Why 4th place is the prize
Last September I wrote a blog post entitled Targeting 4th place, based on the fact that this was, in my humble opinion, the best that Arsenal could hope for this season. The underlying facts were that ManUre would continue to be a dominating force (and bolstered by the signing of Judas van Persie), Man City would be in contention to retain their title, and Chelsea would rise again after a disappointing 6th last season. Last season Newcastle were looking like a threat (a concern which has since evaporated), Spurs were in contention for robbing Arsenal’s perennial Champions League spot, and Liverpool were slowing improving and could pose a threat by 2019.
The day after that post Arsenal travelled to Liverpool, and I briefly considered that I was wrong. Very wrong. After a couple of no-score-draws Arsenal bossed this match and a 2-0 win didn’t do the performance justice. Abou Diaby, back from injury at last, looked imperious. Cazorla and Podolski were magnificent. Suddenly I was thinking “maybe”. A 6-1 hammering of Southampton followed… and then it returned to normal service. A draw against Man City (not a bad away result I suppose) and then a home defeat to Chelski. Mediocrity had returned. By the time Arsenal lost 1-0 at Norwich I was convinced that it would be another season scrapping for 4th place.
This past week in the life of an Arsenal fan can only really be summed up with one word, and I apologise because it’s not big and it’s not clever, but that word is ‘shit’. The FA Cup represented the best chance of a trophy, and being handed a home tie against Blackburn one should consider oneself lucky… but no, Blackburn had other ideas. Arsenal huffed and puffed and played their tippy-tappy football around the outskirts of the Blackburn penalty box for most of the game, and then Blackburn scored with one of their few excursions up the other end of the pitch. An all-too-familiar scenario. On Tuesday night Arsenal were outclassed by Bayern Munich and progress in the Champions League looks unlikely (and that’s an understatement).
Everyone complains that Wenger has spent no money – he has (over £50 million in the past year by my estimations) but Arsenal have lost key players. Although they’re weak in a couple of positions, the squad is actually pretty good. What they don’t have is belief. Look at Manchester United – at the moment I don’t think they’ve got a great squad. They’re very good, but not great, nowhere near the best they’ve had over the years. But what they have is belief and confidence. Every time they take to the pitch they believe they’re going to win and that it’s their God-given right to win. If they don’t win, they come back stronger next week. As much as I don’t like him, I recognise that ManUre’s manager Alex Ferguson is at the heart of this conditioning – he instils that winning mentality into his teams, year after year (the good news is that when Ferguson retires ManUre will go into decline). The problem with Arsenal is that I don’t think Arsène Wenger has this quality. Clearly in his time he’s got a lot of things right, and he did once have a knack of picking up great players (Henry, Pires, Vieira and Petit to name but a few). But now more and more that knack and his ability to inspire is missing.
Okay, let’s finish up here because I could go on forever. In life you have to re-set your expectations every now and again. Last August the prospect of coming 4th and winning nothing else would have been disappointing. Right now 4th place is everything. 4th place gets you back in the Champions League. If you’re in the Champions League you get more revenue coming in, you’re more likely to retain the players you want to retain and you’re more likely to secure the players you want to bring to the club. Consider the alternatives – losing your best players and being unable to sign good players. 4th place shouldn’t be the only ambition every season, but when you’re left with nothing else it’s a pretty good consolation prize.