Why finishing fifth would be good for Arsenal
I’d just seen Arsenal lose a European final thanks to a last-minute peach from a former Tottenham midfielder. But as I left the Parc des Princes, I felt brilliant. I knew that a painful defeat was just what the club needed.
Even at the time, the 1995 European Cup Winners’ Cup final felt like an epochal evening for the Gunners. The club had been crumbling on and off the pitch for months, even flirting with relegation. Yet caretaker boss Stewart Houston had somehow guided Arsenal, the holders, back to the final.
Had Houston won in Paris, it may have proved difficult for the board not to give him at least one more season in the driving seat. But the stand-in Scot, steady and affable as he could be, was never going to be the man to steer the club back to the fast lane.
So when the team lost, and lost so traumatically, it seemed like it was the best thing that could happen. Surely now, I felt, an almighty broom would be swept through N5, reinvigorating what had become an uninventive, mediocre squad.
Houston was swiftly replaced. Within weeks Dennis Bergkamp signed. Then David Platt. The next year Arsene Wenger arrived, a man who would reinvent the entire club, winning doubles, achieving a historic unbeaten season and playing breathtaking football.
Sometimes you need to fall in the short term in order to soar in the future. So thank you, David Seaman, for straying so far off your line that night. And gracias, Nayim, for capitalising on it. You really did us a favour.
Wenger's Arsenal, at home and abroad
- 2013/14 PL: 4th, CL: Ro16
- 2012/13 4th, Ro16
- 2011/12 3rd, Ro16
- 2010/11 4th, Ro16
- 2009/10 3rd, QF
- 2008/09 4th, SF
- 2007/08 3rd, QF
- 2006/07 4th, Ro16
- 2005/06 4th, Final
- 2004/05 2nd, Ro16
- 2003/04 1st, QF
- 2002/03 2nd, Second group
- 2001/02 1st, Second group
- 2000/01 2nd, QF
- 1999/00 2nd, Group stage (then UEFA Cup finalists)
- 1998/99 2nd, Group stage
- 1997/98 1st, UEFA Cup Round 1
- 1996/97 3rd, UEFA Cup Round 1
Two decades on, do the Gunners need to fall again? A growing number of their fans think so. On the eve of last season’s FA Cup final against Hull City, some brave souls were already suggesting that it would be better for the team to lose at Wembley, to force in a new era at the club.
Consistency or mediocrity?
What’s wrong with the current era, you may ask? After all, over the last nine years Arsenal have finished fourth in the league six times and third on three occasions. They’ve been ever-present in the Champions League, reaching the Round of 16 or beyond, including one final. Wenger’s men also reached three domestic cup finals, winning one of them.
Solid, dependable stuff, this would be enough to delight the fans of at least 88 other league clubs. Yet one man’s admirable consistency is another’s hellish mediocrity. Board members, true to the club’s cautious, conservative history, are just a little too pleased with the financial security this repetitious form delivers.
Wenger himself seems to have been pulled into a comfort zone: he said in 2012 that finishing in fourth place should be considered a “trophy”. The way he spends certainly suggests he is happy with fourth. Maybe I’m paranoid, but it’s hard to escape the conclusion that his policy is to leave the squad just short of title-challenging depth.
In the summer of 2013, he spent £42m on Mesut Ozil but failed to buy a much-required centre-forward. By the January 2014 window, Arsenal had put a sensational league run together and were just that new centre-forward short of serious title contention. No such player was bought.
Then, last summer, Wenger spent £84m but not a penny on the two positions in which his squad was least equipped: centre-back and defensive midfield. The longer this season goes on, the more Gunners fans brace for déjà vu.
Fourth, fourth and fourth again: if you ever feel like gambling all you own on which team will finish fourth, write ‘Arsenal’ on your slip, go home and sleep well. But as your bet comes in, that will be the sound of grumbles you’ll hear in N5. Because Arsenal fans have seen this film before, and its name is Groundhog Day.
Which is why, whisper it quietly, more of them are feeling it would be better if the club finished outside the top four this time. Maybe only a failure of that symbolic and financial scale would give the board and Wenger the wake-up call they need to spend big, fully invigorate the squad and get it challenging for the top domestically and in Europe.
It worked at Old Trafford. When Manchester United finished seventh last summer it proved such a kick up the backside that the board spent £169m on new recruits, bringing to an end a period of relative austerity.
ALSO ON FOURFOURTWO
"Compared to rivals, the Gunners are fiscal sophomores. It took Man City four years of shopping regularly from top-class supermarkets to build a title-winning team"
- Tim Stillman: What Arsenal need to compete for the title
Had David Moyes delivered a steady, top-four finish, it is hard to imagine that the wallet would have been opened so wide, nor that the likes of Radamel Falcao and Angel Di Maria would have been approached. It’s possible that those stars will help Manchester United to deprive the Gunners of a top-four finish this season, which would be a powerful demonstration of the benefits of disaster.
Fans of clubs who serially flirt with relegation often wonder if it would be better to take the drop and get to the root of the problems before bouncing back and reaching new heights. For Arsenal, in their 89th consecutive top-flight season and their 16th successive (if not successful) Champions League campaign, finishing outside the domestic top four would be the equivalent of relegation.
Could that be just what the Gunners need? Squeaky bum time is all very well, but sometimes a club needs a tactical clear-out before it can sit comfortably at the top table.