Monday, December 11, 2023

Re-learning Europe

Morning all.

I wrote yesterday about the technical level of Tuesday’s Champions League semi-final between Real Madrid and Man City. It’s something to aspire to, and I’m sure that in his planning (remember we’re in year three of the manager’s initial five), it’s where Mikel Arteta wants us to be. We’ve come a long way, but still have some distance to go to replicate that, and to do it with consistency. Watching those two teams was both exciting, in a way, but also slightly scary.

Then I watched last night’s other semi-final between AC Milan and Inter when blokes older than me scored goals (*cough), and I realised that those two are kind of outliers. Maybe you add Bayern Munich to that, and perhaps Barcelona, but beyond that? I don’t think we should be afraid of too many teams in next year’s Champions League. Which isn’t to downplay the quality of others, not to mention we’ve had our European struggles under Arteta – including this season when we went out to Sporting – but in terms of the technical level of the teams, I don’t think we’re far off as it is. And if we add well during the summer, it goes up again.

It’s fascinating to think about it though, because we’ve spent seven years out of the Champions League now. It was just a fact of Arsenal life, year after year, season after season, we qualified and that’s just what we did. Until we didn’t. I don’t want to go over all the reasons why, we know all that, but it was so ingrained in our seasons. Did we make the most of it? Probably not. All those Round of 16 ties against the likes of Barcelona and Bayern didn’t help, but we also made life difficult for ourselves, or the times we won our group, one of them would finish second in theirs and we had that excruciating familiarity of playing them again. Or goddam Olympiacos.

Perhaps lost in the mists of time is how long it took us to get used to playing in the Champions League under Arsene Wenger. I can remember clearly watching a game against Barcelona away, we drew 1-1 with a bit of smash and grab goal from Kanu who celebrated with Thierry Henry and Davor Suker. This was the game in which Gilles Grimandi was sent off for elbowing Pep Guardiola, and when you look at the Grimster’s history of elbowing people in the face, the fact he clattered both Pep and Diego Simeone suggests a prescience in the Frenchman that he doesn’t get sufficient credit for.

The main point, however, is that despite being the reigning Premier League champions and clearly a very good team, we couldn’t get near the ball that night. That continental style was still very difficult for us, and we had so many games in those early seasons where that was our undoing in many different ways. I don’t want to scratch too many old wounds this morning, but if you’re of a certain vintage, you will remember them well. There’s something almost inexplicable about how our best teams under Wenger didn’t do themselves justice in the Champions League, while our cobbled together bunch of defensive misfits in a team transforming away from the Invincibles into something else made the final.

So, it’s going to be really interesting to see how we deal with this level next season. As I said, technically I don’t worry too much, but there’s more to it than that. Dealing with the schedule is an obvious one – and this is why I think Arteta has been almost evangelical when it comes to the idea of players being able to produce performances every three or four days, because like it or not, that is what the best players in the world do. We have to supplement our squad too, no doubt about it. Without the requisite depth, we’ll struggle – as any team would – but the change in mindset is another thing. I wouldn’t dare suggest players might look at the Europa League in anything other than a professional way, but deep down we all know it’s the poor relation. The Champions League is different.

Next season, we don’t just want to be a top four team, consolidating our position in that regard. We want to be title challengers again, right? Arteta consistently talks about how the expectations at this club should be to win every game, in every competition. It’s going to be a challenge for this team, and when coupled with more intense European action, it adds another layer to it. Which, by the way, is exciting. I don’t say this to be fearful, this is what we’ve all wanted for a long time so let’s embrace it. At the same time, we have to be cognisant of the reality too, so let’s keep fingers crossed we can rise to that challenge as the Champions League music rings around the stadium next season.

Right, that’s it for today. Back tomorrow with more, and a brand new Arsecast.

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