For the briefest of moments, you wondered if fourth place going to be good enough. Just briefly. And then Manuel Neuer realised it was Danny Welbeck bearing down on his goal and a gloved hand made contact with the ball, it seemed that Moyes tactic of rope-a-dope might actually work. Therein is the risk Arsenal take in the tussle for fourth place; a truly awful team might win the Champions League and demote them to Thursday night football. We might seek solace from United not being as good as the Chelsea team which triumphed in Munich but to be honest, there is very little to choose between the two. Frankly, Chelsea weren’t as good defensively as is recalled; Bayern were woeful in front of goal on the night and got hit with a sucker punch. Sound familiar? Thank God the Bavarians have the chance to right last night’s wrong in a fortnight’s time.
By which time, Arsenal may well be on the cusp on securing their own entry into the Europa League by winning the FA Cup. A horrible thought occurs in that nightmare scenario of a United triumph. At the moment, I am willing Everton to stay the course and United to falter in Europe. It leaves the delicious prospect of they or Tottenham missing out next season, with seventh place unlikely to take a European spot. If United win the Champions League and Arsenal the FA Cup, an extra Europa League place opens up. It’s the nightmare scenario in more than one way.
But it was an idle moments concern, nothing that disastrous can happen.
Well, if Abou Diaby can return to training, anything is possible. And the Frenchman is doing just that this morning. Having run over hill and dale (or monts et par vaux) to regain fitness, Diaby is about to take part in first team training and is no doubt focussed on returning to action. A leading question was asked recently about being selected for Les Bleus in Brazil and naturally the midfielder would be delighted to do so. Whether he can or not is another matter, one for Deschamps to decide. For Arsenal, the question is whether he is going to be fit enough and whatever his personal ambitions, the club should exert influence over the player’s thinking and be blunt with him if they do not think he will be ready to handle the glut of fixtures in the first round – perhaps the knockout phases as well – is another matter.
Sympathy often feels in short supply for Diaby. Too often discussion about him centres around wages and how he has the Life of Reilly. It misses the point. Money makes life comfortable but not being able to play must be purgatory for Diaby; frustration will seep into his every move and no matter how much time he may spend training, to not be able to kick a ball competitively – at all – must be a living hell for the man. Keeping positive in those circumstances is demanding. Yes, Arsène has indulged him and commercially you question the wisdom of the long-term deal signed four years ago but that is using hindsight in judgement. Arguably, Arsenal were placing the hope that his woes would be behind him and the future was bright. Why not; at that point he had played 104 times for the club in three seasons. He made 40 appearance in 2009/10; he has played that many games in total since. Just think about that for a moment. Forty times in four seasons; three in fact, none have been made yet. Then think about the mental toll that must take on the man before damning the contract.
One man who might understand the sense of frustration Diaby is suffering is Thomas Vermaelen. The club captain has not suffered anywhere near as badly with injury; perhaps its worse sitting on the bench watching a pairing of Mertesacker and Koscielny perform well for the club. Those feelings will be compounded knowing that even a heavy defeat does not unseat either of the incumbents, no matter how badly they have played. But patience is a virtue and injury means Vermaelen has the chance to stake a claim for a starting XI place. Genuinely, I don’t think he will win one under Arsène Wenger. The Belgian was held culpable when Wenger snapped last season and like Wojciech Szczesny, the central defender dropped to the bench. Unlike the Pole, Vermaelen has never been given another chance, settling into the role of a footballing fire alarm; break the glass in case of an emergency but often left alone unused.
Despite this and wanting assurances about his own future, Vermaelen has come out and spoken about the manager’s future,
Everybody wants him to stay as long as he can. He’s been incredible what he’s done for this club, and for the players as well. We would be really happy for him signing on for a few more years. The spirit is unbelievable in the team. We’ve worked a lot on our team shape and everybody knows their role in the team, everybody’s working for each other and that’s because there is a great team spirit. That’s the great improvement for us this season.
It is just the hunger in the team. Of course it was there before but the spirit is great and you can see us fighting for each other really hard.
I don’t think anyone can rationally challenge what Arsène achieved in the different phases of his reign but as with any investment, past performance is no guarantee of future returns. There is no guarantee of any manager at any time achieving anything. It comes down to whether the board has confidence in the manager achieving once again and using the resources available to him efficiently. If Arsène believes it is his job to leave the club in good shape for his replacement, he has ensured that already. There has to be more and he has to be sure he can challenge for trophies again. The board likewise. Talk emerges once more of a two-year deal to allow an orderly succession is wishful thinking; nothing in football is orderly and how can they plan for a particular manager when he may not be available when it suits the club. If, as is reported, Arsenal want to install a Director of Football, do it now, give the incumbent time to settle into his role. Surely that person would have input into the recruitment process; the two after all, will be working closely together.
I am not surprised that the players feel loyalty to Wenger, he shows them the same in public and has stuck by them on the numerous occasions they have let him down. This isn’t about taking responsibility for performances as he did after Chelsea; that rests with the manager anyway, as it does with all department heads. Of course history has shown that loyalty now means nothing tomorrow if Barcelona or one of Europe’s grands fromages comes knocking at the door. Players will leave and so to managers. That aspect is something which we need to be prepared for. Arsenal have been fortunate in Wenger’s longevity, it gives players a sense of stability but in truth there is a time approaching when changes in manager will be comparatively frequent; that is the nature of the modern game, it’s the nature of most other sports and no matter how the board might like to think of the Arsenal way as being above that, they can only stem the tide for so long, particularly with an owner who has shown little compunction in dispensing with the services of his other head coaches. Football is a strange business and this season has proven that instability isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Or perhaps the bad thing is Arsenal never took advantage of it?