If it wasn’t for this summer’s European Championships, you know that the only interest that Arsenal’s players would have in Europe was either planning their summer holidays or which club they wanted to play for. Quite honestly, if you want Champions League football, sign for Arsenal. If you want a decent shot at winning the competition, looking elsewhere for a club is probably the best idea.
I think Özil and Sanchez both admitted they wanted Champions League football and found that a plus point from their point of view, but no mention ever made of an ambition to win the trophy. They know Arsenal’s record, I am sure they know Arsène’s as well.
There are two distinct phases of European football in Arsène’s reign. The build-up and the let-down. The former covered the glory years and whilst some, the man himself included, might argue that qualifying for the Champions League every season for the ten years since is impressive, Arsenal’s European performances have been anything but.
Quite simply, the club has built it’s balance sheet to improve their standing without keeping up on the pitch. It’s no different at home but there’s a tangible sense that we could be better in the Premier League. With the right additions – who aren’t fantasy footballers – we might actually do quite well. Yes, I know we always seem that far away but there’s a sense progress could be made if the drive, the will was there.
The same can’t be said of European football.
It wasn’t always that way. You have to give Arsène his due; as the club became more experienced, Arsenal learned from defeats and exits. Slowly sometimes but the lessons were taken on board.
The culmination came in Paris where the platform was built and waiting to be taken to the next level. It was a stereotypical path to the final; no goals conceded at home and tight performances away from Highbury. The bonus of no goals conceded away from home was unusual, indeed exceptional. We expected to qualify from the group but winning in the Bernabeu?
We rode our luck in the home leg but you have to in the course of any cup campaign and we can only wonder how things might have turned out had Riquelme struck a better penalty. He didn’t and we don’t really care; Arsenal were in Paris, a place seemingly reserved in the VIP area of UEFA’s restaurant.
The defensive record was astonishing and never close to being repeated by Arsenal. Were the combination of Lehmann, Eboue, Toure, Senderos and Flamini better than Cech, Bellerin, Mertesacker, Koscielny and Monreal? For a fleeting few games, evidently yes. As individuals? No. There had to some education, some training which was more effective for that quintet than their modern peers. What is was, god alone knows and frankly he’s not telling Arsène because he hasn’t been able to replicate anything like that consistency since.
The demise though was slow and painful, barely perceptible. When Cristiano Ronaldo buried us in 2009; how were we to know that the home leg capitulation would be the last time we would even genuinely be in contention for the semi-finals, let alone the final itself.
If you get into arguments with people now about anything, the answer invariably ends up recoiling into how The Emirates curbed spending yet we readily forget that the excuse doesn’t truly hold water.
PSV aside, I don’t hold many regrets for the European campaigns immediately after the move from Highbury. Some but when you face a team from your own nation, logic goes out the window as some of Europe’s élite will attest. Liverpool and United knocking us out? Not really that surprising given the squads at the time. There’s something more visceral in an all-English tie, something Arsenal have never got to grips with. We haven’t adapted the second leg in those situations.
With Arsenal since 2009, it’s been something more naïve. We’ve exited to some fabulously talented teams; Bayern and which incarnation that Barcelona put in front of us. How can we argue with defeats to excellent XI’s? In isolation, I’m not sure you can.
Bayern weren’t scary the second time around; we fancied our chances. Officiating and an abysmal penalty later, we underestimate how good Arsenal might have been. We’ll never know in truth; our naïvety was punished. Still, I recall that Steve Williams conceded a penalty at York soon after scoring; Mesut, like Willow, I love you. In the platonic, footballing, head-locked ‘love you like a brother’ kind of way.
But it isn’t the big defeats per se which worry me. I’m more concerned by the repetitive nature of the flaws, of the overwhelming naïvety. The standard of the opposition is no boundary for the levels to which we stoop.
You can’t blame the manager for everything. He’s not on the pitch when the blinds are pulled down on sanity and we lose all footballing sense. To a certain extent that is. When the mistakes happen over several years – half a decade – there’s something more deep-seated than player naïvety at the root of the problem. The message isn’t getting through and for that Arsène is culpable.
Three times in the last three paragraphs I’ve used the word ‘naïvety’. It’s the recurring theme of the post and the root of our problems in European competition. And we show no signs of learning from those mistakes. The cash excuse for me, doesn’t hold water. The first four seasons at The Emirates were a continuation of the previous decade, performance-wise. We’ve regressed since 2009, by quite some way with no sign of improvement.
Laurent Blanc has a point. He spoke yesterday in defence of the perception that Ligue Un, like La Liga, is nowhere near as competitive as the Premier League. If it’s so good, he wondered, why has just one team made it through to the last eight? More competitive doesn’t mean better quality.
I honestly can’t see that, even with a summer of heavy investment such as the one we need, that the gap will close on the pitch to Barcelona. They are the only ones whom I don’t think we can match if the will was there. #
It’s not about comparing individuals, it’s about the team, the squad as a whole. About having the right teamwork instilled in minds, knowing the flaws and working collectively to cover them. For seventy minutes, we match Barcelona in that sense but missed a vital chance and lost concentration. Falling short, that would be the epitaph for Arsenal’s Champions League record. Always falling short.
Will that ever change?