Welcome to Arsenal: the smallest big club in the world

The 2006 Champions League final was a landmark in the history of Arsenal Football Club, in more ways than one.

It was, and remains, the closest the club has ever come to winning the most prestigious prize in European club football. That Arsenal team had no right to come so close, but they did. 13 minutes from the final whistle in Paris, they were leading their Catalan rivals by one goal to nil, and one of the most unlikely stories in European football history was nearly complete. Struggling in the Premier League and forced to field a makeshift defence for much of the knockout rounds, the Gunners somehow managed to piece together ten clean sheets in a row on their way to the final – a record that still stands today – and brushed aside the likes of Juventus and Real Madrid, two behemoths of the European game, in what increasingly began to feel like a story ripped right out of a fairytale. Even in the final, in which they were reduced to ten men early on after Jens Lehmann’s red card, they had beaten the odds and taken the lead through a Sol Campbell header before holding their illustrious opponents at bay for a large portion of the game. They were 13 minutes from glory before two late strikes from Barcelona cruelly snatched victory from Arsene Wenger’s men. It will forever remain a crushing case of what could have been for the club’s fans.

Had Arsenal had won the Champions League on that fateful Parisian evening, it could not have come at a more appropriate moment. The 2005/06 season was Wenger’s tenth in charge in north London, and after a decade of unprecedented domestic success that saw the club win four FA Cups, three Premier League titles and go an entire league season unbeaten, there could have been no more perfect a bookend to the Frenchman’s first decade in charge than success on the European stage. Arsenal’s fortunes on the continent were in stark contrast to those they had consistently enjoyed at home, with the club having never qualified past the quarter-final stage of the Champions League prior to 2006, whilst a prior European final under Wenger, in the UEFA Cup back in 2000, had resulted in a penalty shoot-out defeat to Galatasaray. Even during their Invincibles season in 2003/04, they were stopped in the quarter-finals by Chelsea. Wenger’s record in Europe was the only real mark against his name during those first ten years in charge, and had he managed to succeed in 2006 despite the defensive issues his squad faced, it would have been the most emphatic of responses to those who questioned him. Alas, it was not to be.

The summer of 2006 was also a significant period in the club’s history as it was the time in which Arsenal said goodbye to Highbury, their home of 93 years, and hello to a new state-of-the-art stadium close by at Ashburton Grove. Bidding farewell to a stadium that had been the club’s home for so long was always going to be hard, especially given the considerable success Arsenal had enjoyed upon its turf in its final few years, but the decision to move to a 60,000-seater arena fit for the modern age seemed, emotions aside, like a smart decision. The 38,000 capacity at Highbury was too small for a club like Arsenal, it was argued, and if the Gunners were going to capitalize on their success enjoyed around the turn of the century and join the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid at Europe’s top table, it was an absolute necessity for the club to move to a far bigger home capable of facilitating a booming, growing and dominant football club. As sad it was to leave Highbury, for many Arsenal fans this line of thinking was begrudgingly accepted – more fans meant more money, more money meant better players, and better players meant a greater chance of success. The club’s run to the final in Paris that year also reinforced the feeling that Arsenal were a club going places, with this exciting and inspiring European adventure coming when superb domestic success was still fresh in the mind and the squad was still chock-full of talent, from established Invincible stars such as Sol Campbell, Robert Pires and Thierry Henry to young, emerging talents such as Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie. The final defeat was heartbreaking, but it didn’t feel like it was going to be a one-off. It felt like it was a landmark moment as the club entered a fresh and exciting era. As hard as it was to take, it was still a good time to be an Arsenal fan.

Fast-forward to 2016 and, somewhat incredibly, another decade has passed with Arsene Wenger at the helm. These last ten years has been a little different though. Dreams of competing with Europe’s elite for Champions League titles whilst enjoying continued domestic success have dissipated for a far more depressing reality, with eight years passing between Arsenal’s defeat in Paris to their next piece of silverware – an FA Cup in 2014, later retained in 2015. Whilst winning (and retaining) football’s oldest trophy is nothing to be sniffed at, if you told an Arsenal fan in 2006 that those were the only competition victories earned during the first decade spent at the Emirates Stadium, their expression would have been as shockingly disappointed as that of a Liverpool fan told in 1991 that his side would still be waiting for their first Premier League title 25 years later. Those FA Cup wins were superb fun that provided lasting memories, and there have been some wonderful moments enjoyed at Arsenal’s new home, but there is no avoiding the fact that the Gunners are not the club they had hoped they would be by now. There is no legitimate case to be made for this club being amongst Europe’s best when they have made only one Champions League semi-final since defeat to Barcelona in 2006, and since 2010/11, Arsenal have exited the competition at the round of 16 every season. Not only have the European failures from Wenger’s first spell in charge continued, but the club’s success in the league has faded – as Leicester City beat Arsenal (and everyone else) to the Premier League title last season, the Gunners were forced to face the fact that the success of the Invincibles represented their most recent league win, now 12 years prior. This wasn’t the dream sold to the fans as they migrated to their shiny new stadium as their spiritual home was being converted into a set of luxury flats.

There are mitigating factors that can’t be ignored, of course. When plans were being made for the move away from Highbury, it could not have been foreseen that the club’s reduced financial power in the short term would have coincided with Russian oligarchs and Emirati royalty deciding to invest their immense fortunes into the coffers of rival teams. During Wenger’s first few years in charge, Manchester United were the only consistent threat to Arsenal’s supremacy in England, but Roman Abramovich’s acquisition of Chelsea transformed them overnight from Premier League also-rans to genuine contenders, whilst Manchester City suddenly found themselves to be the richest club in the country when the Abu Dhabi Group bought them in the summer of 2008. This sharp increase in competition during a time where Arsenal were restricted financially made things more difficult than what had originally been anticipated, and the work Wenger did in those first few years at the Emirates – consistently qualifying for the Champions League whilst the club’s best players were sold summer after summer – was commendable, difficult and respectable. Short-term success was sacrificed, for sure, but the pain suffered during this time would be worth it for the long term future that had been secured thanks to the stadium move. Once the debt had been mostly paid off and Financial Fair Play regulations came into effect, Arsenal would be in as good a position as anyone to compete. That was the logic. Just as it had been tough for fans to accept that leaving Highbury was the right thing to do, most accepted that the years of scraping into the top four and losing players to richer clubs was a necessary price to pay for periods of prosperity that surely lay just over the horizon. It seemed to make sense, even if it hurt, but it’s fair to say that the confidence in the future of the club that had been there in 2006 had begun to slowly erode away during those first few barren years.

It was with great relief, then, that in 2013 it was announced that the shackles were off. Arsenal had done their time, large parts of the stadium debt had been paid, and all of the years of sacrifice were now going to pay off with swathes of cash now at Arsene Wenger’s disposal due to smart and sensible frugality. Pundits and commentators alike described Arsenal as one of the best-run clubs in the country, and from neutrals there was a general sense of wanting the club to prove that huge spending from the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City could be countered by a club with a shrewd and financially viable business plan. However, there is no escaping the fact that the culture of “that’ll do”, born out of the club having to reassess its ambitions during the early Emirates years, has lingered on like a bad smell. For all of the money the club now unquestionably has, along with the immense support it enjoys around the world and the massive stadium it boasts – providing the club with more match-day income than any other, it must be said – one cannot escape the feeling that as of 2016, Arsenal FC is not the big club it presents itself to be. It ticks a lot of boxes, for sure, but after years of rightly or wrongly pinching the pennies, it is clear that it has been unable to transition itself from a period of austerity to one of prosperity, failing to do what it is necessary in order to compete again. With an owner who seems to care little about on-field success and a manager seemingly incapable of spending the money he worked so hard to help accumulate, the club finds itself stagnating in mediocrity whilst the landscape around them drastically changes. As much as many of us may wish it to be, it is no longer 1998, 2002 or 2004, and modern football has changed beyond almost all recognition. Huge fees must now be paid, to clubs, players and agents alike, but that’s what needs to be done in order to earn success. Every other top club in Europe has adapted, whether that means simply paying these inflated fees or being more ruthless with their players and their management, but Arsenal simply have not. They’ve signed big money names on occasion, but with the market moving at such a quick pace, they’re still reluctant to pay what is necessary to get deals done properly and on time. It’s an ongoing state of affairs that continues to baffle.

There is a general misconception about Arsenal fans that they are greedy and somewhat ungrateful when it comes to their expectations. Finishing in the top four every season would be a dream to many clubs, it is argued, and for years regular visitors to the Emirates have been treated to some beautiful football performed by some great talents. Whilst there will always be sections of a club’s fanbase who are unfair and overly critical, the vast majority of Arsenal fans just want to see their club do all they can to succeed, and if that requirement is met, not winning trophies doesn’t feel so bad. The likes of Atletico Madrid and Borussia Dortmund have proved in recent years what is possible with the right ingredients, and both of them have enjoyed winning league titles and reaching Champions League finals with smaller budgets than Arsenal now have. If there’s a will, then sometimes there might just be a way, but if you don’t even really seem like you want it, then forget about it. It’s hard to imagine that any other top club would allow such huge stockpiles of cash to accumulate as huge holes remain the squad season after season, and it is this sort of attitude that sees Arsenal fans tear their hair out with frustration. Success is never guaranteed in life, let alone football, but if you don’t even truly try to succeed then it won’t be handed to you. Right now Arsenal are a shell of a big club, with the stadium and the fans and the money, but they have the attitude of a small one. It’s become acceptable to go into a new season with only one fit out-and-out striker in the squad, or to pin your hopes on players who are either too old, too young or too injury-prone. If it’s the manager who accepts these shortcomings as acceptable, then the owner and the board are just as guilty for allowing the manager to get away with such thinking. Whoever is at fault, the current state of the club pales in comparison to the one Wenger moulded during his first few years in charge, embodied by the uncompromising personalities of the likes of Tony Adams and Patrick Vieira who would not stand for the seemingly laissez-faire approach that persists today.

No matter how you spin it, it’s clear to all that Arsenal seem to make the same mistakes every season, refusing to do what is truly necessary to catapult the Gunners to where the fans were promised they would get to back before they made the move in 2006. The post-match dissection of the opening day defeat to Liverpool on Sky Sports evoked a certain sense of deja vu, with the issues being raised after this game being reminiscent of those raised on numerous occasions before. At this point, surely most Arsenal fans are just sick to the back teeth of seeing their team fail for the same reasons every season as no lessons seem to be learned, and whilst it’s a sad thought that their team might not win a title or reach a European final again for a long time yet, it’d still be nice to give it a try, wouldn’t it?

You can follow Callum on Twitter at @callumjp92.

Callum Perritt

8 Responses to “Welcome to Arsenal: the smallest big club in the world

  • Santiago
    3 years ago

    beautifully written

  • Simon Wesson
    3 years ago

    Really like the article, apart from the intro. Load of old bollocks about us being lucky, or not deserved, to be there. We had one poor season in the league – often mainly as, towards the end, we were concentrating on the CL & rightly so.

    • Callum Perritt
      3 years ago

      Thanks for the feedback Simon.

      I never once said that we were lucky to reach the final or that we did not deserve to be there; my point was that it was improbable. The opposition we faced, our domestic form and the defensive injuries we suffered made our run to the final feel pretty special. We weren’t the team we were in 2003/04 at that point but still came so close to being champions of Europe, even with Wenger’s poor European record.

  • Excellent piece
    And am grateful to read a balanced critique of our problems rather than a twattering on Twitter

  • Jon Rankin
    3 years ago

    Great piece. It sums up exactly how i feel about my beloved Arsenal – frustrated that we accept limitations (such as only 1 striker or two injured central defenders) before the season even starts. Thanks for writing it!

  • Very well written! I don’t often come over articles like this one. Probably not looking at the right places.. Thank you!

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