Arsene Wenger's record on the line as early Champions League exit looms
It is only November but the willingness of Arsène Wenger to stress on Monday just how seriously he would take the Europa League underlined how Arsenal find themselves stumbling towards uncharted waters.
Anything but wins against Dinamo Zagreb and for Bayern Munich against Olympiakos will ensure that, for the first time since 2000, they will not be in the draw for the last 16 of the Champions League.
Wenger is adamant that the novelty of the Europa League would still be treated with the utmost importance and there was also defiance in his claim that, should Arsenal survive in the Champions League over the next 15 days, they can still threaten Barcelona, Bayern Munich or Real Madrid next year. To do that, as well as winning on Tuesday night, they are likely to need a two-goal victory against Olympiakos in Athens on Dec 9.
Injury is the added shadow now looming over Arsenal’s season and Wenger confirmed arguably the biggest blow of all on Monday with the long-term loss of Francis Coquelin to knee ligament damage.
“I believe that, when everybody is back, we have a squad to compete in both Europe and the Premier League,” Wenger said. “If we go through now in the Champions League we can be very dangerous for everybody.”
The Europa League looks more likely and there is even the argument – rejected by Wenger – that it would be better to drop out of Europe completely to maintain a Premier League title challenge that faltered on Saturday with a 2-1 defeat by West Bromwich Albion.
“We would take the competition [the Europa League] seriously but we are not out of the Champions League yet,” Wenger said. “I believe that this problem of the Europa League is exaggerated a little bit in England because we play already Wednesday-Saturday so it is the same as playing Thursday-Sunday. I can’t see the difference.
“There are plenty of examples in Portugal and Spain where teams have taken it seriously and won the league championship. Benfica. Sevilla have also done well.”
To be drawing solace from teams of the next tier was in itself revealing. Wenger, after all, is the manager who has so frequently defined his worth in relation to Arsenal’s consistent participation alongside Europe’s elite.
He is confident, though, that there will be no question of Bayern and Olympiakos playing out the draw that would guarantee both their mutual progress and Arsenal’s elimination. “That will be really Machiavellian,” Wenger said.
There will be a financial difference from failing to advance to the knockout phase of £10m-£70m but the wider concern is the impact it might have on retaining and attracting star players. There is also the very worrying sense that, in Wenger’s entire 19 years as manager, Arsenal have never looked less likely to win the one major prize that continues to elude them.
Moving to the Emirates Stadium was supposed to narrow the gap and, after a decade spent largely paying for their new stadium, Arsenal believe that they are now entering a delivery phase. Wenger’s job remains utterly secure regardless of what happens on Tuesday night but this is still the moment that they were expected to push forwards in Europe, not go backwards.
The problems started this season with that hint of complacency in resting key players against Zagreb and Olympiakos as well as the usual defensive weakness on the counter-attack. Arguably more worrying was how they were so dismantled by Bayern, especially as Wenger still regards the German champions as being a step behind Barcelona.
“Technically Barcelona are better than anyone else,” he said. “Would Barcelona win the Premier League? I think so. Barcelona dominated for five or six years in Europe with that generation. We have to accept that they are better.”
So does it follow that English clubs have no chance in Europe? “It can change until April,” Wenger said. “We have seen that before. Bayern, especially, have an advantage that can as well become a disadvantage. They win the league early and so to keep the focus maybe is a bit more difficult. Let’s see. Let’s be more pragmatic and take care of our game.”
Domestically, the worries are also growing and the great frustration is that familiar problems threaten to derail another potential title challenge. Yes, Arsenal remain within two points of the Premier League lead but the realisation that Coquelin will join Jack Wilshere and Danny Welbeck on the sidelines until at least the new year is alarming given the lack of reliable alternatives. Aaron Ramsey did rejoin training on Monday and will be in the squad on Tuesday but Wenger admitted that it would be “risky” for him to start.
Wenger also tried hard to talk up the credentials of Mathieu Flamini and Calum Chambers in the holding midfield position but his admission that he might also have to use the January transfer window felt telling.
The great frustration for supporters is that Arsenal had already lined up a deal for Morgan Schneiderlin long before he joined Manchester United only for Wenger to decide at the start of the summer that he no longer needed another central midfielder.
“We have players who play in this position,” Wenger said. “Sometimes this is a good opportunity for other players to turn up and show they can do the job.” But might it change his January strategy?
“Yes, of course. That depends now on what comes out of the scan from Francis. I will do what is needed in January, knowing as well that January is not an ideal market. I believe we have the strength inside the squad to deal with that problem in a quiet way.”
When Wenger was asked by one journalist whether he regretted not signing Schneiderlin now that he must rely on Flamini, there was at least a smile. “What is your name? – I will tell that to Flamini,” he said.