My history* teacher at school used to have a saying.
(*sorry, I know I sound like a Liverpool fan banging on about history. I promise to try not to mention ‘five’…)
“Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.”
As Arsenal fans, our failings usually feel all too familiar, whether that’s pushing eight men forward and getting caught two-on-two at the back, conceding from the opposition’s first and only shot on target or finally equalising and then getting too carried away pushing for a win and conceding a sucker punch goal immediately.
Or our 2015 favourite: ballsing up a theoretically easy game because we have one eye on a match a few days later.
It’s no coincidence that the Dinamo Zagreb disaster directly preceded Chelsea away, or that the Olympiacos debacle was just days prior to the United game at the Emirates. Clearly, our collective eyes were either not on the ball or they developed temporary myopia.
This week we have a slightly different dynamic in that it is a Premier League game which is the theoretically straightforward tie while the critical match is in the Champions League. However, the principle is the same. No matter how much we need a win on Tuesday night, and make no mistake a victory is essential for our hopes of progression, we simply cannot even blink against Watford, let alone gaze in another direction.
Would you rather…?
My other half likes to terrorise me (and not just by supporting Tottenham) – he has a favourite game where he likes to ask truly irritating questions which start “would you rather” and then offers up two usually equally unpalatable options.
To give you a flavour, he recently asked “would you rather pay £1,000 or Arsenal lose the game?” Now, I want us to win every match but £1,000 is quite a lot of money so it would have to be on a game by game basis…
Another gem was “would you rather win the Champions League final and get relegated, or lose it and come 17th?” A tough one, and proud as I am of our record of never playing in a lower division, I’m also very keen for us to get a star for our badge.
Needless to say, as someone who hopes to have their cake and eat it, it’s a game I hate.
This week’s conundrum posed was “would you rather beat Watford or Bayern?” and I have to confess that I found this a particularly gut-wrenching question. After all I am, as Paul described me a week or two ago, the “uber-optimist” and the idea of accepting we cannot (on balance of probabilities at any rate) win the Champions League in any given season is alien.
Chelsea won the competition with arguably their weakest side in a decade and Liverpool…well, how they have won it this millennium and we haven’t is remains a complete mystery.
Realistic or defeatist?
But the truth is that the European giants have continued to exponentially improve at a far faster rate that England’s top sides and, as lamented by many before me, the strength of our domestic league is our greatest issue on the continent. It sees a larger number of top sides sharing talent which in Germany, Spain and France would be concentrated in just one or two teams, and of course there is the increased strength of the so-called lesser lights which mean that there are no easy games to recover or rotate.
No, it feels like we are as far from winning the Champions League as we have been at any point in my lifetime, and it kills me to admit it. But there’s an added complexity here.
Another well-worn cliché is that success breeds success, and certainly we handled our second FA cup final in as many years with considerably more aplomb than our first.
However, the “x years since” websites that track the time passed since our last league success have clocked up another year, and it feels that in many ways a domestic triumph should be the real focus – for now.
In the cold light of day, our chances of winning the Premier League far exceeds those of winning the Champions League and so Watford should be our number one priority. (It should be anyway, of course, but I’m talking about in the unlikely that we were forced to choose, by an inane contrived game…)
By all means, let’s have a real go at Bayern on Tuesday evening, but we cannot allow ourselves to be distracted by a prestigious tie. Of course, I do recognise a certain irony in that I’m writing this article which already looks ahead to Tuesday, but my eye on the horizon is markedly less important to Saturday’s result than the players’!
These types of games against teams we are expected to beat have formed the bedrock of our consistency in recent years and, while less glamorous, we need to deliver if we are to reset those website clocks.
Otherwise, we could be condemned to repeat both the types of performances and results that have seen us slip to embarrassing defeats in Europe. And with no guarantee of more positive exploits against the Germans either.
Indeed, as Mr Hopper used to say, if we do not remember our past failings and neglect to focus on the first task at hand, then we are sure to repeat a shameful defeat. Something like that, anyway – I could be paraphrasing…
But he’s absolutely spot on. If we don’t give the Watford game the attention it deserves, then the Champions League will not be our only doomed campaign this season.
And 2004 already feels like a long time ago.