Sisyphean Tasks

Arsenal are undoubtedly the biggest club to never win a European Cup, excluding nouveau riche clubs PSG & Manchester City, and it remains the empty spot in Wenger’s trophy case. One loss in the Final and one loss in the Semi-final are the closest that the club has gotten and the last five seasons have seen Arsenal knocked out at the Round of 16. But the record of fifteen years making it out of the group stages of the Champions League (UCL) is the best in Europe, save Real Madrid. Cool, records are nice but what’s the point of pushing the rock up the hill if it will inevitably tumbling back down, crushing us in the process? The failures against Barcelona, Bayern, & most recently Monaco, have been torturous and many Arsenal ask themselves, “Whats the point?”

That fifteen year record could come to an end this season. Currently, Arsenal must beat Dinamo Zagreb & Bayern beat Olympiacos in the next round and then beat Olympiacos by more than a goal in Greece in order to make it into the knockout rounds. This isn’t an impossible ask but it is a significant challenge. The bookies give them about a 20% chance of making it through.

Arsenal’s next fixtures are West Bromwich Albion-13th (A), Zagreb (H), Norwich City-15th (A), Sunderland-19th (H), Olympiacos (A), and Aston Villa-20th (A). This is probably the easiest run of fixtures that the team will have this season. On top of that, the end of the international break is supposed to bring with it Ramsey, Bellerin, and Ox, with Theo soon after. Monreal, BFG, Coquelin, Ozil, and others will be avoiding international duty and should get some rest. The stat of Arsenal losing all three matches in Greece against Olympiacos in the last 6 years leaves out that they were all the final group stage matches and thus dead rubbers that saw reserves and youth play. All of these things point to the Gunners having a greater chance than things appear on the surface.

 

I have heard many Arsenal fans arguing that we should scrap the whole thing and try to finish last. There are a few arguments:

  • The task of getting through looks pretty improbable at the moment
  • We wouldn’t win the UCL league even if we made it through
  • The Europa League isn’t worth winning as a trophy
  • Any European football, especially on Thursdays, makes it tougher to win the Premier League

Frankly the argument that you can’t win it is ridiculous. 95% of the teams don’t win the league in a year and 98.7% of teams in the Champions League don’t win in a given year either. The idea of “If I’m unlikely to win, I’m just gonna take my ball and go home” is ridiculously childish. Sure, you play to win the game and winning is everything and if you’re not first, you’re last but the trying IS the game. Lifting the trophy is a great memory but the goals and struggles and wins along the way are more important. If you focus on likelihood of winning as the reason to support someone or something, frankly you shouldn’t even be an Arsenal fan (or a fan at all). Go follow Bayern or Madrid or Barcelona.

If Chelsea can win the UCL under Roberto di Matteo, then this Arsenal side can lift the big-eared trophy too and, surprise, the only teams that can win it are the teams that are still in it.

 

The Europa League, home of Spurs, the League Cup of Europe, last seen by Arsenal in 2000 when they lost to Galatasaray in the Final, is the second option. I disagree with the idea that it’s not worth winning. It’s a major trophy and a European one at that. Our back-to-back FA Cups prove that we can win in knockout competitions, if taken seriously, and the sides that we beat in those runs are at least Europa level sides (Liverpool, Spurs, Everton, United). Playing on Thursday & Sunday would not be ideal but United and City won the league in seasons that they dropped into the Europa League after the group stage (they both made it to the round of 16 in that competition, an additional four matches). The year that Chelsea won it, they finished third, an improvement on their previous season. The statistic for English teams dropping an average of 2.3 places from the previous season by being in Europa is heavily weighed down by the Hull Cities, Fulhams, and Wigans, whose squads aren’t designed for Europe and can’t sustain the additional dozen or so matches.

It is a misconception that the Europa League would mean a bunch more games. Those extra matches happen prior to the group stage, entry after that would only see two more matches than the UCL, as the knockout starts at a round of 32 instead of 16.

I’m not saying we should try to finish third, but I don’t think it would be the end of the world.

 

The final option is trying to drop out of European competition. The argument is that it would significantly lower the amount of games and we could “focus on the league”. Less games played means less opportunities for injury and the possibility of playing a non-rotated squad for every match. While not playing in Europe was credited with helping Liverpool’s title tilt two years ago, dropping at this point in our season would only mean two less matches than last season (and the four seasons before that), the round of 16 games. Liverpool was able to avoid twelve matches that they played in Europa the season prior (four play-in, six group stage, & two knockout) because they missed on Europe entirely and twelve is a much more significant amount.

The two English clubs to finish bottom of their group in the UCL (United 2006 & City 2013) didn’t see an uptick in their domestic results after being out of Europe and both finished in second in the league those seasons. It seems to make sense that being out of Europe would allow us to focus on the league but there’s just not enough data to support that it is an effective strategy and I hardly doubt that two, four, or even the full seven possible matches is that significant.

 

Another wrinkle in the “play as few matches as possible” theory is the FA cup. That’s up to an additional six matches on the fixture list to contend with. I understand not being too concerned about the League Cup but the Europa League is a much more prestigious win than the FA Cup. How can you argue we should throw a European trophy but try to win three FA Cups in a row?

 

Personally, I’m partially swayed by all of these arguments. I think making it through the group will give the team confidence, keep a record & the hope of winning in Europe alive, and the money & prestige from still being in the competition would be nice.

Being in the Europa League isn’t the end of the world either. It’s a winnable competition that we have enough squad depth to handle (unless we lose another eight first teamers to injury) and would be a new challenge from the familiarity, and contempt that it has breed, of the Round of 16 in the UCL.

Being out of Europe could be the trigger for a title win but it could also be the type of thing that derails the squad mentally, even for a few matches, and could see us drop points to win the league right before the critical Christmas fixtures. I don’t know if it would help and neither does anyone else that tells you they do because it hasn’t happened to us before and hasn’t worked for anyone else either.

I think there is a danger in trying to “game” the system and lose games on purpose. A pivotal memory for me was the Colts throwing away their perfect 14-0 season to rest starters for the playoffs. They lost the Super Bowl and the only modern team to have a perfect regular season is their most hated rivals. On top of that our club prides itself on “doing the right thing.” Gamesmanship always feels dirty. Even if that’s what you wanted, how upset would you be if Bayern let Olympiacos win so that we would be out?

Arsenal should put forward our first eleven, or close enough to it, against Dinamo and kick the crap out of them, turn around do it to Olympiacos. The fixture list for the upcoming month could not be friendlier and it’s terrible juju to not try to win a game. If we had given up when it looked impossible, we wouldn’t have almost beaten Barcelona at the Nou Camp (thanks ref), seen Ox stun as a midfielder against Milan (thanks Bendtner), or beaten Bayern twice (thanks Giroud). It’s those memories , even if they were in the end defeats, that stay with me as a fan. I’m proud of the way we fought for them. We should play to win every game, every competition.