I’ve heard Arsene Wenger make some pretty audacious claims before, such as ‘a returning player is like a new signing’ and ‘once Aaron Ramsey starts scoring, he’ll never stop’, but Arsenal winning this season’s Champions League title? I’m sorry Wenger – and Gunners fans – it’s just not going to happen.
There’s a pattern to the Champions League that doesn’t really get talked about. In the last 17 years, since the gigantic fiscal influence of the tournament first began cementing the position of the world’s top clubs with a seeming permanence, only Chelsea, Liverpool, Porto and Inter Milan have been able to break up the continent’s oligopoly; AC Milan, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Manchester United.
Excluding the former and, more recently, the latter, they make the last eight every year without fail and usually the last four, so with Bayern, Barca and Real Madrid still firmly in the mix and all enjoying relatively good health this season, history suggests club football’s most coveted prize will once again go to one of them.
That may seem presumptuous and admittedly, Arsenal are one of the clubs just outside that bracket – a Porto of 2004, a Liverpool of 2005, a Borussia Dortmund of 2013 – that, on paper at least, have enough quality to conquer the Champions League’s higher powers.
Yet, the north Londoners haven’t surpassed the first knock-out round since 2011 and reached the semi-finals just twice throughout their entire involvement in the Champions League, spanning back to 1999, and there’s an obvious reason for that; compared to Chelsea, Porto or Liverpool, hard-working, well-organised, tactically-adept, pragmatic sides, the Gunners just aren’t purpose-built for European double-leggers.
Recent improvements against the Premier League’s big-boys, a bitter-fought, surprisingly disciplined and industrious 2-0 away with at Manchester City in January and a 2-2 draw at Anfield in December, for example, might initially suggest otherwise.
But after 17 years under Arsene Wenger, Arsenal’s intrinsic weaknesses are inescapable and well-discussed throughout the continent. Sir Alex Ferguson devoted two whole chapters in his autobiography to the formula of beating Arsenal – congesting the midfield before exploiting the gaps between their full-backs and centre-halves on the counter – and Jose Mourinho’s had their number since 2004, so if the best, and on occasion, the worst, of the Premier League know how to unhinge the Gunners over the course of ninety minutes, Europe’s elite, further aided by two legs to heap humiliation, certainly do.
Arsenal’s Champions League results from earlier in the season say it all; a 2-0 defeat to a Borussia Dortmund side currently fighting for their lives at the bottom of the Bundesliga table and a 3-3 draw, in which they originally held a three-goal lead, to Anderlecht at home. That shock result against the Belgian outfit gave a worrying insight into the naive, arrogant mentality of the Arsenal squad, and although there’s been a renewed sense of balance to their play in recent weeks, the sparing inclusions of overlooked academy product Francis Coquelin is hardly enough to counteract nearly two decades’ worth of self-destructively expansive football that’s ingrained into this Gunners side.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m certain Arsenal will stroll their way past an exceptionally ordinary Monaco outfit this evening and again in Mid-January, breaking their three-year curse of failing to advance to the quarter-finals.
Combined with the Emirates outfit’s annual habit of coming into form just in time for the business end of their campaign however, I’m concerned it will lead to sensationalised interpretations of where Arsenal are really at right now – and Wenger’s latest declaration of winning the tournament certainly doesn’t help. Few, if any, of the Gunners players would get into Europe’s top sides – in fact, their two leading talents, Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil, are essential rejects of Barcelona and Real Madrid respectively.
There’s often an element of luck involved in the Champions League and prior experience tells us that the best side don’t always win. But fortune in Europe favours those with the resilience, tenacity, patience and organisation to overcome the gulfs in quality. Unfortunately, those are all characteristics Arsenal currently lack.