In the end, seemingly comfortable victories for Manchester City and Liverpool, finally condemned Arsène Wenger and Arsenal to the Europa League as they missed out on the Champions League gravy train for the first time in 20 years. So often over past seasons qualification for a place at European’s top table has been something of a saving grace for the Arsenal boss to cling on to and hold up as a perceived symbol of achievement, even if the chances of actually winning the competition have seemed more and more remote season after season.
As something of a pragmatist in these matters, I accepted some time ago that given the current ownership, board and managerial structure at the club, Arsenal will continue to remain outside of the European elite, the club’s rightful place being somewhere in the second tier of clubs across the continent. The perennial top four finishes have been less about the consistency and solidity of Wenger’s teams and as much about underperformance by others; last season being the case in point when the Gunners finished second without having truly looked like being capable of winning the title.
This year has been the club’s worst Premier League season under their long-serving manager. If we are honest the writing was on the wall right from the opening game of the season and the topsy-turvy 4-3 defeat to Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool; after which the Arsenal manager admitted that his team ‘were not ready’. Only fortuitous runs against poor sides added any kind of respectability to the Gunners’ points total.
The weekend brought news of a takeover bid by Arsenal’s other major shareholder Alisher Usmanov. Whatever his background and how easy it is for him to profess that he is a real fan and would operate in a different manner from the current regime, a manner focused on brining real success back to the club; it is also fully understandable how Arsenal fans, desperate for an approach that prioritises real success over growing the value of the investment, would get behind such a bid. Midway through the second half of the final home game of the season on Sunday the chant of ‘Stan Kroenke, get out of our club!’ rang round the stadium, it was possibly the most vehement the crowd have been all season; a true sign of the frustration that exists around the club these days.
It is clear that the quality of performances has deteriorated season after season and rather than moving closer to being able to ‘compete at a level like a club such as Bayern Munich’ as Chief Executive Ivan Gazidis affirmed back in 2013, the club continues to regress and fall further and further behind.
The majority of the fanbase accepted some time ago that if the club is ever going to progress and to compete at the very top of the game again, then change is needed on a number of levels; but the clear starting point should be in the dugout where new, innovative and fresh ideas are needed. Yet it seems there is little confidence that the ownership or board have any real commitment to doing what is necessary to move the club forward; happy instead to continue to grow the value of the asset until it is felt that it has reached its peak and Mr Kroenke will cash in as swiftly as possible. Even the loss of circa £50m from not ‘competing’ in the Champions League will be largely offset by the Premier League mega-revenues from TV.
It is of course theoretically feasible that Arsenal could end the season with silverware if they were somehow to luck out in the FA Cup Final on Saturday evening and beat champions Chelsea; and wouldn’t it just be typical of Arsène and Arsenal to do just that? Even then though the feeling would remain that the club is going backwards and the trophy itself merely some form of scant consolation.
By contrast to the stagnation at Arsenal, the Europa League Final on Wednesday evening, despite not being much of a game for the neutral spectator, showcased two clubs moving in the right direction, albeit with starkly contrasting strategies. Despite some largely underwhelming league performances, Jose Mourinho seems to be moulding the collection of modern day galacticos in his squad into a coherent, disciplined and tactically astute unit. While their approach to the final was far from the high octane, exhilarating football which was the hallmark of the club under Sir Alex; it was nevertheless functional and has delivered two trophies and a return to the Champions League in the self-declared special one’s first season at the helm. From here we can no doubt anticipate further spending but also further progress as he drags the previously ailing giant back to the very top of the game.
Their opponents in the final Ajax have long prided themselves on their production of young talent and their willingness (or indeed necessity) to blood these players and trust them to perform. The Ajax team that started the final at an average of just 22 years and 282 days was the youngest ever to do so, and while they were unable to find a way to break through United’s massed ranks and ultimately succumbed to the more worldly-wise team, assuming they can keep the squad together in the face of the circling vultures of the major European leagues, then the future looks bright for the Amsterdam club.