It’s an utter disgrace.
That’s what we’ve heard repeatedly in the last 72 hours since our Champions League dismissal at the hands of Monaco. That’s what we’ve heard from various “experts” determined to criticise Arsenal. That’s what we’ve heard in the media agenda that Arsenal’s failure is the only reason English football has no representatives in the last 16, and is in decline.
Let’s be clear – Arsenal’s fans don’t disagree with the sentiment of disappointment. We’re the first to admit that we should be progressing against a team like Monaco. In the end, a performance of controlled attack where we dominated a much-heralded defence was not enough to rectify a few moments of madness in the first leg.
But let’s also be clear – this was not a tie where we set up wrong (Dear Mr Scholes, if you think Arsenal only play well when the pressure is off, you have a very short memory).
In both legs we had the chances to score enough goals to overcome Mertesacker and Ospina’s dual efforts to help Monaco over the line. We suffered because of a single game in which we messed up, and as we’ve seen in games like the semi-finals of 2013 (Germany 14, Spain 1), this can happen to anyone on a solitary day.
That there is no English presence in the quarter-finals is a shame, and it’s disappointing, but it is not a disgrace.
It’s certainly not Arsenal’s disgrace alone.
Is that the pot calling the kettle black?
This season, one side has been lauded above all others in the English league.
Chelsea, with their unbeatable combination of Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa were practically installed as the next generation of the Invincibles up until their loss to this weekend’s opponents Newcastle.
Yet this great Chelsea team, a team which has had over a billion pounds* spent on it since 2002/03 season was dumped out of the Champions League by a PSG side reduced to ten men for much of the game. The real disgrace of it was that they didn’t even try to win the game – they gambled on playing for a 0-0 draw, and they lost.
What about Manchester City then?
Surely they come out of this whiter than white? After all, they have only spent £894 million* on players over the same period!
Of course they got a tough draw – Barcelona are one of three sides to have dominated Europe over recent years (along with Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, they have accounted for 15 of the 20 semi-finalists over the last five years). But the real disgrace of it was that at no point did they look in with a chance of going through.
To put that into context, an Arsenal team with a defence containing Djourou, Eboue and Clichy was able to defeat Barcelona at the height of their powers back in 2011. Indeed, we had chances to go through in the return leg in spite of a terrible decision to send a nameless Dutch bloke off for pretty much nothing. That Barcelona side went on to win the competition.
What about English football’s fourth and final contestant in this competition?
What’s that, you can’t even remember who that was? Allow me to remind you.
Liverpool Football Club, of that great European pedigree, failed to even get out of the group stages of the Champions League at the expense of little old Basel.
They did manage to finish third in the group, just above the mighty Ludgorets, but that just increased the embarrassment. To add to their disgrace, their European campaign was ended for good at the hands of Besiktas at the very next hurdle. That’s the same Besiktas whom we eliminated from the Champions League way back in August at the qualifying round stage.
But don’t forget, it is Arsenal’s exit that is the real disgrace.
*In case you were wondering, Arsenal have spent £532 million over the same period, £73 million less than Spurs (£605m). It may surprise you that Liverpool (£767m) and Manchester United (£759m) are closer to Manchester City’s gross spend than to Arsenal’s! (Numbers courtesy of transferleague.co.uk.)
So why is it that we seem to have a target square on our backs?
It’s all about the money
We’ve looked at the relative spending of most of the top seven clubs (Southampton’s is just £145m if you wanted to know) but the problem Arsenal face here is the step change. There seems to be some selective amnesia when it comes to remembering that, for a number of years just prior to and after the move to the new stadium, we were unable to spend big money compared to our rivals.
That we have now spent big on Ozil and Alexis over the past two seasons has somewhat clouded the issue – we may now have more financial firepower, but that doesn’t change things overnight. Chelsea with their billions took two seasons to win a league title, and City with theirs took three.
United are finding out to their cost that running a team into the ground with no future proofing is a strategy that takes some time to recover from. Two years on from Ferguson’s departure, the club find themselves with no European football, no guarantee of the same at the top level next year, and a team that is hardly playing well.
So forgive me if I don’t consider our “failure” so far outside of context – it takes time for players to gel, and it takes time to build a side back up.
The signs there are all positive.
Another side of it is the level of expectation – even during our austerity period we were able to make a final (2006) and a semi-final (2009) and the consistency that has seen us secure about a billion consecutive qualifications for the group stages and also progression from the group stages is ultimately a noose that is used to hang us.
For the sake of argument, let’s say that Arsenal’s resources mean that their maximum success is to reach the round of 16 each year – it should not be a BAD thing that we actually achieve that!
Of course that’s open to debate, and in the years ahead progression through this stage is not only desirable but necessary if we are to kick on with the benefits of the stadium move.
But our opposition over those years has included Barcelona (x2), AC Milan and Bayern Munich (x2) and on three of those occasions our opposition has gone on to win the tournament. The reality is that we could be the second best side in Europe but if you come up against the best side early on, you won’t progress past that early round.
Perhaps Arsene would be better served by failing to get out of the group stages in a way that City, Liverpool, Chelsea and even United under the mighty Sir Alex Ferguson have failed to do. Perhaps his consistency is actually detracting from his relative success.
This is not to say that Arsene should be exonerated from progressing this Arsenal team, and Monaco is one of the few ties over the last number of years that we should be expected to win, but it is also not a disgrace that we didn’t do so.
Just as one swallow does not a summer make, one lost game is not the end of the world.
Jose isn’t the only one with a conspiracy theory
In fact, media propaganda about this Arsenal side is something we have to fight against daily.
Mr Mourinho may be waging a one man campaign* to influence referees and rule makers, but we have to handle the media dancing to his tune.
*He clearly runs the Chelsea social media accounts
It’s not hard to imagine the glee of football copy writers around the world when Jose broke out his “specialist in failure” remark – judging by the subsequent editorial it was lapped up – with apparent amnesia to rival Mr Scholes ignoring the recent limitations of the club.
Even those who pay lip service to those limitations do so along the lines of “they’re no longer under those restraints so there can be no excuses now” – as if there’s a magic switch that we just have to turn on.
It means that there is a hysterical reaction to single games (think Spurs, one of only two league games in 2015 where we have dropped points) and we are regularly submitted to total drivel from so-called reputable media sources, such as the recent TalkSPORT mockery masquerading as a poll.
The entire media agenda that English football is somehow in decline and Arsenal a total failure for not keeping English hopes alive in the next round conveniently ignores a few home truths.
It assumes that Europe’s top sides are somehow inferior to the Premier League sides in spite of teams like Barcelona, Real Madrid and PSG fairly regularly blowing £50m+ on players.
Let’s face it, even “little old Monaco” with their ownership split between a Russian billionaire (two thirds) and the Royal Family of Monaco are hardly the lost little boys the media would have us believe.
In 2013, they were Europe’s biggest spenders with £140m including £50m alone on one Radamel Falcao, now languishing in the United reserves.
It might make better copy to allege Arsenal crashed out at the expense of some kind of plucky underdog, and it’s certainly not pretty, but it’s certainly not a disgrace.
Arsenal fans will be the first to say that Monaco was a disappointment, that in future we must do better, but we also shouldn’t lose sight of the bigger picture here and the journey we are on.
The signs on Tuesday night were predominantly positive and even if we do have more resources at our disposal, we’re still not in the league of City or Chelsea with their seemingly limitless funds.
To a certain extent it is praise indeed to be compared to them in spite of our reduced resources. In any case, an instant injection of hundreds of millions of pounds took several years to kick in at those clubs, so patience really is a virtue here.
Fundamentally I don’t disagree that it’s a shame to have gone out and that we had the capability to do better but I do disagree with the idea that it’s a disgrace, particularly in context of how other English sides faired in the same competition.
It’s not an issue to be judged or criticised, but let’s ensure that that judgement and criticism is balanced, that clubs’ performances are measured against those same standards.
People wonder why Arsenal fans often feel there is a media conspiracy against them. In reality we’re a pragmatic bunch, and we just want an honest assessment. We want the bar to be set fairly.
As a club, we have a bit of a reputation as a goody-two-shoes club, but that shouldn’t make us the target of playground bullying.
After all, that’s one behaviour that would be worthy of the name ‘disgrace‘.