Arsenal did it.
They made hard work of it, they put their supporters through the mangle and they came perilously close to screwing it up, but they will compete in a 16th consecutive Champions League campaign.
Now they have to change. They cannot continue to put their supporters through this kind of torment, not unless they want to directly contribute to a spike of stress-related illness in north London.
Arsenal’s extraordinary run of late-season form, nine wins and two draws in their last 11 games, is testament to their potential and thus, a brutal indictment of their overall performance. No team capable of picking up 29 points from a possible 33 in the Premier League should be able to moan that they are incapable of keeping up with their rivals. Arsenal have the technical ability, what they lack is the mental strength and courage to make it count.
There is no reason for this football club to be in this position. No, they do not have a ludicrously wealthy benefactor like Chelsea and Manchester City and they do not have the pulsating global brand of Manchester United, but they are hardly paupers hanging onto the coat-tails of their betters. They have an annual wage bill of almost £150m, far in advance of Tottenham’s £90m.
Admittedly they spend just 75% of Manchester City’s total outlay, but they are within £30m of Chelsea and £20m of Manchester United. It is far from an insurmountable gap, especially when you look at the feats achieved by teams lower down the table.
The real problem is between the ears of their key players and is best highlighted with the disparity between their performances against Bayern Munich.
In the first leg, in front of their own supporters and under pressure, they wilted. Out in Germany, written off by the pundits, they played Bayern off the park and nearly pulled off the most extraordinary European comeback since Istanbul 2005.
Against Bradford in the League Cup, the prospect of humiliation chilled their blood and became a self-fulfilling prophecy. The sight of Jack Wilshere, exempt from criticism in this regard, gesturing furiously at his static team-mates, will live long in the memory. Time and time again this season, they fell short because they didn’t believe that they could do otherwise. Arsenal’s recovery has been incredible, but it shouldn’t obscure the lessons that need to be learned.
If the existing staff can’t be relied upon to fight for an entire season, then they need to be replaced by those who can. Wenger’s policy of buying younger players that he can work with and improve is admirable, but what he really needs is a bastard or two. He needs the kind of footballer who views defeat as a slur on his character and has no time for aesthetic appeal.
Some Arsenal fans complain that Wenger hasn’t spent enough money, but that’s just not true. Almost £45m was spent this season, over £50m the season before that. The money is being spent, it’s just not always being spent on the right players. The new TV deal and another season with their snout in Uefa’s cash trough should secure another handsome war chest. It needs to go on a vicious central midfielder, a beast to go with the beauty. But this is something that has been said for years.
Wenger’s contract expires next summer. If he leaves, he will be long remembered for the transformative effect he had on Arsenal and the English game. Future historians will credit him, not just with building a side capable of filling the Emirates Stadium, but prudently managing his resources so that the club could afford to pay for it. But if he wants the latter half of his tenure to be remembered as fondly for events on the pitch as it will be for the numbers in the ledger, he needs to push the boat out this summer.
Arsenal did exceptionally well to secure fourth place, but the sight of their fans celebrating, while being entirely understandable, still rankled.
Arsenal should not celebrate fourth place. They are better than that. Next season, they have to prove it.
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