Arsenal’s focus since their elimination from the Champions League by Milan back in March (or February if you accept the tie was over after the first leg) has been on securing a top four place in the Premier League. Tottenham’s remarkable collapse has even made third place a likelihood now, which is just as well given Chelsea might take the fourth English club place in the competition if they win in Munich on May 19th.
It is interesting that over recent seasons, the club, and especially Arsene Wenger, have raised the importance of taking part in the Champions League, to the extent that fans now care passionately about the team’s chances of qualifying for it, and indeed for Tottenham not to. Yet it was ventured to me during Saturday’s 1-1 draw at Stoke that, although there are good reasons why it should matter to the people running the club, why should it really matter to the fans? Their reasoning was simply that it would not actually change anything if Arsenal were not in it. Granted, the club make extra money – estimated at around £40 million a season, but what difference does this actually make to the supporters?
If the club did not take part, Arsenal would not be able to sign major stars because they would not be interested in coming to a club that was only looking at Europa League football. And when, exactly, did the club last sign a major star? Andrey Arshavin over three years ago would count as one, and he arrived in the middle of the campaign ineligible to play Champions League football. Before that… do we count Tomas Rosicky as a major star? I guess we did when he signed. So that would be 2006. Anybody else? Perhaps the confirmation of the signing of Lukas Podolski negates this argument, but if so, then it indicates a shift in normal policy.
Ok then, how about this one? If the club were not in the Champions League, they would not be able to hang on to their best players. Do I need to go through a list of the dearly departed, going all the way back to the departure of Nicolas Anelka in the summer of 1999? He left and went on to actually pick up a winner’s medal in the competition in his first season at Real Madrid. Not much chance of that happening at Arsenal.
Right, let’s change tack. If Arsenal were not in the Champions League, they would not have the chance to win a trophy that has eluded them thus far, in spite of their unbroken run of attempts since 1998-99 to land the cup with the big ears. Obviously they came closest in 2006, but since the move to the new stadium – the one, remember, that was supposed to allow them to compete with the big boys – as a rule, whenever they face a major team, they have been eliminated, with the exception of AC Milan in the last 16 tie of 2007-08. But since the Emirates became home, elimination has been inflicted by PSV Eindhoven, Liverpool, Manchester United, Barcelona (twice) and AC Milan. The scalps in the knockout rounds have been the aforementioned AC Milan, Roma, Villarreal, Porto and er… that’s it. Four wins from ten knockout ties. The conclusion seems to be that Arsene Wenger is not tactically acute enough to cut it at the very top level. Yes, his team made the final once, but given the roster of players at his disposal between 1998 and 2006, frankly, his failure to get past the quarter final stage in the first seven campaigns under his tenure is serious underachievement. So no, being in the competition may be one thing, but as an avenue to actually winning it, the club cannot rely on the current manager to deliver. The Champions League has become an annual disappointment. Qualification from the group stage is normally a formality, but to win the thing, even with a kind draw at least two pretty significant names must be overcome. In 2009, the club enjoyed some good fortune to face Roma and Villarreal before meeting a real European big boy – Manchester United. Sadly, the memory of the second leg with a 1-0 deficit to overturn still scars.
However, I bring good news. For fans, the Europa League – although possibly offering a few more interesting away trips – would mean Thursday evening matches, and not many on a Saturday. There is no-one I have spoken to that prefers Sunday games to Saturday ones, and the idea of watching an Arsenal game on a Thursday night just seems plain wrong. The last time I remember that happening was the FA Cup final replay in 1993, although I stand to be corrected if someone wants to point out that matches from the UEFA Cup campaign (after Champions League elimination) of 1999-2000 did actually take place on Thursday evenings.
Ultimately though, if you accept that Arsenal are not going to win the European Cup under Arsene Wenger, the benefit of repeated Champions League participation is financial. Granted, fans can look forward to big nights once a season when their team face a club that will eliminate them, but the group stage is invariably a series of matches against lesser lights that create little in the way of tension or excitement. The only real issue at stake is whether or not the players can be fired up enough to actually win their group or qualify as runners-up. And that only matters in as much as it delays facing the team likely to eliminate them for an extra round. But the £40 million income that it brings means that club profits are secured, and that certain of the players the manager rates can be paid disproportionate sums of money. Sums that the everyday fan has difficulty believing given what they see said players deliver on the pitch.
So Champions League qualification is good for the business plan and the players’ bank balances, but until there is a change in ethos at the club – one that addresses the continued failure of Arsenal to challenge creditably in the competition (as Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool all have during Wenger’s tenure) – then it will be largely meaningless to the rank and file, or at least it should be. “Fourth place is a trophy.” “I would accept second place for the next 20 years.” Such an outlook does not forge the mentality of winners. It simply sends out the wrong message. Remember Chelsea’s performance against Barcelona in the Nou Camp and ask yourself if an Arsene Wenger team is capable of that. Now ask yourself why not.
The one time Arsenal did finally make the final, the team was stuffed with experienced players – most of whom were genuine big name stars - who did not require coaching to play result football. Things have changed a lot since then.