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Why the Champions League Trophy Is Out Of Reach For Arsenal

 Why the Champions League Trophy Is Out Of Reach For Arsenal

After the Tuesday night defeat in the Champions League at the hands of Lionel Messi and a sublime performance from Barcelona, Arsenal supporters are at a crossroads and have an important decision to make. Do they want beautiful football or do they want to win trophies? It’s as simple as that.

If they want to win trophies, I honestly believe that Arsene Wenger is no longer the man for the job. He’s an astute fellow who has an incredible eye for finding young talented footballers and grooming them into world-class players. And he’s completely modernized the game of football in England by bringing in the best of continental football. But when it comes down to making a decision between having his footballers play the beautiful brand of football that his team is renowned for, or changing his tactics and being more cautious in the way his team goes into a game, the man is stubborn. He always picks the same predictable, but beautiful, option.

That’s fine when you’re playing the likes of Blackburn Rovers and weaker European clubs in the Champions League. But when Arsenal faces better teams such as Manchester United, Barcelona, Chelsea or others who have more riches and more experience, Arsenal’s one-dimensional and predictable style of play will almost always lose.

There are only two ways to beat Barcelona. One is to beat them at their own game. The other is to stop them from playing their game and hope you can salvage a narrow victory. In the case of trying to beat Barcelona at their own game, you have to play better than them. And in the case of Arsenal, no matter how gifted the players are and how many injuries they had, the club is and will not be better than Barcelona.

As Wenger said Tuesday night, “But in the end, if you look at the whole game, they were a better team and deserved to win.”

Over the course of the two legs, I actually thought that Arsenal played much better in the second leg than the first one. In the game at the Emirates, Arsenal was fortunate that Almunia was able to make some critical saves to limit Barcelona to only two goals.

So if you’re not able to beat Barcelona at their own game, the only other option to beat Josep Guardiola’s side is to prevent them from playing their game. This is the option that Wenger stubbornly refuses to stoop down to, but it was the one that would have given the Gunners the best chance of winning over the two legs. Allowing Lionel Messi to roam free and have so much space on Tuesday night was criminal and was only going to spell trouble for Arsenal.

An example of a team that was able to go to the Nou Camp in the Champions League in recent years and win, and then eek out a second leg result to knock Barcelona out of the Champions League was Liverpool. Yes, Rafa Benitez’s Liverpool in 2007 who beat Barcelona 2-1 at the Camp Nou with a team featuring no Fernando Torres. Liverpool hung on for victory by scoring goals by John Arne Riise and Craig Bellamy, and then playing extremely defensively and withstanding Barcelona’s attacks.

Sure, the Liverpool side of this season is awful in comparison to the 2007 side who went all the way to the final only to lose to AC Milan. But Benitez was a master tactician in the way that he controlled his players to cut off the opposing team’s attacks and then break on the counter in the hopes of grabbing a winner.

For Wenger, it seems as if that style of play is beneath him and breaks the formula he so stubbornly holds on to.

In order for Arsenal to win silverware in Europe, the club must be able to adapt to opponents and play a different style of play when necessary. In the Premier League, it’s a different story because the clubs ahead of the Gunners aren’t light years better such as Barcelona. Plus, it’s a very long season and even if Arsenal loses the matches against Chelsea and Manchester United, the club still has a chance to win the title. Having said that, Arsenal would prosper more in the Premier League if the team was able to play a more controlled style of play in either the matches against the Big Four or in tough matches with lesser opposition when it needs to hold on for a 1-0 victory such as the team almost did against Birmingham City recently.

Let me finish by saying that I’m a massive admirer of the work that Arsene Wenger and his Arsenal players have done. Tuesday night I was very impressed by Diaby’s performance in the first half, and Clichy’s performance in the second half. Both footballers were playing out of their skin and putting everything into the game. But even with those two professionals trying their hardest, Arsenal had a mountain to climb because Wenger tried to do the impossible which was to beat Barcelona at Barca’s game. Arsenal is good and attractive to watch. But they’re not that good.

About Christopher Harris

Founder and publisher of World Soccer Talk, Christopher Harris is the managing editor of the site. He has been interviewed by The New York Times, The Guardian and several other publications. Plus he has made appearances on NPR, BBC World, CBC, BBC Five Live, talkSPORT and beIN SPORT. Harris, who has lived in Florida since 1984, has supported Swansea City since 1979. He's also an expert on soccer in South Florida, and got engaged during half-time of a MLS game. Harris launched EPL Talk in 2005, which was rebranded as World Soccer Talk in 2013. View all posts by Christopher Harris →
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35 Responses to Why the Champions League Trophy Is Out Of Reach For Arsenal

  1. aaaaa says:

    well written gaff, coming from an arsenal fan

  2. sucka99 says:

    Two reasons that I disagree:
    * Half our first choice players were injured
    * Messi has made a lot of other teams look average this season

    Other than that, I agree that parking the bus after the Bentdner goal might have been a good strategy. Not one that would have won that game, but maybe one that might have gotten us to halftime.

    • Josh says:

      I agree with you sucka99, If we had just Gallas and Song instead of Silvestre and Denilson, I think we do much better in all honesty. I don’t think marking Messi does anything but create space for their striker, as that’s exactly what happened when Vermaelan did it in the first leg.

      Also, while I agree we aren’t the best at killing a game off, I hardly consider the fluke goal off of Phillips’ face at Birmingham to be a good example

      Other than that, I largely agree, but I do think that the year we don’t lose most of our team to injury is the year Wenger wins a trophy on his terms. The problem is that it may never happen.

  3. Wan says:

    Agreed. Coming from an Arsenal fan.

    Owh and what Arsenal is lacking is that they do not have that much experienced players. Hopefully Wenger will start buying some good players when the transfer season opens.

    • ruffneckc says:

      This won’t happen. Unless the financial situation has changed for the better this year, we won’t be buying any experienced players except Chamak. In addition, the injury situation will not improve until Arsenal gets a new medical team or resign Gary Lewin!

      • Mark says:

        Shows how much you know about Arsenal. Gary Lewin hasn’t been the physio at the club for at least a couple of years.

        My view is that Wenger is the man for the job. Arsenal are closer than ever to winning a trophy and it could still happen this season. This team has clearly improved in comparison to last year. They’ve displayed tenacity and mental strength. Regarding last night’s match. We were missing five key players. Over the two legs we were not the better team obviously, but we fought our way back in the first leg and at least scored in the Nou Camp and put in a much better overall performance than last week.

        This team is not far away. Maturity, more experience and a growing belief will see this team under Wenger go to triumph and shut all the critics up.

  4. mahesh says:

    the game was open. after the bendtner goal in the 19th minute diaby had a glorious chance to make a perfect pass for either walcott or bendtner.. had that been a goal it was a completely different game . i believe it is of no use giving excuses of injuries, mistakes,etc.
    the league crown is not in our hands completely. i would rather give wenger one final season cause the players have grown in stature, character, maturity and next year is their make or break year. we all have seen the improvement from previous year. its time to keep faith.
    i think arsenal will be champions if not this season the next season for sure!!

  5. Brian says:

    I concur up to the point where you say Arsene Wenger is not the man for the job.

    Two things:
    1) I don’t know why Arsenal always seems to lose its best players to injury. Injuries happen, certainly, but they seem to happen to Arsenal’s best players every season. RVP has missed significant parts of the last two seasons. Cesc has missed key fixtures in both as well. But what’s most frustrating is the games they lose to muscle pulls and strains, many of which are picked up in training.

    2) Arsenal also has to stop acting like its Southampton and letting other clubs raid it for its talent, then replacing it with teenagers. In the next two seasons, the team will enter an era of having Ramsey, Wilshere, Walcott and Fabregas in key positions, with Chamahk (supposedly) coming this summer. But at some point, the young core of the team has to be allowed to come together. Wenger can’t continue to sell guys off as they become stars. I think has to do whatever it takes to keep Fabregas for at least the next two seasons to see out this young team’s potential. (It can be done. Chelsea stars are rumored to be heading elsewhere every summer, and always wind up back at Stamford Bridge. I’d bet its cheaper to pay higher wages to your players than pay exorbitant transfer fees).

    • Jordan Acker says:

      I think this is a great point. Wenger’s transfer policies have been terrible. He has let a number of players walk by not offering them high enough contracts. The cheapness needs to stop, now. If he has the money..spend it!!

    • Jake Islas says:

      Great point, Brian. Wenger does a fantastic job of developing young talent, but then let’s them go. He finds the diamonds in the rough or the super young guys, develops them, then shows the world how good they are and then let’s other big clubs come pick them out.

  6. bluemeiner says:

    very true and agreed on the well written part. but it’s kind of hard to see any team in the epl being able to beat barcelona anymore regardless of tactics employed unless there is controversial officiating. chelsea and united are getting too old (although united probably has an advantage in that they can probably just buy 3-4 players to properly restock and be at that competitive again). arsenal and liverpool lack the money. man city seemingly needs 3-5 years to get organized enough to compete at that level regardless of financing. there are no other epl teams close to the level required to beat barcelona even with bad officiating. isn’t it ok for arsenal to make a champions league run and compete for the title every year even if they don’t take a trophy? they stick to their principles and are competitive every year. they have stability and financial sensibility. they are a model. the only truly off-putting thing about arsenal is their sometimes sanctimonious nature.

  7. Jon says:

    Gaffer,

    If presented with the Hobson’s Choice that you’ve given here, which is either to play beautiful football or win trophies, I, for one, would rather play beautiful football. I love Arsenal because they are a joy to watch. Because they produce moments of the sublime. Because they aspire to plat football as it should be played. It is not all about winning, at least from my perspective as a fan and supporter, and the fact that so few fans have the patience and foresight to see that Arsenal’s style revolution is an ongoing process of development is extraordinarilty frustrating.

    But more importantly, Gaffer, I fundamentally disagree that the choice you’ve presented is the only option. It is not a matter of choosing to play beautiful football OR win trophies. They are not mutually exclusive, and I would think one needed no further evidence of that than the Barcelona team that just played Arsenal off the pitch. No one says to Barcelona you must choose between your beautiful football and trophies. Barca wins trophies BECAUSE of its style of football.

    I agree that Arsenal are not there yet. I agree that it might take further investment in the youth system as well in the crop of current players, and that Barcelona has bought recognized superstars in a way that Arsenal has not. But that does not mean that you cannot win trophies with the right mix of players playing the beautiful passing football that Arsenal or Barcelona play. You most definitely can. In fact, not only can one win, it produces the most dominant footballing sides in the world. So I fundamentally disagree that it is an “either or” choice as you’ve presented it.

    It is simply that Arsenal’s project is not complete, and should not be judged on the basis that it is. Barcelona has been investing in its youth academy and focussed on its style of play since Cruyff was manager. That’s much much longer than Wenger has had to produce and mold his players. They have had time to mature players from their academy like Xavi, Iniesta, and Messi, to name but a few. Arsenal’s squad last night averaged between 22-23 years of age. One cannot expect Arsenal to play the same level of talent that Barca has had a longer time to develop, that is manifestly unfair.

    Viewed as a longer term project of 15 years or so in which we are currently in year 7 or 8, Arsenal’s future at BOTH winning trophies and playing beautiful football is quite bright from where I sit. When Song, Diaby, Fabregas, Walcott, Ramsey, Wilshere, Bendtner, and Van Persie have played together and developed together for 3-4 more years, we’ll have the same chemistry and ability that Barcelona is producing now. And if we don’t ONLY then would I be prepared to address the project as a whole and ajudge it a failure or a success.

    So Gaffer, in summary: I will take beautiful and competitive but ultimately losing football over boring victory if I have to, but I reject the very idea that I have to in the first place.

    Cheers,

    Jon

  8. footballer says:

    I can’t believe that after seeing Barcelona playing great football for the last two seasons and winning, we still have to hear this debate. Never, I was happier than the day Chelsea was eliminated by Barca last season. I thought that would end the debate, I guess I was wrong.

    • bluemeiner says:

      the chelsea barca match was a coin flip and either side would have been understandably disappointed to not go through. that match stated that you can play either way and be competitive provided you have great tactics and the money/infrastructure to house great players. presumably we have known this for a long time? not sure it said anything about teams that lack the god-like qualities of iniesta, puyul, messi, xavi et al

    • The Gaffer says:

      Footballer, I’m not saying that Arsenal should play like Chelsea did in their semi-final against Barcelona last year. But I think Arsenal needs to find a balance between playing beautiful football and being more defensively minded. It is possible to do both. Manchester United has exemplified that in previous seasons.

      Cheers,
      The Gaffer

      • bluemeiner says:

        is manchester united still a fair comparison? they win the league more than half the time. they have oodles of income, a lengthy pedigree, the most successful coach in recent english football history, a huge sold-out stadium, an affluent and loyal fan base, the biggest profile in england, stable infrastructure (if unwanted ownership), one of the more successful academies in european football (and the money to retain their players)… it’s a fluke when anybody in england wins other than man u. of the teams that are not manchester united, arsenal has been arguably the most successful of the english teams in the premiership era and they have done it with the least resources and the most class. they have been quite close to winning the CL at that. i can’t imagine why arsenal would risk their identity for a fluke trophy. they are a model of quality and need only be commended

  9. Bull Mountain Gunner says:

    I’ll take entertaining football over trophys any day. Yes Arsenal will almost always eventually be knocked out of the Champions League and so will everybody else regardless of their style of football.

  10. b says:

    So Barcelona, the consensus best team in the world, beats Arsenal, a team of 21 year olds missing their captain, their striker, their best forward and one of two central defenders and you think Arsene Wenger can never win the Champions League? That’s some interesting logic.

    Let’s remember, Mr. Wenger was in a final just two years ago and, with a 10 man side, only lost on an offside goal. Let’s also remember that this same Barcelona team beat the shit out of Manchester United last year in the final. Is Alex Ferguson not the man to bring trophies to Man U now?

    Sure, Barcelona is a better team. But nothing else that you conclude from that statement follows.

    • Point missed says:

      Injuries and age, what a lame excuse. Every club has to deal with injuries and Wenger chose to go with youth. Barcelona has been hit hard by injuries and has used youth players – they just do a better job at handling both. If you noticed, that wasn’t Barca’s first string CB pairing. Wenger’s failure (at least his current one) centers on his stubbornness, e.g., not having adequate backups in place (he’s cheap, or frugal for you Gunner fans). Chelsea has depth in almost every position as do Barcelona and the other “big” clubs. ManU is struggling right now because they don’t have enough Midfielders or Strikers due to injury. And for the record, I’d rather Arsenal play “beautiful” football than win, too. But I am not a Gunners fan!

      • b says:

        I’m not making an excuse. I said, straight up, Barcelona is a better team. I’m saying it’s quite a leap to go from this defeat to “Arsene can never win the Champion’s League” when this wasn’t really Arsene’s full team.

        And sure, lack of depth is part of Arsenal’s problem. But hardly a philosophical flaw.

  11. Eric says:

    I’m a fairly new Arsenal fan and I always here that they don’t have money to spend on buying players, but why? Doesn’t Arsenal have a new stadium with a ton of fans? This year I believe they sold about $40 million in players and only bought about $10-15 million. Where does that money go? I’ve also seen reports on this website showing that Arsenal over the last several years has broken even on transfer fees. If that is true what do they do with all the money they are making from tv, champ. league, advertising, and ticket sales? I think they have the money, but the owners are just socking it away.

    Please inform me if this isn’t the case. I just don’t understand why all these other teams can buy players, but for some reason Arsenal can not. And yes I know most of the other teams have a bunch of debt, but Arsenal seems to be running a surplus, so they should be able to buy.

    • Jon says:

      Eric,

      It is not that Arsenal cannot buy – they can. It is that Wenger and the Board have policies on player purchases and, more importantly, wages, that restrict the choice of who they will purchase.

      First, Arsenal do have a new stadium which has massively increased revenue streams. But that stadium was debt-financed, so the club does have sizeable debts to pay. The stadium helps pay the debts by having revenue available for servicing the debt, but it is not like the owners are “socking the money away”. Surpluses at year end can be used to service debt on the stadium.

      Secondly, a major expense that almost everyone overlooks when they compare transfer fees are wages. Transfer fees do not exist ina vacuum, where you buy a player and that’s all he cost. A transfer fee is just what he cost to buy another player from a team. You still have to agree a contract and wages under that contract. Over the last year, Arsenal have signed lmost all their young players to new long-term contracts. That represents a large increase in wages, since players like Diaby, Bendtner, Denilson, and Ramsey will make more as they renew and their careers develop. Just because you make a net profit on the transfer market does not mean you are making that much money to buy more players with. It can be reinvested in the players you already have.

      Lastly, Arsenal have a policy to keep themselves on solid fiscal ground. They do not buy players whose wage demands are more than 80,000 a week. So, for example, regardless of the fee, they are unlikely to buy Joe Cole. His wages are more than 100,000 a week, unless he agrees to less. It would be for this reason that they would not buy Ribery, even if they could afford the transfer fee. It is more than one player as well – if you break the wage structure for one player, the others will want it broken for them. So even if you said “Ribery is an exception, we will pay only him 100,000 a week” what do you do when Fabregas comes up for renewal? Or Vermaelen? That “one exception” can break the wage structure at the club. Furthermore, the club does not buy players that are unlikely to sign for long term deals, and they do not sign older players, since they don’t offer long term deals to players over 30. They do not often spend more than 10 million on a player, because generally players above that value mark are overpriced over the long term (you might get a good year or two, but not four or five from a player you sign in his late prime. You want to sign a player just on the cusp of a breakthrough).

      So, it is not that Arsenal cannot buy. They can. It is that they do not choose to buy because they have policies that control the urge to splash out the cash. I support those policies. They keep Arsenal young, financially sound, and competitive. It is because of that restraint that Arsenal will be able to compete in the Premier League for years to come and not go through the boom and bust cycle of teams that do not have that kind of long term vision.

      Cheers,

      Jon

    • Eric Altshule says:

      This is not accurate. Wenger buys. Over the past four years, he has bought Vermaelen, Nasri, Arshavin, Sagna, Ramsey, Song, Denilson and Eduardo and acquired Gallas in the trade with Chelsea. To say that Wenger only relies on his academy for new talent is to be almost entirely wrong.

      The difference is that Wenger buys smart, and does not waste money buying giant names. He is a shrewd spotter of talent and buys before their reputation overprices them in the transfer market. I have written about this before on the website at http://epltalk.com/arsene-wenger%E2%80%99s-moneyball-strategy/12292

      On the larger economic issue, it is really remarkable how Arsenal have managed to keep their financial nose above water in this economy, build a new stadium, and still field winning teams. In this era where for the first time an EPL team (Portsmouth)has gone into administration, another (Liverpool)is looking at a financial abyss, another (Manchester United) has taken on a massive debt load, and two (Chelsea and Manchester City) would be long gone were it not for the fact that their owners are rich enough to shrug off losing £50-100 per year, the fact that Arsenal has turned a profit is an amazing thing. Arsenal’s management is truly enlightened in this regard.

      • bluemeiner says:

        agreed.

      • Jon says:

        Totally right Eric (Altshule). I didn’t mean my comment to be saying that Arsenal do not buy players at all and rely only on the academy. As you say, that’s manifestly untrue. I meant address Eric’s (the other Eric) comment on Arsenal not buying – by which I think he meant how come we do not buy “big” players like laying out 35 million for a David Villa or 20 million for a Torres. You are dead on that he has purchased players, and totally within the model I tried to lay out above, which you describe as “buying smart”.

        Cheers,

        Jon

  12. ovalball says:

    As a Fulham fan I would be thrilled to death to have Arsenal’s “losing” record.

    Keep at it boys.

  13. Sacto Blues says:

    I’m confused did some of the bloggers mean that they would rather see a couple of great goals and lose 5-2 or 6-3 than win a trophy or a game 2-0 or 1-0 ?

  14. Ryan says:

    Gaffer,

    Generally love the website, but as an Arsenal fan, this post really chaps my ass, and frankly, is wrong.

    Arsenal could never afford Ibra, Messi, Xavi, Iniesta, nor most other players on Barcelona. Period. Arsenal can afford, and have chosen to spend money on, players that are just below the top tier, with the idea that Wenger can get the most out of them.

    Arsenal (and most other teams) cannot afford the transfer fees and more importantly, the wages, of these players. Arsene has said a thousand times he’s choosing to go with younger and cheaper players until Arsenal’s debt is paid off.

    Barcelona have massive debt which they show no intent to pay off (as to Chelsea, United, Madrid, Inter, etc.). Arsene has chosen to try to make the club financially sound and recognized that football is a BUSINESS. Period.

    Wenger made the bet that young and/or second-tier players (and those raised within the system), given good health and a bit of luck, could win things. He lost that bet- but let’s not pretend that Arsenal can afford the quality that Barcelona and their ilk can. Those expenditures, by and large, determine who’s got the best players, and in turn, who’s going to win.

  15. RVP Fan says:

    “Do they want beautiful football or do they want to win trophies?”

    Gaffer, love your post generally but this particular phrase just kills me man. Mind you, Arsenal have won trophies before playing football of the highest order, beautiful fluent passing moves that mesmerises us all. I admire Guardiola and Barcelona’s philosophy because it matches Wenger’s. And they are winning trophies with playing such wonderful football. We, as an Arsenal fan should set our standards as high as Barcelona. We would like to win trophies at any cost, but without going away from the core principle that Wenger and Arsenal adheres too. I know we can do it. I know we will come back strong next season, with all our healthy players and win trophies. This team is developing every passing game, and just because we got thrashed by Barcelona does not necessarily mean we are not going to win trophies with this team. Barca showed us what beautiful passing fluent football can bring. Tophies and loads and loads of football loving fans like we all. Cheer up Gaffer, Love Wenger and Love our style of play.

  16. ArsenalFanatic says:

    I wish wenger would read all the comments that the arsenal fans have written, maybe itll give him a change of heart, maybe . .

  17. boringarsenal says:

    I’m afraid that I agree with you, Gaffer. I find Wenger’s approach sadly lacking. I found myself during the second leg at Nou Camp, wondering if the likes of even Big Sam Allardyce would bring more vigor to Arsenal’s squad.
    And you can forget the Premiership; all of our injuries and Wenger’s intransigence will be of no help.

  18. Gedo says:

    Ryan, I’m with you on this one. We built a massive stadium and have decided to remain prudent with our funds. We have not overspent to offset the possibly of not gaining the Champions League revenue. We are servicing our debt and are not overspending on players. This has a cost though as we require organic growth vs. the quick fix. Look at all the top teams, Manu, Chelsea, Liverpool, Barca, Real Madrid, they spent at will and rack-up the debt. We’ve chosen to run this like a profitable business. Once we service the debt I believe we can field a deeper team with more experienced players.

  19. brn442 says:

    Gaffer,

    I would slightly disagree – considering the shockingly poor Liverpool side that won 6 years ago, once a team reaches the knockout stages of this Cup competition, anything is possible.

    However, your point is well taken about Wenger’s stubbornness to a point. It’s not his stubbornness in his pursuit of the aesthetic, it’s more his stubbornness to do it, quite frankly, on the cheap, his way. It’s a policy that has probably cost the club at least two league titles and a European cup the last 6 years. Don’t believe this non-sense about paying for the stadium, there is money there for the Frenchman if he so desires.

    Over the years he has refused to bring in truly world-class game changing playmakers or even the cheaper option of stop-gap, experienced, albeit aging players to mentor and lead his young players (look at how useful Campbell’s return has been.)

    At the end of the day, over the two legs, Barcelona won because of two players – Ibrahimovi? and Messi, the quality of which, you will probably never see in an Arsenal Shirt whilst Wenger is Manager.

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