Arsene Wenger isn’t perfect.
He’s stubborn, he has a penchant for a gamble and he sometimes puts too much faith in players who then let him down. But one thing is undeniable: he’s consistent.
For sixteen seasons straight he has delivered qualification for the Champions League group stage, often against all odds. For those same sixteen straight seasons we have qualified from that group stage. And of course, in ten of those sixteen seasons, we have fallen at the next hurdle.
It’s easy to look at Liverpool’s victory in 2005, Manchester United’s win in 2008 and Chelsea’s jammy run in 2012 and not harbour a degree of regret. Certainly our best sides, notably those playing in the nascent years of the millennium, haven’t performed in Europe’s premier competition to anything approaching their capacity, but that is the only black mark against Wenger.
In the last decade or so we simply haven’t been resourced to compete with the European super clubs in the shape of the Spanish giants and Bayern Munich, but we’ve still had our fair share of big and exciting European nights at the Emirates. A 2-1 victory over Barcelona and a 2-0 victory over Bayern Munich are of course notable highlights, but in some ways our 0-2 loss to Bayern Munich in 2014 was as impressive in its own way, as the team defended valiantly despite being reduced to ten men for the majority of the match. The crowd were behind the players in a completely different way in that tie.
Van Gaal disappoints, Arsene delivers
We may complain that we have failed to progress as far as we might in both the early Wenger years and the most recent, but ultimately Louis van Gaal’s failure to qualify from a group where the top seed was PSV Eindhoven as champions of Holland just underlines how much we take it for granted that Arsene will deliver us to the knock out stages.
I neglected to favourite the exact tweet, but my favourite summary of Wednesday night’s achievement was to the tune of “Arsene Wenger always manages to deliver a top 4 finish and qualification for the Champions League group stages. However unlikely it may look, anyone who bets against him is a fool.”
And yes, I know I predicted glorious and valiant failure in this week’s Daily Cannon podcast, but that’s simply because we’ve seen it too often. And of course, the element I failed to factor in is that this is the group stage, where on this occasion the night was very much darkest right before the dawn.
Putting ‘failure’ into perspective
But how big an achievement is it to qualify from the group so many times in a row? Well, to put it into perspective we are the only team to have represented England in the Champions League who has not played in the Europa League (or indeed failed to qualify for any European competition).
Bearing in mind their annual spends and wagerolls, our biggest rivals domestically, in the shape of Chelsea (2012-13), Manchester United (2011-12, 2014-15) and Manchester City (2011-12, 2012-13), have all failed to progress from the group stage in the last five years, and in Manchester City’s case they didn’t even do well enough to make it through to the Europa League in 2012-13 albeit in the very definition of the Group of Death.
And of course, United failed to even qualify for any European football in 2014-15, as Chelsea would have done in 2012-13 had it not been for Bayern Munich’s abject failure in the Champions league final.
So consistent qualification and consistent progression is not to be sniffed at. Somehow, when it matters, Arsene delivers.
It’s not just about the destination, sometimes the journey matters
And all through that, he hasn’t compromised the pretty football we are used to just to achieve that qualification. When you look at the fare Louis van Gaal is serving up at Old Trafford this year with two deep holding midfielders, a sideways possession game with little to no risks taken and a series of expensive flops eschewed in favour of long balls up towards Marouane Fellaini, you start to appreciate Wengerball that bit more.
We’re familiar with possession for the sake of possession football – the Guardiola teams we seem to face on an annual basis are similarly boring, albeit with more quality – and in our darkest hours we’ve seen glimpses of that type of football when resources have been at their thinnest.
But even when the talent of players in the Arsenal first team hasn’t quite matched Arsene’s vision for the football he’d like us to play, Arsenal have gone out to entertain under Wenger. Ultimately this is often what then ruins us in the latter rounds of the competition, but at least it means that we get to enjoy the journey.
I firmly believe that sometimes you need the lows to lift the highs. Let’s be honest, would you have enjoyed Wednesday night as much if we’d beaten Olympiakos in the home tie? Being put through the wringer only to come out on the other side is part of what makes football so great, and it’s also a rite of passage for each and every Arsenal fan.
The biggest highs come when the biggest stakes are on the line and the odds are stacked against you. Putting to bed a nine-year drought was pretty pressured when we secured our first FA Cup for near on a decade. Winning by a two goal margin against the team in pole position to qualify in your place is right up there as well. And playing against the European superclubs when no one gives us a cat in hell’s chance of winning gets the juices flowing to an insane degree.
But this last experience is only possible by progressing, and that’s something that Arsene has delivered for us come hell or high water for the last sixteen seasons.
Consistent to a fault
He came out after the game and said that he is rightly proud of our consistency, and I couldn’t agree more with that. No other English club can even come close to matching our record of consistency in the Champions League group stages, and ultimately it’s a trait that will see us face a potential match up with the likes of Barcelona or Real Madrid while Manchester United could be making the trip to Group C winners Krasnodar in the last 32 of the Europa League. To quote the words of the Emirates crowd when an opposition side makes a substitution: “Who?!”
I don’t know about you, but I’m looking forward to another big European night come February.