There’s a long-running joke amongst Arsenal fans that the club considers a fourth placed finish equivalent to a trophy. This spawned from Wenger’s infamous comments about how finishing in the Champions League spots is just as big a success as winning, say, the FA Cup. It became a much-debated view within the fanbase, with one half seeing sense in Wenger’s comments, and the other half feeling unsatisfied by them.
The perspective that a top four finish is equivalent to a trophy has become something a defence mechanism for Wenger and his biggest supporters. Faced with the difficult question of why Arsenal failed to win the Premier League or threaten the European elite in the Champions League, they would often claim that finishing third or fourth is still a good season. That it could be a lot worse; we could end up with the indignity of playing Europa League football on Thursday nights.
The Champions League certainly is an important competition. It’s the pinnacle of European club football and the stage for the great players to prove themselves. It’s the only serious competition where mega clubs can come together and the world’s best tacticians go to head-to-head. Players are lured by it. Hence, for any club with ambitions of being at the top, consistent Champions League football is a necessity to attract the best talent. Arsenal wouldn’t have been able to sign Mesut Ozil or Alexis Sanchez without it.
On the other hand, Arsenal have hardly been setting the Champions League alight. We’ve reached just the one final that we lost and have failed to progress past the Last 16 every year since 2012. Meanwhile, Chelsea have managed to win the whole thing, while Atletico Madrid and Borussia Dortmund have reached finals on smaller budgets. With how Arsenal seem to fall out of the competition in the same way every year, one wonders if they’re really pushing to compete, or have become a little too content with the status it grants them; to say they’re amongst the European elite even when the results suggest otherwise.
From a fan perspective, being knocked out by Bayern or Barcelona every year isn’t a success. It’s not a failure, either, given the quality of those teams. The failure would lie in Arsenal’s inability to close the gap, if only a little. Arsenal can sign great players that entertain us but, and this is often overlooked, you don’t need the Champions League to sign good players. Chelsea finished in mid-table last yet still signed N’Golo Kante. Manchester United finished outside the top four yet still signed Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Outside of the big money moves, Atletico and Dortmund achieved success by signing from teams below them or promoting youth players. Their star players commanded attention from other big players, but they came from humble beginnings.
Likewise in the Premier League. Not winning the competition isn’t much of a failure on its own due to the level of competition – although losing out to Leicester last season was a definite failure. There’s no shame in losing the league to Manchester United, Chelsea or even the Manchester City. They have had great teams better than ours. But the inability to sustain a title challenge beyond February has become the norm. Our seasons often end on a whimper.
For fans of other clubs, Arsenal’s position is enviable. They struggle to understand why anyone would be unhappy with a top four finish and Champions League football every season. Our remarkable consistency in finishing in the top four is held up as a laudable achievement, especially with the financial restrictions we’ve had. But in the last three years, this defence of Wenger has grown weaker.
When Arsenal signed Mesut Ozil for £42.5 million, it was a message that the club was ready to step up and compete with the rest of the world. The days of never paying more than £15 million for a player was over. We could and would sign players for big money. Alexis followed for £35 million. Mustafi and Xhaka then came for the same amount. Arsenal have been one of the biggest spending clubs in Europe since 2014. Long gone are the days of positive net spend. Long gone is the excuse of being frugal. Yet for all the money that’s been spent, Arsenal are no closer to a Premier League title or the latter rounds of the Champions League. With so much spending potential and the ability to bring in top players, we have to be doing better.
Where other clubs are often derided when their big money signings fail to deliver success, Arsenal seem to get a pass. Rather, recent weeks have seen a spate of “careful what you wish for” articles defending Wenger’s position due to his consistency. At the end of the season, there’ll another batch of articles about our failure to win anything for another season. There are two concurrent narratives here: one says a top four finish and occasional FA Cup is a good season, the other says only the Premier League title is good enough.
Hence, it’s become tricky to gauge what constitutes success for Arsenal. All I can say is, as a fan, I value good memories over everything else. The Champions League has ceased being a memorable experience, while our league campaigns offer more bad memories than good ones. A club of our size and financial potential should be able to create good memories for everyone. That it somehow isn’t is a big failure, no matter how I look at it.