By Tony Attwood
Prior to the Europa final an article in the Guardian contained the comment, “…it is difficult to overstate just how critical this match is to Arsenal. Returning to the Champions League after a two-year hiatus has been their No 1 aim all season. No one is under any illusion about the perils of missing out, with the multimillion-pound knock-on to their transfer budget and their capacity to attract and keep players, at a time when the Premier League seems to be getting more competitive.”
It is a comment that is simultaneously true, while utterly missing the point. “Seems to be getting more competitive” is surely the ultimate euphemism for “there are people out there who will spend whatever it takes, and do whatever it takes no matter what the rulebooks say.”
For Arsenal the money is there, in the owner’s company bank accounts, but it won’t be spent by him on the club. Arsenal will continue to be self-financing, just as it was under Mr Wenger. True Mr Wenger made it work, and I would never take anything away from his incredible achievements of the two doubles, the unbeaten season, and the record of the second highest consecutive run of qualifications for the Champions League in the competition’s history, but that doesn’t mean that any other manager can make it happen again, nor that it is not getting harder each year to keep up with the big spenders.
Only Real Madrid with available resources 1000 times greater than Arsenal managed to stay in the Champs League for longer and our tragedy was that the reward Mr Wenger got for that incredible achievement was to be told “fourth is not a trophy”. Now it turns out that it was, only the nay-sayers were too blind to see it.
What Mr Wenger achieved in a period of austerity for the club was amazing, and really it was and is too much to expect that fantastic run to have continued forever, nor for Mr Emery to have been able to recover a Champs League position at the first time of asking. That we got so close – a win over Brighton would have done it – shows how good a manager he is. That we failed shows just how tough it is.
For getting into the Champs League has got harder to achieve as more and more money has been spent by four of the top six clubs. Only Tottenham has stood aside, finding themselves with perhaps the one manager in the league who could attempt to emultate what Mr Wenger had achieved – success without excessive spending. And that doesn’t mean I’ve suddenly become a Tottenham fan; of course not. But what they have got at the moment is what Arsenal had for all those years under Mr Wenger – an excellent manager who can create teams that play above themselves, year after year. Whether Tottenham can keep it up as they pay for the stadium remains to be seen.
So can Mr Emery do the same and get a series of top four finishes and win a few cups? Quite possibly with another summer of purchases of the quality that he showed this time around, along with the same willingness to bring in youngsters that Mr Wenger showed. The arrival of Willock at the end of the game last night was a promising hint, as has been the use of Maitland-Niles.
But there is a real problem, because if next season we do achieve the “not a trophy” position and thus do re-enter the Champs League, two things will happen. The expectation for trophies will return, the moaning will return, and players will think, quite reasonably, “I could have a better life playing for a club where the fans and the media are not on my back all the time.”
For the simple fact is that the bar has been raised year after year with the willingness of Manchester City, Liverpool, Manchester United and Chelsea to spend what it takes and do what it takes to get to the top. The fact that Chelsea are now facing a transfer ban and Manchester City are under fulsome investigation while saying that the complaints against them are racist, and that they will tie Uefa up in legal knots for years to come if Uefa proceeds, shows where we are. Put it another way, two of the big spenders are in trouble for their spending, while Manchester United will go on changing managers for as long as it takes to get a winner. Meanwhile Liverpool are living the dream with an owner who has openly stated (as we found in a rather fun Untold exclusive) that contracts and rules mean nothing in football.
As for Tottenham, much as it hurts me to say it, they have a manager who is capable of “doing a Wenger” at a time when it is even harder than it was to do it in Mr Wenger’s day.
Ultimately we are not in the Champs League because we took one point instead of three from the games against Palace and Brighton – both of which were eminently winnable. And that happened primarily because the players seemedto be thinking about the Europa Final. Which gives us the irony. If we had not got into the final of the Europa we probably would have been in the Champions League next season.
It is said in some quarters that Emery’s style is not clear, the defence remains a muddle, the midfield isn’t creative, and there is not enough goal threat from out wide and, oh yes, the team is too passive overall. That clearly was not the case most of the time at home, but it was away from home, and therein lies the same problem as the one that we had at the start of the season.
If we could just resolve the away form problem and get it back to what it was in the “fourth is not a trophy” era then we’d be back in the Champs League, which would give the manager more money, and he could try and do a Wenger and keep us there year after year.
And let us not forget that three players – two of them solid defenders – were lost to injuries that counted them out for much of the season. With those two defenders regularly in the squad I cannot believe that we would not have gained those extra two points.
But, this is what it comes down to. Arsenal do not have the money to buy the sort of squad that Man U, Man C, Liverpool and Chelsea can and will do at the drop of a hat. But we have positive: we have found a formula for Aubameyang and Lacazette to play together, we do have two excellent defenders who will return at some stage, we do have Willock evolving into the side, and we have Maitland-Niles and Guendouzi who are young and will simply get better and better.
On the negative side the mob who thought it was a clever idea to play up to the media with their “Wenger Out” messages will probably not have learned that simply changing the manager resolves nothing – the problem is the investment in the club by the owner, and we have an owner who won’t invest. Mr Emery might turn out to be as much of a genius as Mr Wenger and ultimately give us Champions League football year after year without the same level of investment and rule breaking that some other clubs seem to engage in. We can only hope he is, because the chances of us competing with Liverpool, Chelsea, Man C, Man U, Barcelona, Real Madrid, PSG and the like when it comes to buying players on the open market seems smaller than ever.
In the end our greatest enemies will continue to be the media, the anti-Arsenal Arsenal and the fact that because of the way the PGMO behaves we can never be sure that type III match fixing isn’t happening in the Premier League.
It was ever thus, and as has been shown before, only an utter management and strategic genuius with an eye for buying bargains that no one else notices, can take on that lot, and win. We used to have just such a man. Our one hope is that we can have just such a genius as a manager again. Time will tell.