It’s the trophy that nobody except Arsenal wants to win. Another season, another challenger crumbles under pressure and in nip Arsène’s Men to take fourth place. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
Arsenal’s return to the top four was supposed to be temporary with Everton achieving a routine victory last night. Everyone assumed Palace were Puncheon above their weight in this bout but far from it, the win took them to the magical forty points total and assured their Premier League survival. As much as it sticks in the throat to say it, Pulis has done a good job in keeping them up without resorting to the rugby club tactics for which he is ‘famed’. I think they were safe anyway; thirty-six points will be enough given Norwich’s final four games. They will take three more, it’s up to Arsenal to make that gap irrelevant with three consecutive wins, starting on Sunday.
Palace weren’t the only winners last night with Manchester City dropping out of the title race. The scene is set for the destination of the title to be decided when the top two meet at Anfield in a week or so’s time. Until Vito Mannone’s blunder, fantasy football was taking over with dreams of third place rekindled as City lumbered their way around the pitch. The questions swirled, what if City lose at Everton as well, we could…, what exactly was never clear. City still have a vastly superior goal difference and a game in hand; even drawing level on points was not enough for Arsenal.
Dreaming isn’t bad, it’s an integral part of football but to think of anything higher than fourth? You might as well dream of the title and having led the way for the first half of the season, it is bitterly disappointing to be locked in a battle to achieve the same position as last season and relying on the same frailties, just from a different opponent. Of course it requires the Arsenal players to deliver and that is by no means certain. The signs are promising – by the standards of the last eight weeks, at least. Back-to-back wins have injected the missing self-belief back into the squad; tentatively, of course, and by no means is it the formality of an unbeaten end to the season as guaranteed as we tell ourselves but of Arsenal and Everton, the fixture list suggests it will take a Herculean effort for the latter to do so, especially as United, their next opponents, harbour vague ambitions of a top five finish. The slings and arrows of Premier League fortunes are not yet fully fired.
Winning is all that matters, something Wojciech Szczesny is acutely aware of,
“I will take four or five more games like that until the end of the season. As long as we get three points, it does not have to be beautiful. Before the four disappointing results we had recently, we were still in the title race. So it has slipped away from us but it is important for us to fight for the new challenge, which is the top four now. We are confident we are going to do the job.”
It encapsulates the season and I wonder how the players feel about where they find themselves now. Szczesny makes it clear that finishing as high as possible is the target and the FA Cup offers the chance for the medals they crave. Financially secure, it is more fun for them to look at medals and remember the good times when the playing days have come to an end. Will they look at this season and wonder if that was this was the one which got away? In some, in many, respects I hope they do because that introspection may offer them a better understanding of their contribution and how it could improve the team in the future; learning from your mistakes.
It is something Arsène touched on before the West Ham match. Talking about the desire to compete in the top competition, the Champions League is preferable to the Europa League and the manager pointed out that,
“You learn more by playing against Bayern or Barcelona or Real Madrid than if you play in the Europa League. You don’t go backwards but you want to play with the top teams“.
The theory is sound enough but only if you put those lessons into practice and whether Arsenal have is questionable when it comes to Champions League football. Recent seasons have seen the team habitually finish in second place in the groups and be drawn against the tournament favourites. Nothing they can do about the luck of the draw but that can be mitigated by winning the group, it generally offers the opportunity to play weaker teams, relatively speaking. The knockout phases have offered no respite, with the first leg of ties effectively ending Arsenal’s interest in the competition. This season was different, Wojciech Szczesny’s dismissal skewed the match in the favour of a team which doesn’t need that sort of help to win.
But where is the evidence that we have learned lessons from the group stages of previous years, where do we see that Arsenal have got to grips with the notion that coming first improves their chances of making it past the first knockout phase? The manner of the home defeat to Dortmund was no improvement on the same outcome against Schalke the season before. The perversity of Arsenal is such that they achieved creditable results in both return matches. Old habits die hard as the capitulation in Naples proved.
In 2005/06, it all came together for Wenger until the final when events conspired against Arsenal. The chances Thierry Henry did not take were the ones we expected him to and ten men were eventually undone. But the route to the final was a lesson in tactical astuteness that the manager has not replicated and not come anywhere near doing, either. You don’t go ten matches without conceding a goal through luck; it remains a marvellous achievement. It wasn’t all luck that saw Real Madrid and Juventus beaten; yes, there were moments in the second leg against the Spaniards when they might have equalised, the same is true of Villareal in the semi-final but Arsenal played well in five of those six matches and deserved their reward. Have those lessons been learned by the manager? It doesn’t appear so.
The personnel is different, squads evolved, devolved, rotated and disrupted. Arsenal play differently as well, the pendulum of tactics and style has swung back and forth over the years but that kind of cohesiveness in away matches is light years ahead of anything produced since. I can’t see the current vintage of players or manager achieving that again. It’s why dropping into the Europa League may not be as bad an option as is expounded. The level of competition is not as great and in that sense it could act as a confidence-boosting exercise for the club on European shores. If Arsenal took it seriously, resisted the temptation to field League Cup style sides, to gain the experience of winning knockout ties over two legs would be invaluable. If it is going to be treated as nothing more than a training exercise, field kids and be done. In fact, it would be better not to qualify for Europe in those circumstances, no lessons will be learned.
The problem is we take Champions League qualification for granted. Arsenal are good enough to do that, good enough to get through the group stage but is that the limit of ambition? Genuinely, is reaching the knockout phase as good as Arsenal will ever get?The received wisdom is that the best players in Europe want to play in the Champions League. Surely the best players want to have a chance of winning it, not just turn up every year to make up the numbers.
It is baffling that anyone cares about competing in a tournament where being knocked out as soon as the group phase is over, is the best that can be achieved. If that is the case, then is it anything more than a cash cow where supporters are there to be milked?