Arsène spoke recently about the changing face of Arsenal’s finances. Not specifically, more as a passing thought as he opined that the club wanted to qualify for the Champions League on sporting grounds. Arsenal want to play the best even if there is an inevitable exit from the competition in the Round of Sixteen.
Next season might be different. United, five points adrift, have a game in hand. They face champions-elect Leicester City this weekend with another trip to Upton Park to come. Tricky games but I would still expect a misfiring and dysfunctional United to take ten of the remaining twelve points on offer. Goal difference offers Arsenal an advantage but the pressure is on to take six points from our two remaining home games.
The Europa League, much derided as Spursday Night Football, is the spectre of failure hanging over the season which promised more. It’s the seed of discontent manifesting at the weekend but the growing problem facing Arsenal – and one to which they are a major contributor – is the relative failure of English teams in the Champions League in recent seasons. The club’s co-efficient is relatively consistent but with other clubs such as Manchester City and Sevilla improving, the chances of falling into the third rank of seeds increases.
Should we be scared of that? I don’t think so. Those above us in the rankings table include Chelsea who next season won’t be in the Champions League and in any case, we are now at a level where we are as capable of beating the likes of Dortmund and Benfica as we are losing to them in an away match. We’re not a team they will fear in the same way we won’t fear them; in other words, we’re not part of the élite.
Perhaps that’s our natural place in the scheme of things. As far as European records go, Arsenal’s is pretty woeful for a club our size and that rests not just with Arsène but all the managers since European competition began. Arsène carries his share for recent seasons, failing for the same reasons is unforgivable. We have gifted teams both better and worse than ourselves, victories in the home games through a failure to concentrate and poor finishing. You can’t progress if the basics are not in place.
If as Arsène observed recently with more than a hint of ‘you’ll miss me when I’m gone’, we may enter a spell of the fluctuating fortunes, the Europa League may become a regular haunt for us. It’s a misjudged competition with the Thursday night abuse of Tottenham a core reason.
If the club does drop to this level, it’s on sporting grounds. Not financially but how we fare on the pitch. Unlike now, I would expect them to take it seriously with the carrot of a Champions League place for the winner. Sevilla are doing so and are looking for a hat-trick of wins, again qualifying for the top table via the back door.
The point that is missed frequently is that teams at Arsenal’s level in Europe have used the Europa League as a stepping stone to better things. Since winning in 2012, Atletico have won the Super Cup, lost a Champions League final, won the Spanish league and are on course for the Champions League final once more. A learning curve for European competition and taking on board the lessons in winning trophies regularly.
Not just the players but their manager as well.
Diego Simeone though had, like Ronald Koeman, better get used to these heady days; it will all go wrong in the not too distant future. Being de rigueur among the list of contenders for the Arsenal job is a kiss of death. It went so bad for Owen Coyle, he ended up in Houston trying to escape the curse. It’s the managerial equivalent of celebrities looking for Aaron Ramsey’s name in the list of Arsenal goalscorers.
Whenever a name is mentioned, he is quickly disparaged. More often than not, the reasons are spurious, a way of diminishing a manager whose achievements outstrip Arsène’s recent record. The acrimony associated with defending or attacking Wenger spreads into any discussion about his replacements.
Sometimes the notions of a replacement are too left field to contemplate, even though the board are likely, I think, to throw a lesser light into the hotseat. Plenty ridiculed Gary Neville for his time at Valencia but think nothing of promoting the cause of Thierry Henry. The power of the legend is greater than the weakness of pundit turned inexperienced manager. Patrick Vieira’s learning his trade in New York and has been mentioned recently whilst Dennis Bergkamp is often cited as part of a dream team. Dreams can quite easily become nightmares.
Experience of a top flight European club will be the prerequisite the board surely applies and one which is managed sensibly; Jose Mourinho need not apply.
Whatever the case, fears that one set of fans will turn on the manager as readily as others will support him are, I think, wide of the mark. There will be pockets of resentment, aimed more at individuals than a genuine ill-will toward the manager, but this is football. Every other club goes through this ‘pain’ on a regular cycle, why are Arsenal immune to it? Why do, as if often cited, Arsenal have the right to avoid changing managers?
When it’s all brought back to basics, we’ve been tremendously lucky over the past twenty years. Arsène’s Golden Age brought us success we didn’t expect when he joined. And good football. Both have gone now, whether temporary or permanent, who knows?