Comment - Why Tottenham's Champions League struggles make Arsenal's consistency look so impressive
Published 23/11/2016 | 18:00
There was one word that Arsene Wenger used on Tuesday afternoon, one word that showed how much of a prisoner he is to his own consistent high standards, set and maintained for 20 years.
“I feel guilty,” Wenger admitted, “when we finish second [in a Champions League group] and have a difficult tie.”
For five of the last six Champions League seasons, Arsenal have finished second in their group. That has given them harder last-16 games, stopping them from reaching the competition’s last eight. For a club who reached the final in 2006, and the semi-final in 2009, this decade has not been good enough. Hence Wenger’s guilt.
But it is easy to forget, as we often do, what an achievement it is simply to get there, over and over again. Negotiating a Champions League group stage takes some skill, especially when balanced against the weekly drain of the Premier League. Arsenal have qualified from the group stage 16 years in a row now. There are worse things than getting into a rut of finishing second, rather than first.
Just look at Tottenham. They have worked so hard to get back into the Champions League, improving year-on-year under Mauricio Pochettino. They were drawn into a group with two other good teams, but no big beasts. Yet in their four games against Bayer Leverkusen and Monaco, they were outplayed four times. They can beat Arsenal in a one-off game but they do not have those years of accumulated experience that count for so much in Europe.
Or look at Manchester City. They have come closer than any English side in the last few years, losing in the semi-final to eventual winners Real Madrid last season. But they could not get out of their group in their first two tries, and then stopped at the last-16 in their next two.
Playing in the Champions League is different. It is slower and less power-driven than the Premier League. It requires a different approach. While Leicester City’s anti-possession approach has shocked their group, they have also benefited from diverting all of their resources into it, rather than defending their Premier League title. But Tottenham have tried to balance the Champions League and Premier League, hoping to take their way of playing with them. It has not worked at all.
“The difference in the Champions League is that, everywhere you go, the teams all play football,” Wenger explained yesterday. “But in the Premier League, even if you have 80 per cent possession you can still lose the game. The pressure on the Premier League games today, is massive.”
The Premier League is certainly more physically demanding, if not mentally, which is why rotation is geared to be fully fresh on the weekend, rather than midweek. “Before the Champions League game was the game you had to prepare,” Wenger explained. “Today, the Premier League game is the game you have to prepare.”
It might not sound like much but it is the balance that Wenger has perfectly struck every year this century. That, more than anything else, is what keeps Arsenal secure at the top table of the English and European games. As Tottenham are finding, one good run is not enough. You have to stay there too.
Independent News Service