by Tom Simmonds
The last week in the life of Arsenal gave us another two vignettes of their hot-and-cold nature as a team. An atrocious performance at home to Olympiacos in the Champions League, which brought a 3-2 defeat, was followed on Sunday by a thumping 3-0 win over Manchester United. Do Arsenal’s recent European woes have their roots in manager Arsene Wenger’s own theories?
Wenger, in conversation with Amy Lawrence for her book ‘Invincibles’ about the Arsenal team which went unbeaten in the league in 2003-04, said of Atletico Madrid’s loss to their cross-city rivals Real in the 2013-14 Champions League final:
“I hope it was not a subconscious thing for the team to repeat the history. That is what you discover – the huge importance of the subconscious language is in people’s minds…”
Wenger was referring to a 4-1 loss, to Bayern Munich, suffered by Atletico in 1974, in the final of the Champions League’s forerunner, the European Champions Cup.
If Wenger believes this to be true of the architecture of other football clubs, it invites investigation of Arsenal’s form under him, particularly their exploits in the Champions League during his 19-year reign. Defeats by Barcelona in the 2006 final and by Manchester United in the 2008-09 semi-finals represent the Gunners’ deepest runs in the competition.
The first thought to strike is the obvious point that Arsenal have never won the tournament. The second is that their European sorties under Wenger have the impression of stifled thunder. Last 16 and quarter-final exits (including two against English clubs – Chelsea in 2004 and Liverpool in 2008) are generally the order of the day. When confronted with this, it is hard not to deduce that the theories Wenger has about other clubs’ ghosts come from somewhere closer to home.
He, and those loyal to him, are quick to cite his record of ensuring Arsenal qualify for the Champions League every season. This is commendable in terms of demonstrating Wenger’s ability to adapt to realities, but, with the club in financial clover, it seems odd that this should be cited as an aspiration, not a minimum requirement. To speak in such reduced terms sends a none-too-positive message about how the club sees itself in the hierarchy of the elite.
Recent European results also give a clue as to how Wenger has got to know these anxieties so intimately. The Olympiacos match was the third instalment in a trilogy of successive Champions League home games in which they’ve shipped three goals playing gung-ho football and defending appallingly.
Trying to interpret these performances takes one down interesting avenues. None of these games were against really top-notch opposition. Was Wenger trying to cast Arsenal as flat-track-bullies as a form of defence against their known defensive frailties? Or does this symbolise something more hard-wired by Wenger himself – namely a belief deep within him that Arsenal cannot hope to win the Champions League any time soon, informed by historic disappointments which he has lived through? The latter interpretation becomes more persuasive when you look at how he interprets the failure of others.
Looking to the league – when the only high point of Chelsea’s wretched start to 2015-16 is a 2-0 win over a pedestrian, defensive Arsenal, over whom they have had a significant hoodoo over for years – the sense that Wenger’s own personal neuroses might be defining Arsenal’s performances in certain arenas is one which does not go away easily.
Wenger is one of the last genuine aesthetes left in top-level football, which is being asphyxiated by pragmatism more and more with each passing year. It is this above all why it is important for the game that his promises to Arsenal fans of jam tomorrow come to fruition soon. His capacity for bringing fantasy alive needs to be consistently backed by weighty prizes in this era, so it can influence future coaches. Rethinking the subconscious vibe he gives regarding European adventures might just help him put more jam in jars, rather than over-boiled fruit.
Arsenal fans – have you given up on the idea of European success given the advances made by Barca, Real and Bayern in the last few years? Do you think Wenger’s words match your aspirations for the club?
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