So that’s that. Imaginary red ribbons have been tied around the ethereal fourth-placed trophy. Arsenal have qualified for the Champions League.
Well, sort of. There’s still the significant matter of a preliminary round to navigate after Chelsea beat Everton to secure the automatic third spot. It’s a hurdle we’ve overcome several times in the past, and barring an unfortunate draw I’d expect us to do so again.
Crucially, Arsenal have also managed to finish above their rivals Tottenham. Again. I think we all understand that qualifying for the Champions League is important. Finishing above Spurs is just plain fun.
As luck would have it, I was working during the game, which spared both my nerves and my nails. There’s something curiously appropriate about the fact that at the end of a season in which I’ve often felt oddly detached from the side, I was absent at the very moment their fate was decided.
That’s not to say I wasn’t delighted. Arsenal did a difficult job well. Since the derby defeat to Spurs, Arsenal have won eight of their 10 league matches, drawing twice. This match was won in the pragmatic style that has defined this final part of the season.
That style was forged in the fires of the Allianz Arena, when Arsenal secured a surprising 2-0 victory over Bayern Munich. After that game, I said:
Contained within this performance was the DNA of an Arsenal team capable of hauling its way back in to the Champions League. Arsene Wenger must play John Hammond, extract it and bring it back to life before our very eyes, starting this weekend at Swansea.
The components are clear:
- Hard work
- Disciplined defending – not just from the back four, but the entire team
- Efficiency in attack
I’d have been lying if I’d said I had absolute conviction that Arsenal could follow that mantra on a regular basis. However, Arsene Wenger has managed to set aside his love of flowing football and focus on the only thing that matters at this stage of the season: results. We compromised on some of our principles; we also conquered a good many of our problems.
That Laurent Koscielny was the clear match-winner yesterday typifies our recent resolve. Not only was he was scorer of the vital goal for the second year in succession, but he was also absolutely outstanding in defence. In Koscielny and Mertesacker, Arsene Wenger has uncovered a central defensive pairing with communication, balance, determination and no small amount of ability. That partnership, much like this Champions League qualification, is a foundation on which to build.
Some pundits have seen fit to criticise the Arsenal players for celebrating yesterday’s events with such vigour. Frankly, I don’t think it’s up to them to determine how happy our players should be. What’s more, such a view seems churlish in the extreme. In spite of everything that’s come before, Arsenal’s recent run is an achievement worth celebrating. We had a clear goal: to salvage the situation and finish fourth, and we did it. What’s more, we did it at the expense of our closest and most loathed rivals. To allow that to pass without celebration that would be bizarre. Remiss, even.
There are those who say there’s no point qualifying for a competition you’re unlikely to win. These snipers are the same folk who hold the trophy-hoarding example of Chelsea aloft as a superior model of management. Chelsea will be roundly praised for having won the Europa League this season, but it’s worth remembering they only competed in the competition as a consequence of exiting the Champions League – before Arsenal.
While I’m picking that bone: what a ridiculous system that is. Arsenal qualify from their group and go out on away goals to a Bayern Munich side who later beat Barcelona 7-0 on aggregate, yet Chelsea are allowed to remain in European competition and have another crack at silverware despite failing to even make it through their group. I struggle to see the logic there.
Anyhow, I digress. Qualifying for the Champions League is important for us. It keeps both the bank balance and the reputation of the club healthy. It’s not the be-all, but it’s certainly beneficial.
However, I don’t think it makes this season a success. Our domestic cup campaigns both ended in defeats that were not only humbling but humiliating. As for the league campaign, I suspect I will come to look back on this season as an opportunity missed.
Take a look around the other major clubs: Chelsea spent a season battling their own supporters after the appointment of a manager they detested. Manchester City had the worst summer they could possibly have had, missing out on Van Persie and Hazard and settling instead for Jack Rodwell and Scott Sinclair. United may have waltzed to the title but even their own fans will admit this is far from Ferguson’s strongest side.
The noises coming out of Arsenal now suggest that they’ll have money to spend this summer. That’s good news, but has to be tempered by the fact that market-place is set to be crowded with other big spenders. Messrs Moyes, Mourinho and Pellegrini will all be wanting to put their own stamp on their new teams, and however much our budget might have swelled it is unlikely to match theirs.
The advantage Arsenal have is that of consistent leadership. Arsene Wenger will be comfortably the longest-serving manager in the Premier League next season, but with that comfort comes an element of danger. When asked about new recruits in the aftermath of yesterday’s game, Arsene urged the importance of ‘stability’. My fear is that stability and complacency could go hand-in-hand.
It’s essential that Arsenal push on and do their utmost to make an impact in the market. Tread water for long enough and you drown.
The feat of making the top four for 16 consecutive years is impressive, but hearing Arsene trot that record out with increasing frequency makes me uncomfortable. On the weekend of Alex Ferguson’s retirement, it was telling that among the 13 Premier League titles, five FA Cups and two Champions Leagues, his 22 consecutive top four finishes passed without mention.
If fourth place is any kind of prize, it’s a runners-up medal. For a club of our size, it’s oughtn’t be an aspiration but a conciliatory accessory to failure.
It’s simple, really. Don’t aim for fourth; aim for first, hit fourth if you fail.
Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the Champions League’s assembled stars.