Arsène spoke after the Montepellier match of his pride in the record of qualifying for the Champions League and progressing to the knockout stage for the 13th consecutive season. Indeed it is an outstanding achievement considering the fact that in only two of those seasons, Arsenal qualified for the competition itself as champions. That Arsenal as a club were able to participate identifies the paradox: The Champions League containing more teams who have not won the previous season’s domestic title in their homeland than have. Not particularly a league of champions, is it?
That is not Wenger’s fault. He did not make the rules and whilst his professionalism avariciously grasps the opportunity, the sentimental heart must equally be tinged with sadness that there is nothing magisterial about the tournament. Uefa created a money-making monster of which it has all but lost control hence their craven capitulation to the clubs when the question of international friendlies arose. Nothing will change, no looking back but as a tournament, it lacks that special feeling it had two decades ago.
Europe has long been the club’s Achilles Heel, Arsène’s as well. The consistency of qualification is a record to be proud of but overall, the performance when in the respective tournaments pales by comparison to his domestic achievements. Two losing finals in his tenure at the club seems scant reward for qualifying for either competition fifteen seasons in a row. Of course, there are clubs who during that time have not reached any finals but of those considered to be big clubs in the European game, Arsenal have amongst the poorest record with just a Fairs Cup and a Cup Winners Cup to show for their efforts.
Arguably club competitions came along two decades too late for Arsenal. The halcyon days of the 1930s had long passed when Hanot’s idea came to fruition. Equally, being The Establishment Club, it is not unreasonable to assume that Arsenal would have followed Chelsea’s lead and not entered the Champions Cup had they qualified in the 1950s. I doubt Chelsea thought they would have to wait another half-century for a second opportunity to participate following the board’s decision not to capitalise on their 1954-55 League title, not entering at the behest of the English footballing establishment.
Bertie Mee qualified for Europe in successive seasons (even if 1969-70 was via the back door), Neill did as well. George Graham suffered most with the ban on English clubs playing in Europe affecting more than half of his reign. Had it not been in place, the likelihood is that he would have qualified for club competition in every season of his tenure. As it is, Arsenal’s record under Arsène is unparalleled in the club’s history but the playing field is not level. Those who point to qualifying for the Champions League specifically never mention the change to the entry criteria laid down by Uefa. Had that not changed, been consistent with previous decades or bans rescinded, Graham would have been in the same category.
Despite those opportunities, he has never been able to bring home either of the trophies remaining. It is something which is noticeable by its absence on his CV. Wenger’s record is:
|2001-02||Champions League||2nd Group Phase|
|2002-03||Champions League||2nd Group Phase|
|2004-05||Champions League||2nd Round|
|2006-07||Champions League||2nd Round|
|2010-11||Champions League||2nd Round|
Arsenal have been eliminated by some good teams in this time; some distinctly average ones as well. When you look back, 2003-04 is surely the biggest regret. The semi-finals contained four of the weakest teams to have competed at that stage at any point in the tournaments history by comparison; the Champions League was there for the taking yet Arsenal contrived to lose to Chelsea at home. Paris was a heroic failure, a bittersweet taste of what might be. The problem for Arsène is that the elite clubs in Europe are investing heavily in chasing the dream and whilst they cannot all win it, insurmountable barriers are being erected in front of Arsenal. Perhaps the club’s true standing is in the top sixteen in Europe and no more?
A lot is said of the club lacking ambition, about fourth being the sum total of the desire for the season. Ambition strikes me as the wrong word but for the life of me, I am not sure which one to use in its place. Stating that all Arsenal want is to qualify for the Champions League is incorrect; that is the minimum expectation which is why achieving that is not heralded by supporters in the same way that the manager likes to publicly but privately, his disappointment will be deeper. Yes, we’ve been spoiled but when you achieve something regularly, it is not longer a treat but a benchmark set by previous performance. When you achieve the minimum, people naturally want more, expect progression. Will that come in Europe whilst domestic achievements stagnate? It is hard to make that case but such is the perversity of professional sport, it would be of no surprise if this season’s Arsenal went one further than their equally unsung 2006 predecessors.