Tuesday 21 November 2017

Wenger must be more selfish in pursuit of Arsenal legacy

Arsene Wenger has plenty to ponder after Tuesday's costly defeat
Arsene Wenger has plenty to ponder after Tuesday's costly defeat

Sam Wallace

Each time Arsenal stumble in the Champions League, each season they look further away from winning it, the thought occurs that the club which plays at the Emirates Stadium is the biggest, most successful in the continent never to have been champions of Europe.

Manchester City may object, given their current status, and Everton too, but Arsenal's 13 league titles are the equal of those two combined.

In Spain, Atletico Madrid are the most successful club never to have been European champions but have fewer domestic titles (10) than Arsenal.

Ditto the likes of Paris Saint-Germain, Lyon and Saint-Etienne in France; or Schalke and Borussia Monchengladbach in Germany.

Sporting Lisbon, the only one of Portugal's big three never to have won it, have more domestic titles (18) than Arsenal, so too Rangers (54), but neither have the same status in the modern Champions League.


Lazio and Roma have never won the European Cup either, but they are ranked eighth and ninth in Italy's table of all-time league titles. Arsenal are third in England behind only Manchester United and Liverpool.

Asked on Tuesday night whether the 3-2 defeat to Olympiakos that places his club in a perilous position in the group stages was the worst moment of his Champions League career, for once Arsene Wenger hinted at the depth of his feelings on the matter.

"No," he answered. "Sit on the bench and lose a final and I will ask you the [same] question."

Next May will bring the 10th anniversary of Arsenal's 2006 final defeat - that needless sending-off for Jens Lehmann, Thierry Henry's missed opportunity to score a second before Barcelona equalised - and it looks like that will be as close as it gets for Wenger in the penultimate year of his most recent contract.

Given the glittering career that the Arsenal manager has enjoyed, and the obvious missing piece in his set of achievements, it is hard to comprehend how he willing is to compromise now, in the twilight of his professional life.

It would be most understandable - indeed, entirely welcome - if Wenger was to throw everything at winning the Champions League, and yet his priority on Tuesday appeared to be the feelings of his second-choice goalkeeper.

The selection of David Ospina backfired disastrously and while things like that can just happen in football - "a farce" was how Wenger described attempts to pin the blame on the goalkeeper - they seem to happen a lot to Arsenal.

It is entirely possible they could beat Bayern Munich once in the next two games. And they may well still qualify for the knockout stages - they have done so every year since 2000.

But where is the urgency for success in Europe that characterised United in the 1950s and 1960s and then the 1990s, or Liverpool in the 1970s, or even Nottingham Forest at the end of that same decade?

Only at a comfort-zone club like Arsenal could they be so at peace with their missing trophy.

This is a club with a £265m turnover, with Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil, with a finely-developed sense of tradition and a great history.

Yet their Champions League campaigns never begin with that desperate longing for success that, at other clubs, was a crucial part of winning the trophy for the first time.

Tuesday's omission of Petr Cech, truly one of the finest players in his position in the world, may not have been the game's defining factor but it was a perfect way of defining Wenger's attitude.

This is not a manager who shows the signs of being gripped with an obsession with winning the European Cup, in the same way as Alex Ferguson once was, or before him, Brian Clough. "I knew I would be branded as falling short of the ultimate standard as a manager if I did not stretch that list [of trophies] to take in the European Cup," Ferguson said when reflecting on his state of mind in the days before his 1999 triumph.

Wenger would not take kindly to the comparison with Jose Mourinho, but it is noticeable that his old nemesis is sparing no one in his bid to shake some life into his side. The Chelsea manager would never have considered dropping his best goalkeeper out of loyalty to an inferior one.

Mourinho guards his own reputation above all. Wenger, now more than ever, is entitled to be selfish, to build that legacy for himself but on Tuesday he again seemed unwilling to put that first.

And that comfortable mentality permeates to his team, to the likes of Ozil and to Ospina and to Kieran Gibbs, whose progress has derailed so noticeably of late.

It has undoubtedly got harder to win the Champions League over the 10 years since Porto and Liverpool were the unlikely champions in the two seasons before Arsenal's 2006 final.

Yet Arsenal's drift has been disproportionate and the mentality seems to be that they cannot win it - when lifting the Champions League is exactly what a club of their history, not to mention their size and standing, should have done by now.

Independent News Service

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