Despite the day since, Tuesday night’s defeat continues to rankle. Arsenal were masters of their own downfall and suffered through the same errors we have seen time and again on European fields. It’s hard to work out why the most Eurocentric of all English club managers, has never mastered the art of playing these competitions. You would have thought that two decades at Arsenal and a few years at Monaco, would have given Arsène an almost unparalleled knowledge of what is required to win these games. If it has, he masks it well.
His sides habitually lack the discipline needed and comments from victorious opponents always carry the same theme about disciplined defending from themselves and exploiting the spaces Arsenal leave because they “don’t want to defend” as Tuesday’s match winner, Alfred Finnbagson put it. You could substitute his name for any number of players from the last few years and beyond.
Arsène seems bereft of ideas, resigned to his fate on Tuesday. The enduring image of that night for me is the look of angered helplessness beside Steve Bould with his hands clasped to the side of his head. A penny for their thoughts wouldn’t rake much money for either. They made no attempt to hide their frustration.
In some cases it’s blind optimism, in others bravado but the reality is that Arsenal need nine points from four games to claim second place, beating both Dinamo and Olympiakos by two goals just for added security. Can you see that happening? It isn’t unbelievable but defeat at home to Bayern puts them under immense pressure to claim even the Europa League spot.
Many think that being eliminated from Europe will be a blessing in disguise, allowing Arsenal to concentrate on winning the Premier League title. There is no evidence to suggest that Arsenal will respond that positively to a hammer blow for their confidence. You can never be sure how this squad will react after defeat. A European exit could as easily spark an unbeaten run as more stumbling around in the dark.
It’s interesting that the prospect of a Europe-less season is more appealing than competing in the Europa League. It’s largely an Anglocentric view and one born of arrogance. Two decades of the Champions League has left the junior competition with an image problem at Arsenal, an even bigger one that it has in English football. The Spanish, Sevilla in particular, love the competition. So do the Portuguese, even if their clubs seem to lose finals more than they win them. English clubs?
That the previous two finalists before Chelsea’s win in 2013 were Fulham and Middlesbrough shows how lightly supposedly bigger clubs take the tournament. No Liverpool or Tottenham in the final for fifteen years or more? That view hasn’t changed with addition of a Champions League place for the winner. You would think those clubs would go all out to win the Europa League as it represents a better opportunity for them to participate in the top competition. No, it’s treated contemptuously as they vainly pursue their course to bang their heads on the glass ceiling in the Premier League table.
Perhaps English football needs to lose its fourth Champions League spot to give the Europa League a PR boost on these shores? From where the club stands, the dismissive attitude among supporters misses one fact. Arsenal are at the level where they should be competing seriously to win it. Wenger went close in his only attempt in 2000 and the list of recent finalists shows teams who, on the pitch at least, are Arsenal’s peers.
Too many years in the pot for first seeds has given a falsely inflated view of where we are in Europe. Financially rich, comfortably in the second tier in money terms, we have been impoverished on European pitches in a sporting sense. Far from building toward a tilt at winning the Champions League, the last few seasons have seen Arsenal heading toward this season’s scenario. Napoli were one goal from sending us into the Europa League two seasons ago and our home form has rescued many a group campaign. Now it stands on the verge of sending us out.
United’s recent financial results showed the impact of no European football. Swiss Ramble recently estimated that the club lost £46m in revenue in their season out of the Champions League. That’s more than Arsenal would lose but indicative of the size of the hole. The Europa League won’t fill that gap but it offers the opportunity of mitigation if it is taken seriously.
There’s the rub. I don’t think Arsène would take the view. The board might but ultimately they are too weak to question the manager, to issue an edict which states he has to go all out to win the trophy. My suspicion is that Wenger would view the Europa League as little more than the League Cup.
This season’s failed Champions League rotation policy underlines how he is struggling at the moment to manage the squad through playing two games a week. With more games to navigate through, there is ample evidence to suggest he would need to rotate significantly through the group stage in the Europa League as he focusses on his primary objective of a Premier League title challenge. If / When – delete as you feel appropriate – that falls apart, will he rue his team selection in Zagreb? Perhaps that will come earlier, if / when Arsenal exit the Champions League at the group stage.
Failure, it seems, is an option.