Writing this post as I catch up with some recorded programmes on the TV, Britpop at the BBC offers a stark comparison to the end of the season. The race for fourth compares with the week Blur and Oasis went head-to-head. Albarn called it correctly when he derided Roll With It as “Quoasis” although had anyone retorted with “Chas and Blur“, they would not have been far off the mark; House In The Country was just as awful. Still, it’s better than be compared to Menswe@r. The truth is that both Arsenal and Everton – like Blur and Oasis – in their current form are a pale shadow of the better times both have enjoyed this season but at the end of the day, all the corporates care about are points and chart positions. Qualifying for – not winning – the Champions League is all that counts, seemingly that is the limit of our ambitions.
And that’s realistic as well. Arsenal’s love affair with European football is illusory at best. Sporadic moments of glory, some great nights at home and abroad but rarely troubling the engravers when they apply the craft to ensuring that the season’s winners are properly recorded. 1970, 1980, 1994, 1995, 2000, 2006; I don’t think I’ve missed anything in that list of finals, have I? Of course only two were winning but compared to other clubs who are disparaged as being smaller than Arsenal, it isn’t impressive, is it? Which begs the question, do we place too much store in finishing in the top four? Why do we care so much about playing in a tournament that we aren’t going to win?
The top four, a mark of success in the Premier League. It’s relative of course, but the consistency of those finishes is something that Arsène has drawn from the various squads in his reign. It’s something which should not – cannot be – ignored. Not even Manchester United have finished in the top four every season during the Wenger era. They might have won it more often but that’s not the point, their dominance of English football is over and like the clock striking midnight to end the day, the only certainty has been Arsenal in the top four. OK, so on some occasions it has been down to other teams throwing away their opportunity but the season is over 38 games as Everton – like Tottenham before them – have found out the hard way. It’s not quite enough to bring the bunting out but as a signal of consistency, there are few others who can match it.
European club football came too late for Arsenal’s Golden Era, the concept of the top clubs playing competitively appealed to the likes of Herbert Chapman and Willy Meisl but Gabriel Hanot and Jacques Ferran took another two decades to bring the ideas to life. Comparisons to the past are vacuous, attitudes toward the competitions during the time since have changed and money has corrupted them to the point where the Champions League is so bloated that even the Europa League seems sunk. That may be true as far as English clubs are concerned but perhaps a more competitive Premier League will breath new life into it, certainly as far as these shores are concerned.
Perhaps that is the Europa League’s problem as well. Since the Champions League increased the number of competitors, the quality of English teams entering has diminished. The good sides are in the première competition, the also-rans playing elsewhere. A more competitive domestic game, ‘bigger’ clubs entering will raise its profile and whilst it can never be saved from its Thursday night hell, the media do not ignore the likes of Chelsea, Liverpool and United when their games come around.
For me, the question is not so much about Arsenal winning the Champions League, I question whether we place too much store in qualifying. Yes, I understand the financial value and accept that it’s better to have an extra pot of money coming in than not. But that’s not much solace when the club continue to increase ticket prices, is it? I’m told that Champions League football is the reason we sign so many star players, as if their pay packet offers no comfort to not doing so and when their grandchildren ask them about it, will they be able to show them any medals for continued exits in the first knockout round? Some will even tell you that the top players will leave if we don’t qualify. There’s no evidence of that, the top players have left the club previously even when we have qualified.
The logic becomes even more blurred when the theory is posited that if Arsenal drop out of the tournament for a season, they will find it difficult to finish in the top four again. Ever. Which is undermined by Liverpool being on course to win the title this season. Their failure over previous years has nothing to do with not being in the Champions League, it has to do with the mess they have made of the cash available over the years. And don’t forget since 2005, they have been to the final of that tournament more times than Arsenal have in their history. And won it more often in that timescale, too.
Most of the problem doesn’t come with Arsenal’s routine failures although it is foolish that this does not play a part in the attitude. The format of the Champions League – and its little sibling for that matter – leaves me cold. At every turn the rich and powerful have ensured that their best interests have been looked after. Seedings are the root of the problem, contrived draw mechanisms such as preventing teams from the same nation being in the same group, also feed into the malaise. With so many teams involved, a group stage is necessary and let’s be honest, no matter how much better a knockout tournament is from a sporting perspective, that will never return. Dropping teams into the Europa League devalues both. A simple change to the format would reinvigorate; a free draw. No seedings, no national bars, just four teams drawn for Group A, B and so on. Some years, there will be mega groups but more often than not, they will be similar to that which we have now. Finishing in the top two confers nothing more than qualifying for the next free draw and so on.
With that kind of format, I could understand the prioritising of the Champions League above the domestic cups but that isn’t the format and I wonder if Arsène’s current list of targets is a bit arsenal about face. Finishing in the top four of the Premier League, yes, to maintain the status quo, to give the illusion of success, this is the priority in the modern game and to be honest, it won’t change now, it is too ingrained in the Premier League psyche to ever alter. Unless of course, UEFA change the qualifying requirements and then the shift in ‘success’ comes again.
After that, surely the notion of winning a competition takes precedent? This season’s FA Cup has shown what is possible and look at the welcome distraction it has provided to the problems besetting the Premier League campaign at the time. It left a feelgood factor around the place. The Champions League, if it goes well, could be prioritised higher when the two coincide in February and March time, adjusting as it has over the past couple of meetings with Bayern. The League Cup? The odd trophy every now and then never does anyone any harm and whilst the players value other competitions higher, when they count the medals once playing days are over they don’t ignore them, do they?
All the while top four finishes are achieved, it becomes a moot point but the Champions League leaves me cold at this moment in time. The monotony of high-spending clubs winning the tournament is never going to diminish, UEFA had the chance to curb that but blew it spectacularly knowing that it isn’t their ball so they cannot call the shots and nothing good will come from the situation remaining the same.