In the 52nd minute at St. James’ Park, the inevitable happened. Arsenal scored. Not many would have banked on the rejuvenated Laurent Koscielny to break the deadlock in such a fine fashion, putting his team firmly in the driving seat after a well taken half-volley, but it was no surprise to see another Wenger team heading for the Champions League (with the qualification round in their path) for the umpteenth time in a row (16 to be exact). Once again, The Gunners had got one over their fierce rivals Tottenham Hotspur, who, in spite of Gareth Bale’s efforts, were powerless to buck the trend and snatch North London bragging rights from the red contingent.
When the final whistle blew, Arsenal’s players jubilantly celebrated as if they had won some silverware that has long since eluded them. And who could blame them after spending a large chunk of the season languishing outside the top four? After all, since the loss of their talisman Robin Van Persie, many sceptics had written off Wenger’s troops believing them to have finally capitulated after a lack of investment in the transfer market. But, Tottenham being Tottenham, the prospects of a lillywhite festivity eventually sagged, and now Thursday nights on UK TV are back to haunt Andre Villas-Boas and co.
Having to marshal a team of capable players, glaringly absent of world-beaters, Wenger has fulfilled the minimum expectations of the board and the fans, and his achievement is not to be scoffed at with the battle for a Champions League spot now more arduous than ever. It goes without saying that this current Arsenal side are no match for their predecessors, with Santi Cazorla and Jack Wilshere the only genuine sprinkles of stardust in a line-up that does little to whet the appetite, now that all the major players have defected for meatier salaries and, more importantly, a stab at the big prizes.
Just over two months previously, when Tottenham emerged victorious in the derby on March 3rd, it seemed that the long awaited sea change had finally arrived. With their Welsh wizard smashing in goals from left right and centre, it looked for a moment that the perpetual also-rans were on their way to the promised land, with their foe seemingly incapable of a riposte. However, after a crushing defeat that left Arsenal seven points adrift and their task looking quite insurmountable, the players galvanised themselves, taking 26 points from a possible 30. And so, the chants of ‘Boring boring Arsenal’ filled the terraces again, with many a neutral disappointed to see Spurs throwing their dreams away in predictable fashion.
Now that the natural order of things is set in stone for another season at least, what can we expect from Wenger and his team next time around? Will they mount a serious challenge for European greatness, or will they, as is foreseeable, fail to bring in the necessary quality to compete with the top sides? Too many times have Arsenal bowed out meekly to the likes of Bayern Munich, Barcelona, and, perhaps most painfully, Manchester United. Since 2006, the year when they last reached the final, Arsenal have never realistically looked like getting their hands on the greatest trophy available in club football. That night they were unfortunate to lose to a pre-Messi Barcelona, then under the command of Frank Rijkaard, with Wenger’s men fighting gallantly after losing Jens Lehmann to a red card. Back then, Arsenal were still a force to be reckoned with, boasting a side that included Gilberto Silva, Robert Pires, Alexander Hleb, and the genius of Thierry Henry. Seven years after that pain and disappointment, they have quite simply failed to kick on and recapture the greatness of the famed Unbeatables.
One of the primary reasons for Arsenal’s slump is the board’s apparent unwillingness to replace big-name departures year after year, leaving the fans exasperated and understandably morbid about their team’s outlook for the new season. The customary forecast of a top-four finish is simply not enough to satisfy the long-serving sectors of the Emirates crowd, who have to shell out mind-boggling amounts of money just to watch their team fail to go that extra mile as the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City grow stronger and threaten to displace United’s reign of tyranny.
When Henry departed for Spain in 2007, Wenger had to patiently wait for Robin Van Persie to finally overcome his injury struggles and mature into a world-class centre-forward, with only Emmanuel Adebayor to rely on, who would then ditch the team for the riches of Manchester City after a period that reaped only one decent season out of four. Once Van Persie had established himself, there was little quality to support him and so the goalscoring burden was left solely to the Dutchman, with the likes Marouane Chamakh and Andre Arshavin providing little or no assistance when the going got tough.
Furthermore, the lack of urgency to the replace the losses of Samir Nasri and Cesc Fabregas only served to prove that those at the top of the hierarchy at Arsenal were not taking the team’s decline seriously enough, opting for prudence in order to recoup the funds spent on the new stadium. Though The Emirates was an expensive project to say the least, the club could possibly have acquired the necessary finances much more swiftly if they had taken a gamble in the transfer market and pushed the boat out to sign players of real quality, and in doing so seized the trophies that now look so far out of reach.
The chasm in Arsenal’s midfield which dates back to the farewell of Patrick Viera, combined with Wenger’s failure to establish a solid back four and snare a reliable goalkeeper, are just a few of a multiplicity of reasons as to why the team has been left punch-drunk in Europe and domestic competitions. Most recently in the Champions League, they were knocked out by the mighty force of Bayern Munich, who were embarrassingly superior at The Emirates, and despite a 2-0 victory at the Allianz Arena, the fightback came too little too late as Arsenal went out on away goals. In the aftermath, some fans phoned in to BBC Radio 5 Live and Talksport to applaud their teams efforts in Germany, claiming that the late surge justified their belief that Arsenal were not yet on the wain. In truth, the win was barley a small consolation from the letdown of yet another high-profile blow.
In the past eight years, the controlling forces at the club, including Wenger, have settled for too little, citing European qualification as a marker of accomplishment when it should in fact only be one objective amongst many when establishing the goals for the upcoming campaign. For a club of Arsenal’s size and reputation, ambitions need to be higher, and if they already are, the purse strings will have to loosen a little in order to back up the convictions. The fans deserve more; they have been left to wait for too long and the situation is starting to look dire. A place in the Champions League will not paper over the cracks; only the trophy will do.
In hindsight, if Tottenham had qualified for Europe, one is left to ponder whether Daniel Levy may have provided AVB with the coffers to mount a serious offense. In their one and only campaign since the inception of the tournament, Harry Redknapp took the team to the quarter-finals, before succumbing to the herculean force of Real Madrid. If Peter Crouch had not been sent off at the Bernabeu, the outcome of the tie may have turned out differently and who knows how far Spurs may have gone? If Arsenal fail to deliver for the 16th time in a row, the question of their earnestness on the main stage will be more poignant than ever.