Tuesday’s match against Dinamo was the fiftieth at The Emirates. You’re familiar with the permutations of victory needed in Greece next month to reach the next round, as well as the sentiment that we’ll win but fall a goal short. It’s the Arsenal way in Europe.
Beating the Croats this week ensured Arsenal will be playing European football of some sort next February, with the Europa League still a distinct possibility. The lovechild of two competitions from a bygone age, it is football’s sullen teenage child that refuses to come out of its room. The butt of a thousand jokes and only made appealing by the prospect of a place in the following season’s Champions League for the winner.
Arsène have been here before and ended up losing the 2000 final to Galatasaray. Since then it’s been renamed, with ‘Spursday’. All this because of its big brother’s money-making abilities. Europe’s premier tournament is the place to be seen in the footballing world. There are more non-champions taking part.
The best players in the world want to be in it, wouldn’t be seen dead anywhere else. The best players won’t sign for Arsenal if we aren’t in it. The tale was told and quickly took hold. But for the best, being “in it” means trying to win it. If it’s that important, are Arsenal’s ambitions in the transfer market below that level? Are we not looking for the ‘best’ players or is it a case of finding the ‘best players we can’, hamstrung not by money but by ability and ambition.
The top four in English football was always the Promised Land and remains so. Dropping out for a season was unthinkable; “if we don’t finish in the top four, we would never get back into it” was the mantra. “We’ll end up like Spurs or Liverpool!”
It’s rubbish of course, the last refuge of those who don’t change of any sort. Nothing is that certain in football.
Aiming for the top four inspires nothing more than finishing in the top four; it’s the graveyard of ambition. An admirable consistency on the one hand but monotonous. Angst-fuelled late surges into the top four broke the cycle in some ways, providing an edge to the end of the season.
It remains the gateway to the group stage although the current trend for English clubs to be frankly awful in Europe means the top four may not be enough in coming years. I am sure that somewhere in UEFA’s marketing wing, a suit has worked out how English clubs will retain their fourth spot so that the most lucrative TV market on the continent is not diminished.
That’s my point of view, one supporter’s perspective. Empty seats at The Emirates didn’t surprise me, nor did the extent of it. Social media was awash with spares beforehand, for sale at FV or less. It wasn’t a surprise considering how badly this group stage has turned out, how low expectations are.
It begs the question whether the Champions League is that much of a selling point to prospective players? Arsenal have developed a tendency to exit in the first knockout round, another season of that and the club’s ‘level’ in Europe becomes set in people’s mind. A top sixteen club on the pitch, not matching their financial status.
Do players pay much attention to it? It’s part of the package but the money and prospect of living in London, playing in English football are more appealing, more important, a higher priority. The Champions League is attractive for those whose clubs rarely play in it, a chance to experience what the fuss is all about. If it’s already part of your calendar…is the Round of Sixteen that attractive?
In that sense, dropping into the Europa League may be a handy distraction for Arsène. Fall into the Europa League and it’s easy to portray this as the result of an injury-plagued campaign lost against drug-addled opponents. Cheats prospered and we were relegated. Early exit? We concentrated our best efforts on the Premier League: “We didn’t win it of course, and this is why I am signing this fine player.”
I can’t see the mirrors for all the smoke.
But, and here is the rub, as much as I dislike the competition, I still want them to win it. It’s there to be won, even if only twelve clubs have competed in the last ten finals. It’s been more varied in recent years as Dortmund, Juventus and Atletico broke the mould, offered a tantalising prospect of what might be. In another Arsenal lifetime, perhaps; not this one.
The Champions League is more successful that the Champions Cup, only in the sense that it makes more money. Too many routine matches fill the group stage and interest in the competition intensifies as Arsenal exit. Would a knockout tournament work any more? Not for the money men, certainly. From a footballing perspective, it still lent itself to patterns of dominance by a club but luck of the draw played a bigger part. We can’t have that any more, the old order must be preserved in this new world.
Scarred by previous campaigns? Yes, it seems we’ve peaked in terms of European football. Nothing of note in the last five years, achieving the par of the quarter-finals not once. That’s the price for finishing second in winnable groups and until that cycle is broken, things are not going to improve.
Still, at least we’re consistent.