4th Place vs. Any Silverware: Assessing Arsenal's Ambition
One particular phrase stood out from Arsene Wenger's assured call for solidarity at Arsenal's AGM today. The Gunners boss stated that the third of the five trophies Arsenal compete for is Champions League qualification, as reported by Arsenal.com.
The key part of his statement at the shareholders meeting was the following quote, taken from BBC.co.uk:
If you want to attract the best players, they don't ask if you won the League Cup, they ask if you play in the Champions League.
It's a now-familiar refrain from Wenger about the merits of targeting a fourth-place finish in the English Premier League as a minimum, yet essential requirement for Arsenal's season. The notion, as much as any other issue, likely divides opinions among Arsenal's support.
On a personal note, the idea, that assuring qualification for the UEFA Champions League is as good as a trophy, is one area in which Wenger and this author are of one mind. To target silverware—any silverware—is, above all else, simply an intention to place a pot on the mantle.
However, during a protracted trophy drought, and given the nature of sports and accolades, is this a fair assessment?
Many supporters, of Arsenal or any other club, would argue that football is about claiming trophies.
It is a view often accompanied by the words "plain and simple," but one that certainly has its allure. For Gunners fans, it leads to an inevitable question: How would they feel if Arsenal finished this season having claimed the League Cup?
As much as this may appear like a shallow achievement, it's hard to deny that there would be some joy from seeing Arsenal add a diagram and date to the gap in the Emirates Stadium ring of honour. Yet would the solitary cup triumph in this example be enough to slake the unrest at Arsenal?
Would it be sufficient to make Gunners fans believe the club is truly still punching its weight amongst the game's elite? Do Liverpool fans feel that way after lifting the same cup last season?
The truth is that even if it came along with a fourth-place finish, the League Cup probably wouldn't create a sense of euphoria and hope for a bright new era at Arsenal. However, is simply being in the Champions League any better?
Even a man as eternally optimistic as Wenger must recognise how difficult it would be for his current squad to claim Europe's biggest prize.
Competing against unlimited spending power, both at home and abroad, is enough to sap the reserves of any manager, no matter how strong his conviction.
The 2012-13 version of Arsenal could well be destined to be eliminated again in the opening knockout phase by the first truly quality opponent they face. However, it would still create a sad feeling not to see Arsenal in this season's tournament, or the next.
Wenger's record of consistently qualifying for a place at the Champions League table is a truly remarkable achievement.
Those who chastise him for not spending to keep up with the way rich owners have changed the game should also acknowledge how the Champions League has altered European football.
Now, finishing fourth and participating with the best on the continent are equivalent achievements to capturing second-tier trophies. Wenger is right to point out that credible player recruitment can only be achieved with the lure of Champions League football.
However, the danger lurking on the other side of the argument is the illusion Arsenal's regular entry into the competition has created. In a world where the slightly grating adage, "perception is reality," applies now more than ever, Arsenal's annual appearance in Europe's premier tournament gives the impression they are still an elite club, when they are not.
That's not meant as a savage attack on Wenger or what he has tried to do, but seven years without a major trophy is hardly suitable criteria for being labelled "elite."
Maybe Arsenal should consider reassessing their ambitions and targeting trophies, first, no matter the level of that silverware.
It creates a natural tension between the club and its fans when Wenger and the hierarchy continue to talk an act like legitimate contenders for major trophies, without the squads to deliver them.
Why not instead target the domestic cups and risk a few campaigns in the Europa League to rebuild the club's trophy-winning pedigree?
During their barren seven years, Arsenal have lost two League Cup finals and one FA Cup semifinal. How different would those seven years look if the Gunners had claimed even two of those prizes?
Many would say much better, but the problem with that argument is how much better would they look?
Would two League Cups suddenly make the last seven seasons seem like a rip-roaring success?
In all likelihood, the same fans, who now hound Wenger for having won nothing in that time, would instead bemoan only two League Cups in seven years.
That's not to say Arsenal still shouldn't take these competitions seriously; if they find themselves in the Europa League, they should certainly play to win it.
Wenger's record in the League Cup is fantastic and shows that, despite his habit of using the tournament to hone young talents, his cup teams still play to win. However, the harsh fact remains that, no matter how much fans and pundits talk about the accumulation of trophies—any trophies—for the purpose of football, only two really matter.
For a Top Four EPL club with means, the only two prizes that truly mean something special are the League title and the Champions League. As superfluous as concerns about image are—and they can certainly be open to a variety of interpretations—Arsenal's prestige demands annual admittance into the Champions League.
With sponsorship deals, a 60,000-capacity stadium and more, for the ability to continue trying to build better squads, keeping a seat at the Champions League table must come first for Arsenal.
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