Arsenal Discussion: Champions League Qualification or FA Cup Winners?

A couple of weeks ago now, I wrote the below discussion on whether Champions League qualification for next season or winning the FA Cup this season would be better for Arsenal Football Club. Although this discussion is now ultimately irrelevant, here is what I put together at the time…

“Would you be prepared to give up Champions League football (next season), for winning the FA Cup this season?”

On the face of it, this should be a simple answer. Champions League football is what every team aspires to compete in year upon year and Arsenal fall into that bracket more than most having consistently qualified for the tournament over the last 14 years. However, the thought of a seventh consecutive season without a trophy brings its own implications.

This question could be looked at in a very similar way to another question often on the minds of Arsenal fans, should Arsene Wenger stay or is it finally time to go? In both cases, one answer will satisfy the short-term need for a change and the other keeps the declining clock ticking away.

For winning The FA Cup would be the equivalent of removing Wenger from his position as manager. It would silence the doubters and give the critics some food for thought. The constant reminder of the number of trophyless seasons would be reset to zero  and people would no longer be able to state that Wenger has done all he can for the club if he was to move on as they would be focusing on who ever had replaced him.

On the other hand, yet another trophyless season but qualification for next season’s Champions League would keep in line with Wenger’s ‘bare minimum’ expectations. A similar approach is often applied for reasoning behind Wenger’s continued stay as Arsenal manager. It isn’t yet disastrous so there is no need for him to be replaced.

Forgetting the Arsene Wenger debate, the initial question is almost impossible to answer right now as an Arsenal fan. This is mainly due to the fact that we are neither here nor there. We have lost 8-2 in the same season as winning a match 7-1. We followed up a run of 8 league wins from 10 matches, with 1 win in the next 6. Not many teams will score 7 goals from their trips to Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge. Very few will go to The Reebok Stadium and fire a blank! Yet during all of these ups and downs domestically, Arsenal managed to be the most efficient and eye-catching of the English representatives in this season’s Champions League.

In years gone by this question would have been a relatively straight forward answer. Maybe due to the fact that we wouldn’t have really had to consider Champions League qualification. This season it is under serious threat. Not that it hasn’t been before, but previously it has been one team chasing and we’ve been able to come out on top in a two-horse race, normally in the latter months of the season when we have been knocked out of everything else and can put all of our focus on the Top Four finish. This year however, if you consider that the two Manchester clubs are a foregone conclusion, it is then two from five to claim the remaining spots. With Tottenham as well having a sizeable advantage over Chelsea, Newcastle, Arsenal and Liverpool it could quite possibly be one remaining place in a four-way battle.

The need for Champions League football has been greater in previous years, as it is probably one of the things that kept certain high-profile players at The Emirates for so long. Arsenal’s whole squad has been revamped in the past six months and the expectations have altered as well. Before, when we had the likes of Clichy, Nasri and Fabregas there was always a thought that we didn’t need to win something this season as they had the rest of their careers to win trophies. And slowly but surely, the years ticked by as the trophies still remained elusive. The current squad is considerably older and the likes of Arteta, Mertesacker and Benayoun haven’t got the time on their side to fall back on. They have all achieved things at various clubs in their career and have all played in the Champions League. Maybe for them, winning a trophy and actually having a medal to show for their efforts would mean more to them than simply putting themselves in the shop window that the Champions League has become every year.

The likes of Tomas Rosicky, Abou Diaby, Theo Walcott, Johan Djourou and Alex Song have all yet to taste silverware as a first-team member at Arsenal. In fact, only Robin van Persie has had the experience of winning a trophy during his Arsenal career. This perhaps goes some way to explaining why he makes the ideal captain. He understands what it means to win a trophy for a club like Arsenal and he can lead the rest of the team to do the same.

Winning The FA Cup this season would hold more significance than normal and that is with no disrespect to the competition. But for Arsenal, an FA Cup would mean finally starting to create some new history at The Emirates Stadium. We’d finally be able to add another silhouetted cup with four digits following it.

Missing out on Champions League qualification sounds a lot worse than simply saying missing out on finishing fourth. This has a lot to do with what is currently wrong with football, especially English football. The number of teams that would rather finish fourth in the league than win a trophy is incomprehensible when compared to say twenty, thirty years ago. Finishing fourth in anything isn’t really an achievement. There are three competitors that are better than you. Winning The FA Cup would mean that we were the best team in that competition.

Economically, I don’t think Arsenal would suffer from the loss of revenue that we would experience by missing out on Champions League qualification. The biggest worry for Arsenal fans is the future of Robin van Persie should we fail to hold our place at Europe’s top table. You could argue however, that leading his team to triumph at Wembley in an FA Cup Final could become one of his proudest moments in his life. Would HE prefer this than seeing yet another fourth placed finish?

As with most things where football is considered, it is very hard to predict exactly what is going to happen in the future. That’s why we all say that hindsight is a wonderful thing. The same is true here as if you had the foresight to see where both options took us in the future, it would be much easier to answer the question that relates to the present.

For example, an FA Cup win this season but a 5th, 6th or even 7th placed finish in the league would obviously mean missing out on the Champions League next season. But we would then have the Europa League. For all of its faults, it would be a good chance for Arsenal to win a European trophy. So in 12 months time, we could have won an FA Cup, a Europa League and got our top 4 spot back. Considering the other option, we could finish 4th this season only to fall out of the top 4 next season having not won a trophy yet again. Obviously, scripts cannot be written which makes it necessary to make a decision based on the present situation and what has gone on before.

We are not the first big club to suffer from shortcomings of their usual and expected success. We ourselves are not unfamiliar with going years without success. However, nowadays there seems to be much more of a requirement to satisfy those footing the bill of the multi-million pound assets we see on display at state-of-the-art stadiums week in, week out. Earlier this season, we met Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League. One of Germany’s biggest clubs, the most well-supported team in Europe based on percentage of their capacity stadium being filled every week, they were European Champions in 1997. Within a decade, they flirted with extinction due to financial pressures as well as relegation from the Bundesliga. The dealt with the adversity and last season overcame the odds to regain their first Championship since 2002 with one of the youngest teams ever seen in German top-flight action. It showed that you can regain the greatness you once had and that perseverance is very important.

Arsenal is a club built on pride, class and tradition. However, our pride has taken a hit over the last couple of years. From Carling Cup Final embarrassments to losing 4-0 leads. From being overtaken by Spurs to losing 8-2 at Old Trafford. It hasn’t been an easy few years for Arsenal and their fans. And while our class will never be in question, our tradition of winning trophies has come to a severe halt. My biggest fear if we don’t win a trophy this season, is when exactly will we win a trophy?

Trying to reach a definitive opinion is as much as a struggle as trying to achieve a place in the Top Four! As mentioned a moment ago, the amount of high-profile embarrassments that have occurred recently have not really been balanced out. Beating Barcelona last season and winning 5-3 at Stamford Bridge this season stand out, but days like these are too few and far between for a club like Arsenal. I believe that winning The FA Cup would be a massive boost for the whole football club and finally the supporters would have something to celebrate. It would be a reward for the unbelievable loyalty showed by the majority of Arsenal fans.

There is more to winning a trophy than just beating your opponent on the day. There is all the build-up to the final, and The FA Cup Final is still the biggest domestic club cup final that there is going. There is also the trip to Wembley, okay not much of a day out for Arsenal fans with it also being located in North London but still, you can’t beat the atmosphere that sounds The FA Cup Final. If you win it, you have all of the celebrations and then possibly the open-top bus parade of the trophy. All of these are things that have not been sampled by anyone related to Arsenal for too long now. It is time that changed, and if that means missing out on the Champions League, then so be it. In ten, fifteen, twenty years time, it will not be remembered who came fourth this season but trophy winners are always there for everyone to see. There is a reason why fans historically have sang songs about going to Wembley, attending finals and winning trophies. I don’t recall any lady wearing a yellow ribbon in the hope that her team would finish fourth!

Without reading too much into the future and trying to stay away from putting on rose-tinted spectacles, I strongly believe that something like winning The FA Cup would provide us with a platform to build upon. We would move away from this stuttering along season after season, being there or thereabouts all the time and we’d finally have a trophy to celebrate. I think we would just have to worry about not being in the Champions League when it comes round to it and we would have the consolation of a domestic honour.

After careful discussion and seemingly swaying from one answer to another, I would come to the conclusion that winning this season’s FA Cup would be better than simply finishing within the Top Four. Like a team that’s going to win The FA Cup, we shall not be moved!

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