. Surely that run of games will fuel a rise up the table. Right?
But what if it doesn’t? What if Arteta, who began his first managerial job so well a year ago, quickly forging a team that played stylish attacking soccer before things began to spiral after the pandemic layoff, never finds the solutions to his many problems? What if, for all of his pedigree as a playmaker for the club and an apprenticeship with Pep Guardiola, the clouds never break for him?
Arsenal is off to the club’s worst start to a season since 1974-75. Arteta knows all of this. He grasps the stakes. “I understand the situation,” he said after the loss, per The Guardian. “My energy and focus is on getting the team out of this situation. You can’t deny the spirit the players have shown every time they are on the pitch, but the results are not acceptable for the standards of this football club.”
Yes, those results.
More than a third of the way into the season and well past the point where sample size stops being a problem, Arsenal is averaging a point a game. Last season, 38 points, which Arsenal is on pace for, would have given you a 17th-place finish, the last team not relegated. In the 2016-17 season, 38 points would have dumped you out of the Premier League and into the second-tier Championship. That was the year after Arsenal truly competed for the title for the last time, incidentally, in a bizarre campaign ultimately won by Leicester City on a mere 81 points — with the Gunners still 10 points back in second place, after squandering the league lead in January.
Even if form doesn’t improve, Arsenal’s saving grace might be that the two clubs at the bottom, Sheffield United and West Brom, have put out truly appalling iterations of themselves. Sheffield won only its second point of the season last weekend — the worst-ever start to a Premier League season — and West Brom has won only once. Burnley, in 18th, has scored just six goals in 12 games but retains two matches in hand. If it wins those two, Arsenal will be 16th as things are now.
All the same, it feels preposterous to even be discussing the prospect of a relegation of a Big Six team. Or a Big Four team, whatever delineation of the Premier League oligopoly you want to employ. It would be a collapse of unprecedented magnitude.
The most remarkable relegations in the Premier League era were perhaps that of Blackburn Rovers in 1998-99, just four seasons after winning the title; Leeds United dropping down in 2003-04 after reaching the Champions League semifinals three seasons prior; and Newcastle United twice bouncing down and right back up. They were all well-supported and respected clubs, hamstrung by issues of mismanagement or financial collapse.
Elsewhere, Atletico Madrid’s relegation from La Liga in 2000, also four years after winning it, jarred for its lack of precedent and the fact that it had been one of just four clubs to never be relegated. But Atleti had been badly mismanaged for years. In Italy, the relegations of Juventus and Fiorentina were stunning, but the former was punished in a refereeing scandal and the latter went bankrupt.
But if, say, Schalke 04 getting relegated from the Bundesliga this season — it is winless in its first 13 games — would feel momentous, an Arsenal relegation would be cataclysmic. Because there isn’t anything major wrong with Arsenal. Its finances are sound and its ownership, if nothing else, is stable.
The economics of the game are supposed to preclude this. The kind of money generated by clubs in Arsenal’s atmosphere, way up there in the thick clouds, inoculates them from failure more severe than missing the Champions League for a season or two. With a squad worth more than $700 million, according to Transfermarkt, you are supposed to be untouchable to the proletariat. That’s the conventional wisdom anyway.
So if Arsenal should be relegated, and that remains unlikely, the most stunning thing will be that, ultimately, no amount of money can protect you from detonating in the world’s most capitalist sport.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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