Arsenal’s first European fixture of the season represents an annual tradition on the Gunners calendar; the night in which Arsene Wenger’s record of qualifying for the Champions League during every year of his north London reign is celebrated by fans, pundits and the media.
The same furore is expected this evening when Arsenal face a Dynamo Zagreb outfit who haven’t claimed victory in Europe’s top competition from their last 15 attempts, spanning way back to 1999, in the hostile environment of Maksimir stadium.
Indeed, the Gunners have been involved in the Champions League for 18 years on the bounce under Le Professeur. It’s a unique feat no other Premier League side has managed during that time period but also a rather paradoxical one, representing arguably Wenger’s biggest failure as Arsenal manager – never actually winning Europe’s most prestigious prize.
I once dubbed Arsene Wenger ‘the Sam Allardyce of the Champions League‘ and I still stand by that provocative claim. After all, what is the Frenchman’s greatest achievement for Arsenal if not their permanence on the fringe of the European elite, persistently ensuring their name is always in the group stage draw and guaranteeing the enormous revenues such status provides?
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It’s the same as Allardyce’s synonymy with Premier League survival, throughout his spells with Bolton, Blackburn, Newcastle and West Ham, albeit at a higher level of the game.
It’s why Wenger was the fourth-best paid manager in the world prior to the summer’s hire-and-firings, trumped by only Carlo Ancelotti, Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho; because his £8.3m salary is already earned back by the time the Champions League’s group stages are concluded.
In fact, this season’s increase in participation prize money ensures Arsenal £8.7million before a ball has been kicked.
Of course, the ‘Emirates Stadium’ argument cannot be overlooked. Arsenal’s move to the new ground has severely impacted Wenger’s transfer budgets over the last decade and resultantly, his ability to attract world football’s biggest talents. Even during the last few summers, in which Arsenal have signed Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez for a combined £77.2million, their financial muscle has been almost incomparably inferior to the likes of Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and Barcelona – the Champions League’s last three winners respectively.
Yet, 18 years is a long enough spell to balance underwhelm with prominence, and it’s not as if Arsenal have been completely void of the latter. The Invincibles of 2003/04 failed to transition their domestic dominance to Europe, eliminated in the quarter-finals by an inferior pre-Mourinho Chelsea side, and didn’t take their chance when facing Barcelona in the final two years later. Likewise, the Gunners’ manifestation lead by Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri and Robin van Persie possessed more than enough attacking talent to cause an upset in the Champions League, but they always exited with a whimper.
A close look at the stats produces further damning evidence. Wenger has overseen the most Champions League fixtures of any current manager, a whopping 168, and only the retired Sir Alex Ferguson boasts more, 190. In that time, the Gunners have won the most games of any side not to win the Champions League title, 76, and but surpassed the quarter-finals twice. They’ve also been knocked out during the Round of 16 or earlier on ten occasions.
Compare that to some of the management racket’s biggest names of the modern era; Ferguson won the trophy twice in 21 years, Mourinho’s claimed it twice from eleven attempts, Pep Guardiola twice from five along with Jupp Heynckes – who also reached two more finals – and Carlo Ancelotti has lifted it three times from a possible 13. Whether you’re a Wenger phobe or phile, it must be accepted that the Champions League is a glaring omission on his CV.
I have no doubt Arsenal will sidestep Dynamo Zagreb this evening with immaculate ease. They’re one the weakest sides in the competition and have failed to keep a clean sheet during their last eight European outings at home, all of which were qualifiers. The Gunners meanwhile have started strongly on the domestic front, overcoming the opening day defeat to West Ham with ten points from their last four fixtures in the Premier League.
But the real question is what do they truly gain from qualifying for the Champions League year upon year to beat minnows like Zagreb in the group stages? Apart from the financial influx and one disappointing yet memorable night in 2006, Wenger’s Arsenal have little to show from their 18-year involvement in Europe’s top competition.