Arsenal did not pursue Guardiola and have been slipping ever since
Sooner or later, Arsenal will have to find a replacement for Arsene Wenger as manager. The sands of time run out for everybody in the end and even Wenger's reign at the Emirates Stadium has a finishing line somewhere in the not too distant future.
And yet, as he prepares for his third League Cup final -- he suffered defeat in two previous deciders, against Chelsea in 2007 and Birmingham City four years later -- many would argue that the end of the line is actually in Wenger's rear-view mirror. The Arsenal hierarchy, though, failed to notice when he passed it and was left to carry on regardless.
Wenger's supporters would counter by pointing to the three FA Cups won by the 68-year-old during the past four seasons. The tournament may no longer carry the significance it once had, but it is a major trophy nonetheless and one that the likes of Tottenham and Liverpool, who have not lifted silverware since 2008 and 2012 respectively, would be glad to have.
Even if he guides Arsenal to their first League Cup win since 1993 and the 11th major honour he has collected since taking charge in 1996, the sense of Wenger being past his use-by date will remain.
But Wenger is not to blame for sticking around when many fans want him gone; having built the club into one of the most powerful in Europe, he has no reason to walk away.
If anyone is to blame to for the stasis at the club, it is the board of directors and majority shareholder Stan Kroenke, who failed to display the ambition, decisiveness and, maybe, ruthlessness, that Sunday's opponents at Wembley, Manchester City, have shown in recent seasons.
Whereas Arsenal have opted for life in the slow lane, choosing stability and prudence over change and big investment, City have overtaken them on and off the pitch by being bold enough to shoot for the stars and nobody exhibits their ambition more sharply than manager Pep Guardiola.
City had pursued Guardiola since he resigned as Barcelona coach in 2012 and, despite initially missing out when he moved to Bayern Munich, eventually got their man in 2016 following his decision to leave Bavaria.
Arsenal? Despite a clear decline on the pitch under Wenger in recent years, with the club no longer regarded as the title contenders they were during the manager's first decade in charge, they chose to stick with what was clearly not working.
And that is why they they find themselves chasing glory in the League Cup and Europa League while their domestic rivals are all aiming to book a place in the Champions League quarterfinals.
Had Arsenal's powerbrokers been ambitious and ruthless two or even six years ago when he left Barcelona, they could have mounted a compelling case for Guardiola to move to succeed Wenger.
Guardiola has admitted in the past that he admires "historic" clubs and few have a past as rich as Arsenal; they are London's best-supported and most successful club, boast huge revenue streams and have their philosophy of pure, attacking football that is in sync with that of Guardiola.
They are also a club that has lost its way since the era of the "Invincibles" and Guardiola would have been the perfect man to put them back on top. The draw of London would also have been tempting for Guardiola, who spent a sabbatical year in New York between his time in Barcelona and Munich.
Yet throughout the weeks and months that he was available and considering his next move, Arsenal were steadfastly standing by their man, hoping that Wenger could turn back the clock. They would have had a strong hand to play in any pursuit of Guardiola, but the board and Kroenke sat on their hands.
Guardiola is now clearly beyond Arsenal's grasp. There is no sign of him leaving City anytime soon but, by the time he does, it looks as though the club will be at the summit of the English game and perhaps even the kings of Europe.
Arsenal should aspire to being the best in England and Europe, but they have been treading water for so long now under Wenger that the next man, whoever he is and whenever he arrives, will face a rebuilding job that could take years to complete.
Manchester United are still not over their post-Sir Alex Ferguson hangover, almost five years later. Yet Ferguson left United as champions, two seasons after guiding them to a third Champions League final in four years, so they were arguably in a healthier state than Arsenal are under Wenger.
Had they punched their weight when they had the opportunity, though, Arsenal could have been contenders for Guardiola and the landscape would almost certainly look different. But it was City who got their man and they are the ones pulling away from the rest.
Arsenal have stood still and fallen behind at the same time.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_