Arsene, Arsenal, The Apathy, The Agony & The Ecstasy
If it’s possible for something as complex as a football club to find that its future can be spun on its head through one short passage of time, then for Arsenal that short passage came over the course of five minutes during the evening of the 17th May 2006. The 2005/06 Premier League season had been an underwhelming one for a club that had become accustomed to regular success. Prior to that season, the club hadn’t finished below the Premier League’s top two in the previous eight seasons, lifting the title on three occasions, once – just two seasons earlier – having gone an entire Premier League season unbeaten.
Yet the signs of the Arsenal to come were starting to show their faces. At the very start of the season they lost the Community Shield final to Chelsea. They lost two of their first four league matches, whilst a run of one win in six league matches between the middle of January and the end of February finally banged the nails into the coffin in which their chances of winning the Premier League title rested. Eventually, they ended the season in fourth place in the able after grabbing the final Champions League spot from Spurs on the last day of the season, the relief and schadenfreude at this papering over the fact that Wenger’s team had eventually finished the season twenty-four points adrift of league champions Chelsea.
The media narrative of the time was only headed in one direction, though. Arsenal’s league season hadn’t been thrown off course by a squad of players that was starting to shed those that had made it great just a couple of years earlier. This wasn’t a matter of their replacements being inferior. The second half of Arsenal’s season had been defined by two things: parsimonious success in the Champions League, with their three knockout ties against Real Madrid, Juventus and Villareal producing just four goals and three goalless draws – with Arsenal conceding none whatsoever – and the club leaving Highbury for the more financially bounteous climes of The Emirates Stadium. Indeed, with the twin distractions of leaving such a historic home and reaching a Champions League final for the first time, finishing such a distance of the pace set by the league leaders starts to feel somewhat less surprising.
Arsenal were set to face off against Barcelona at the Stade de Paris with the hand of history on their shoulder. This was Arsenal’s first Champions League final and no London club had won the trophy before, so what better a way could there be for the club to say goodbye to Highbury than bringing back a the defining club football trophy of the age? And in addition to this, by the spring of 2006 it was already clear that the “Invincible” team of a couple of years earlier was soon to become little more than a memory. Winning the Champions League against Barcelona would be the most fitting way possible to pivot that transformation into New Arsenal, with the huge new stadium and recent Champions League win bringing in the calibre of players that could lock the club into a cycle of success that could last for a generation.
Even on the evening itself, it felt as though a story to be passed down through generations of Arsenal supporters was being written. Eighteen minutes in, Jens Lehmann became the first player to be sent off in a European Cup final and felling Samuel Eto’o outside the penalty area, with a goal also being disallowed for Barcelona at the same time. Still, though, when Sol Campbell headed in a free-kick from the right hand side with eight minutes of the half left to play, it looked as though perhaps they would be able to hold out. After sixty-one minutes of the match had been played, however, Barcelona introduced substitute Henrik Larsson into proceedings and his involvement in the game turned out to be pivotal.
Arsenal’s date with destiny took a wrong turn over the course of five minutes, with fifteen minutes of the game left to play. After seventy-six minutes had been played, Larsson’s pass inside teed up Eto’o to bring Barcelona level. Four minutes later, with Arsenal now looking visibly tired and defensively stretched, Larsson’s neat one-two with Juliano Belletti allowed Belletti, who had been on the pitch himself for less than ten minutes, to shoot through the legs of replacement goalkeeper Manuel Almunia to score what turned out to be the deciding goal for Barcelona. It was only their second European title, although they’ve won it another five times since then. Arsenal haven’t reached a Champions League final since then, failed to qualify for it at all last season, and look unlikely to get there again this time around unless they can win the Europa League. Chelsea became the first London club to win the Champions League, in 2012.
How different might things have been, had Arsenal arrived at The Emirate Stadium after having become the champions of Europe? It’s entirely plausible that winning that trophy would have been been something of an outlier, still marking the end of a chapter in the history of the club and opening a new one. After all, the money would still have rolled into Manchester City in the same way that is has, regardless of whether Arsenal had lifted this one particular trinket. But at a club at which so much of the id of so many different individuals and groups have been so publicly displayed over the years, might the psychological effects of arriving at the new stadium on a high – and arguably the highest high that club football has to offer, at that – have proved decisive? All we know for certain is that Arsenal have only finished above third in the Premier League once since 2006.
Yesterday’s match at The Emirates Stadium against West Ham United didn’t provide a great deal of advance notice of how Wenger’s departure from the club will be treated by either supporters or the club itself. There were a fair few empty seats on display for this match, though there were mitigating circumstances for this – Arsenal’s sixth place in the league has led to something of a sense of apathy around The Emirates Stadium for much of this season, for one thing, whilst the club’s decision to announce the news less than forty-eight hours before an early kick-off on a Sunday afternoon might not have been long enough for those with season tickets but who are being choosy about which matches they are attending at present to change their plans – but it remains entirely plausible that Wenger’s time in charge of the club could end in a significantly more muted tone than their opponents yesterday afternoon could manage this time last year merely from leaving Upton Park for the Olympic Stadium.
Just as Arsenal’s loss in Paris a dozen years ago might have marked the foundations of the club that we all recognise so clearly today, so Wenger’s departure from the club marks the closing of another chapter in the club’s history. Arsenal Fan TV might not have enjoyed the success that it did had the Arsenal team not made such an art form out of combining hubris and getting tantalisingly close to becoming The Real Deal™ again before falling flat on their faces to such supreme comic effect (an effect arguably only bettered by local rivals Tottenham Hotspur, one of the few bright spots of being an Arsenal fan in recent years), whilst even the Stan Kroenke takeover of the club, which took place in apparent slow motion, between 2007 and 2011, might never have happened had the team still been winning trophies during those years, but the club’s arrival at this juncture will change everything again.
Will Arsenal climb aboard the treadmill of modern manager acquisition, eschewing the building of further dynasties in preference the current vogue for the hottest names from the continent? Manchester United have shown how difficult replacing such a long-standing manager can be, and they went into it with a replacement decided by the outgoing incumbent and the Premier League title safely locked away in the Old Trafford trophy room. Perhaps the feeling that The Emirates Stadium needs a clean sweep through it will make a difference to Wenger’s successor. There will certainly be few at Arsenal who are calling for “more of the same” upon their arrival, after all. Or will the board make a decision to appoint a replacement out of the left-field? This would certainly be in keeping with the club’s recent policy themes of doing everything it can to keep supporters bemused and infuriated whilst holding out the possibility of happier times to come.
In some respects, nothing much changed at The Emirates Stadium yesterday afternoon. Arsenal were probably a little flattered by a three goal win against a limited opposition with little left to play for who still managed to buckle in the game’s closing minutes. The stadium itself was dotted with empty seats, and the feeling is very much that this match was something of a warm-up for the main event, this Thursday night’s Europa League semi-final first leg against Atletico Madrid, a match which will mark the first of either two or three which will determine whether the new Arsenal manager is coaching a Champions League team in their first season in charge of the club or not. There will be a send-off and it will doubtlessly be fulsome in its praise for the man who more than any other has made modern Arsenal what it is before the end of this season. But these chapters never close without a new one opening and, for that he achieved and all that he’s become reviled, we know only at this point that post-Wenger Arsenal will not be the same as the Arsenal of the last twenty-two years. Whether that turns out to be a blessing or a curse may well turn out to be one of next season’s defining stories.