By Tony Attwood
The timescales aren’t exactly the same of course, but there is an interesting parallel between Tottenham’s experience in the Champions League and Arsenal’s in 1998 and 1999. In those years, as I am sure you will recall, Arsenal played Champions League home matches at Wembley, and for what I think were the only two occasions under Mr Wenger’s reign, Arsenal went out of the competition in the first round of matches.
Indeed Mr Wenger called the experience at playing at Wembley a “nightmare”. Emmanuel Petit called it “a disaster”. Ray Parlour said, “It was classified as a home game but we never felt properly at home. Highbury was our home. That was where we knew exactly what we were doing, how we were preparing, where we felt comfortable without giving it a second thought. At Wembley both teams were away in a sense. Maybe it even gave the away team an advantage. and, at the end of two seasons playing their Champions League home matches at Wembley, Arsenal ended up with the statistical anomaly of actually being better off away.”
It has not been quite like this for Tottenham but the net result has been the same – elimination after the first round of games – after five matches.
Of course the whole thing could be called a coincidence, or it could be evidence of just how powerful the psychological and sociological effects surrounding football matches really are. If the situation doesn’t feel right to individuals, or if the group dynamics are not as they normally are, then difficulties can follow.
Interestingly (for me at least, and I try not to presume to know what anyone else might find interesting), neither club had to play at Wembley. However I have always understood that the move helped Arsenal prove that they could get the sort of crowds that would be needed at the Emirates if the bank loans were to be repaid on time, and it is just possible that Tottenham have been doing it for the same reason. They, like Arsenal before them, can get the big crowds, although it will be interesting to see how many actually show for the last game of the series.
But by and large the crowds turned up to see us lose three out of six Champions League games at Wembley. 18 years on and we have qualified with two games to spare.
Of course the parallel with Tottenham is not quite the same – but the events of this year’s Champs League campaign could cause a little concern about next season’s league campaign, if it is to be played out at Wembley. Maybe Milton Keynes would suit better.
Tottenham have won one, drawn one and lost three in the Champs League this season. What would it have been like had they played at the under-demolition WHL ground? I suspect they would have done better, especially given the fact that they remain unbeaten in the League after 12 games.
Pochettino was, I thought, realistic in his assessment in the aftermath of last night, saying, “After two and a half years, we have reduced the gap at the top of the Premier League but to be competitive in that and the Champions League, we need to show more.
“Maybe we need to add more quality in the squad. We have quality, yes, to compete in the Premier League but, today, you could say we struggled a little bit…The challenge is not physical and tactical – it is to manage your mind.”
“To play Saturday and then Tuesday or Wednesday is like playing continuously in the Premier League. We struggled to be ready to compete in every game. Monaco had played their league game last Friday night whereas we played against West Ham on Saturday night and it was like a final.
“To be ready again was difficult. It’s not an excuse. We did not show enough quality but we need to improve our mentality.”
It certainly is good to see that unlike 16 years ago, psychology is no longer an excuse word, a word to describe delicate foreigners who don’t like it up ’em (as the inimitable Sgt Jones would say).
And my point is, if you look back at some of the things Arsene Wenger has said, there is a similarity. The psychology of the players, and the group dynamics of the club. It takes years to get right, and it is one of the big benefits of consistency at the top of a club. Ferguson did it, Mr Wenger has done it, and maybe if Tottenham can finally stop their managerial revolving door policy Pochettino can do it.
But for the moment Tottenham’s performance has come in for the sort of criticism that used to be the exclusive province of Arsenal: “Lamentable doziness on the flanks by both full-backs allowed Monaco to go 1-0 and then 2-1 up 38 seconds after Spurs’ equaliser. What is the point of prioritising the Premier League to qualify for the Champions League, barely shake a leg when you get there and end up having to play on Thursday nights in the Europa League?”
That was the Telegraph.
Tottenham now have to avoid defeat when playing CSKA Moscow at Wembley if they want the Europa League and the Tottenham manager suggested that this was, indeed, what they wanted. I wonder if they are forced to play at Wembley.
Mr Wenger on the other hand could afford to be more upbeat. “Let’s finish first and at least we have the advantage to play the second game [in the next round] at home. If we do win it, it would mean we’ve done the job until the end in a convincing way.
“It’s a luxury to be qualified after four games. Last year we had to battle until the end. This season we can finish the whole job after five matches, which would mean we’ve done really well. So it is a cup final.”
Hopefully, for those of us lucky enough to be there, it will be like the last cup final we were at. That one I particularly enjoyed.
From the Arsenal History Society
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The on line series
The latest article is February 1936: an early example of rotational selection
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