Arsenal can’t win the Champions League. The be all and end all of qualifying for European football means nothing to those who value sporting achievement over financial gain. Arsenal are very much in Uefa’s top competition to feel the windfall of its revenue, not to challenge the best on the continent.
It’s a harsh reality that doesn’t require much digging to support its claim. Arsenal do have the resources to match the best in Europe. That’s why the club fought initially to move into the Emirates Stadium and then feed of its success, first through gate receipts and then to maximise on commercial sponsors, which we’re finally starting to see.
Arsenal far outstrip Atletico Madrid’s capabilities in building a squad. Borussia Dortmund’s wage bill of last season was smaller than QPR’s, and yet they finished as the runner-up to Bayern Munich, annihilating Real Madrid in the semi-final in Germany.
It’s the mentality that Atletico and Dortmund have that Arsenal can’t come close to. Atletico wiped the floor with AC Milan, beat Zenit and Porto in the group stages, and have now beaten Barcelona to advance to the semi-final. Arsenal don’t have that kind of mental capacity. They don’t have the organisation to hold a lead and withstand an attack that features Lionel Messi and Neymar. There is no motivation to turn over one of the biggest clubs in Europe at home.
For sporting reasons, Arsenal’s participation in the Champions League is built on the modern thinking that the competition adds prestige to a club’s name, as well as the fear that missing out for one season will result in years without top European football.
Like the struggles faced by David Moyes at Manchester United as an excuse not to change the manager at Arsenal, Liverpool’s fall out of Europe and Tottenham’s inability to build on that solitary season in the Champions League are the only two references used to tell of the importance of qualifying each and every year.
Arsenal don’t have the capacity to challenge on four fronts. They barely have the strength to do so on two. Injuries play a part, but the destruction of the squad on a year-on-year basis is the club’s own doing. Freak injury plagues occur, seen this season at Borussia Dortmund, who went the majority of the season without three of their first-choice back four. But what is happening at Arsenal can’t be dismissed or explained away as misfortune.
A year out of the Champions League for Arsenal will provide perspective. It will provide perspective to supporters who fear the unknown, just like with a change of manager. It will also provide perspective to the board and management, who seem to think that making do every season with a half complete squad will be enough; that a manager who has done it before, seemingly against the impossible, will continue to do it no matter what is going on around him at other clubs.
Investment is needed, and not just in new players. Atletico Madrid of this season and Dortmund of the past two or three years should be the models Arsenal follow. Neither of those two teams have invested or are capable of investing in the way their domestic title rivals are. For Arsenal, it’s now a matter of choice not to invest in the way Manchester City or Chelsea do.
Instead, those teams are buying into a strong idea, a footballing identity that is far more solid than what their cash reserves should allow. Diego Simeone’s players will break down walls for him; the same is true of Jurgen Klopp’s team, at least those who are have become accustomed to his coaching style.
They’re drilled to play in a way that speaks of their manager’s mindset and ideals. Atletico Madrid don’t play the prettiest football; Dortmund do and have done so. But vitally neither team can be accused of fragility. Their strengths come from in house, in terms of fitness – of which there are mountains of evidence – and the excellent and effective development of youth. At Arsenal, problems with the former has had a knock-on effect with the latter.
Like Atletico and Dortmund, the way Arsenal play and the attitudes of the players speaks of the mentality of the manager and club overall: a perceived lack of interest in bettering what’s currently available. Stagnation is rife at Arsenal, and only something as big as a drop out of Europe can change the attitude of the club.
Arsenal may yet fall out of the top four this season, meaning a season in the Europa League is on the cards. But even that might be a distraction – and not because it should be seen as a pointless trophy.
This is not a club capable of handling four competitions with the way it is currently run. There may be comparisons to Liverpool’s season and that they’ve had the fortune of not being distracted by midweek travels around Europe, but they also have a manager who is able to adjust to what he has and bring the best out of his squad.
Arsenal may have to be forced into taking action through failure to qualify for Europe. It shouldn’t be the only option for a club of its resources, but dropping out of the Champions League can do a lot more good than bad.