After a long time, Europe’s premier competition has thrown up a few surprises and plenty of excitement. At the time of the draw few, if any, would have expected United to bow out. Fewer still would have expected the Gunners to qualify from a tough group before the other three English clubs and with a game to spare. City had a tricky set of fixtures so their plight is not that big a surprise, although, given their scale of investment, it sure seems shameful. Looking back, this opening phase does put a lot of things in perspective.
Not that long ago there was all this talk of Arsenal being in a crisis and some even suggested the Gunners will first, struggle to get past Udinese, and then after they qualified, fail to get out of the group. These thoughtless opinions fell flat as most doom and gloom predictions usually do.
The problem with many pundits and the misery brigade is that they jump from observations to conclusions without going through a due analysis phase. I doubt even the staunchest Wenger fans or positive Gooners will ever claim this was a great summer for Arsenal. The squad was stretched at the beginning of the season and the start for far from ideal. Observations along those lines were valid. But people form erroneous opinions because, among other things, they don’t realize just how important Wenger’s experience and football knowledge is.
Last season Lille, Porto, and Borussia Dortmund were flying high. They were collecting accolades, deservedly so, from all and sundry for their domestic title winning exploits, and in the case of the Portuguese side it also included the trophy that will be coveted by the Manchester clubs this year. What I want to know is, how many of those showering compliments at these sides have noticed that all three have been dumped out of the group phase this year? Dortmund and Lille finished bottom of their group while Porto came in third behind APOEL and Zenit!
The point here is not to berate these clubs. Their players, managers, and staff must be trying their best. And there is no shame when it doesn’t work out because sensible people realize being consistent at the highest level is extremely tough. And that is why Arsenal’s consistency has to be acknowledged and appreciated. Winning trophies in Portugal, France, or Germany is commendable. But that does not mean those teams are better than Arsenal. So even though the Gunners haven’t won anything in ‘whatever’ years, they have been doing better than many of the trophy winning squads around Europe. If the recent Arsenal sides had been playing in one of these leagues with lesser competition, they’d have won the titles. It wouldn’t have made them better than what they were but the perceptions of many would have been different. So if you think about it calmly, it would seem the problem is more with the perceptions than with Arsenal FC. That is the reason Arsene calls it “artificial pressure”. Sadly, when fans get so caught up in it, even the players get afflicted.
Don’t get me wrong, the idea is not to say everything is fine and the Gunners don’t have any cause for concern. Those who have followed this blog for a while know I always voice my opinion about problems that I believe are hampering the Arsenal title challenges. Indeed, just yesterday a number of regular readers told me I was becoming too negative!
Criticism per se, is not wrong. But those wishing to voice their concern must demonstrate that they are at least trying to understand the developmental work being done. Unbridled negativity is detrimental. Problems, whatever you might consider as one, should be discussed within the right context. For instance, I would say the first half against Olympiacos was embarrassing. You may agree or disagree but nothing can take away the achievement of the team that provided the cushion for that disappointment. There is no sense in jumping from the observations about that half to predictions about a disastrous season.
One just has to look at Arsenal’s games against Marseille and Dortmund to get an idea about the amount of effort being put in the by the players and the manager. Those were not flukes. And looking at the performances of the other English sides, I can’t believe any of the three would have gone unbeaten in those four games. Throw in the current run in the League and one can see the foundations of a strong side building.
Of course there are areas of improvement. Games against Fulham, City, and Olympiacos have showed just as much. There is an issue with depth, especially given the injury problems that Arsenal invariably have. One can also ask questions about tactics and the defence. Some of you might have other complaints as well, I have just pointed out thoughts at the top of my mind. It’s fair to raise these questions but they should always be discussed while keeping the progressive effort in the background.
As I discussed in this article about Arsenal’s So Near Yet So Far predicament, the positives far outweigh the negatives at Arsenal. They always have. One just has to learn to see the broader picture.
Moving forward, the second phase throws up some interesting possibilities for the Gunners. Napoli, CSKA Moscow, Basel, Lyon, Bayer Leverkusen, Zenit St. Petersburg, and AC Milan are all likely opponents. If all the key players are fit I would be glad to take any of those sides on, but if I had to choose I’d go with Basel or Lyon.
From the quarter-final stage onwards, if Arsenal get through – let’s not be presumptuous, it’s a lot about luck. Barcelona could draw Madrid with Bayern in the same segment of the draw. Who knows how things might turn out. Only one team can win it and a bit of fortune will certainly help. It’s worth noting that I am not claiming Arsenal are as good as the other sides mentioned. A lot more needs to be done before the Gunners can reach the level we have seen from these European giants this season.
Speaking about luck, fitness will be a key factor. Wilshere and Diaby are to come back and hopefully the full-backs will also return one by one. As long as the Gunners don’t lose more than they regain things should be fine. That doesn’t necessarily have to be a one-to-one relationship though. Arsenal could have everyone back but losing Van Persie will still be a massive blow. That’s just the way things are. You cannot get players of that calibre easily.
In fact, the struggles of Chelsea and City (and Liverpool in the League) again prove that buying can never be a quick fix. It’s taken close to a Billion petrodollars and over three years for City to build a team that looks like it can win the Premiership. But they still can’t hack it in the Champions League. Chelsea tried going for youth in the last few years and failed miserably. Now they’re back to buying big but it hasn’t worked out so well thus far. Finding players better than the ones at Arsenal is not an easy task. I know people can throw names of Squillaci, Djourou, Arshavin, and the likes at me right now but these things are just not that straightforward. Anyway, that is a discussion for another time. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t love to see Arsenal getting a world class striker, playmaker, and a versatile defensive player. Just that when it doesn’t happen I will still respect the work being done.