When Atletico Madrid lifted the Europa League trophy on Wednesday, Arsenal fans, along with their former manager, may have had a sense of what might have been.
In losing to Atletico in the semi finals of the competition earlier this month, it ensured that Arsene Wenger would depart the club without having won any European silverware in more than two decades in charge, and denied him of a fairy tale ending.
It also meant that his last season would rank as the most disappointing of all, with neither a trophy nor qualification for the Champions League to show for the year’s efforts.
Even as a fan of a rival club, I’d have loved to have seen Arsenal go on and lift the trophy, as it would have been a fitting way for Wenger to end a tremendous and often underappreciated spell in North London.
Instead, the end of season narrative was very much in keeping with that of a club which has become less and less competitive in the league, and seen disappointments lead to a growing sound of discontent amongst a highly-divided fan base.
In many ways, Arsene Wenger was a victim of his own success. Arriving as one of the first foreign managers in the English game, he oversaw a culture change at Arsenal which gradually became the standard for all clubs. Lager-fuelled nights out after matches was to become a thing of the past for professional footballers, and both the fitness and professionalism of players was to change for good.
On the pitch, he transformed Arsenal from a club which had a reputation for solid defence to a team admired for its classy attacking football. It was effective, too. Arsenal won their first league and cup double under Wenger in 1998, and repeated the feat four years later.
Remaining unbeaten away from home throughout the entire 2001-2 season was an unprecedented achievement at the time, and Arsenal went one better a couple of years later when they went the whole season without a loss either home or away, with the 2003-4 season becoming known as “The Invincibles”.
But the football climate had changed forever during the previous summer, and Arsenal were to be among the big losers.
Where previously the rivalry had been mostly between Arsenal and Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United team, with Liverpool occasionally challenging both, the arrival of Roman Abramovich at Chelsea in 2003 caused a big shake up at the top.
Although Arsenal won the league in Abramovich’s first year in England, it was almost inevitable that the incredible wealth now at Chelsea’s disposal would see the Premier League title heading to Stamford Bridge before long.
During the first three years under the ownership of Abramovich, Chelsea’s average net transfer spend was a little under £100 million per year, which compared to an average outlay of less than £20 million per year by the other “big four” clubs during the same period.
Even Man United, the world’s richest club at the time, found themselves unable to compete with Chelsea until the 2006/7 season, a year in which they denied Chelsea a third straight title.
For Arsenal, the timing couldn’t have been more unfortunate, in that the cost of financing a relocation to the Emirates stadium led to a lengthy period of reduced funds for players while the stadium costs were being repaid, providing Arsene Wenger with an even tougher challenge if a fourth league title for Arsenal under his management was to be secured.
The strategy of making less money available for improvements to the playing squad might have been seen as posing a short term threat to Arsenal’s ability to compete with Man United for the title, even if the increased matchday revenues from moving to a larger stadium would eventually help the club compete financially with not only Man United, but with Europe’s top clubs.
But it was still a safe assumption that Arsenal’s would be strong enough to maintain a presence in the Champions League, and no one could have predicted the dramatic impact that billionaires at Chelsea, and later at Manchester City, would have on the domestic game.
However, Arsenal were far from the only club affected by the riches at Chelsea. An inability to compete at the same level has not been purely down to finance and in the years since Arsenal last won a league title, it’s impossible to ignore Arsene Wenger’s contribution to the club’s difficulties.
Stubbornness and loyalty – two very Wenger-esque character traits – are admirable at times, but both have undoubtedly been his weakness at other periods, particularly throughout the second half of his managerial career at Arsenal.
A reason for Arsenal failing to challenge for the title in the years dominated by Chelsea was often put down to a young Arsenal team, full of players who needed time to mature. But the excuse became less convincing as each year went by without the team showing any sign of delivering on the potential that was being regularly talked up by the Arsenal boss.
Rather than initiating a wholesale clear out of players who were so obviously a long way from the standard of Wenger’s title winning sides, the approach seemed to involve hoping that eventually the squad would come good – in spite of any credible evidence that it was ever likely to turn out that way.
The style of football also remained the same, but without the calibre of players who had made it both effective and pleasing to the eye. Arsenal had been known for trying to walk the ball into the net with intricate passing and clever movement in and around the penalty area. But with players of a lesser quality, it simply wasn’t working nearly as well as it had done. Not that Wenger ever conceded that change was needed; all too often facing the media to defend the indefensible.
Elsewhere, clubs such as Liverpool and Tottenham were ripping up and starting again. When it was clear that change was needed in order to close the gap on the top teams, there was plenty of transfer activity to improve the squads, and many of the players not good enough were sold.
Both Liverpool and Spurs have made mistakes, particularly when trying to compensate for the loss of seemingly indispensable players such as Luis Suarez or Gareth Bale. But there has been steady progress at each club, and both now look much stronger and better placed for future success than the current Arsenal squad.
Even Sir Alex Ferguson had been unafraid to almost start again with a new team, once the success level had peaked with the players he had, or when there was a risk of things becoming stale.
If Wenger’s loyalty to sub-standard players has been one of his weaknesses, it could be argued that his loyalty to Arsenal has been another. In a football world in which there is such a lack of loyalty, it might be an odd statement to make, but there always comes a time in which it is to the advantage of both parties that a change occurs.
Jurgen Klopp’s time at Borussia Dortmund is an excellent example. Klopp delivered enormous success at Dortmund, and remains the last manager to deny Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga – a feat he achieved during two successive seasons between 2010 and 2012.
But after seven years, Klopp considered it to be the right time for someone else to take over, and for him to take on a new challenge. Had he stayed for another 15 years, it’s difficult to imagine that there would have been a continuous period of success – particularly in competing against the might of Bayern.
Arsene Wenger may genuinely have felt that his young Arsenal team were heading for greatness, or perhaps felt an obligation to stay at the club until he had overseen the job of challenging for the biggest prizes once more.
Not since the mid 1990’s have those days seemed so far away, and his replacement will have a big job to restore Arsenal as a title-winning team.
But despite some of the struggles on the pitch, and all of the disappointments in failing to mount a serious challenge for either the Premier League or Champions League, the past 14 years haven’t been entirely lacking of success.
Arsenal have won the FA Cup in three of the last four seasons. Man United, in comparison, have won the FA Cup only three times during Arsene Wenger’s entire spell in charge of Arsenal. Wenger’s total of seven wins in the competition is the same number as Liverpool have won in the entire history of the club.
In Europe, Arsenal’s 20 consecutive appearances in the Champions League group stage is a competition record. And although the feat is often mocked by rival fans, mostly due to an absence of actual silverware in the competition, it remains a remarkable achievement, particularly given the increase in the number of clubs competing for Champions League places due to the emergence of Spurs and Man City over the last decade.
In setting the bar so high during his first eight years in terms of what supporters would expect, Wenger gave himself a massive challenge in delivering the level of success demanded, and has all too often watched on as his teams of late have fallen short – without really getting all that close in the first place.
There have still been enough positives overall during his time at Arsenal for it to have been considered one of the greatest periods in the club’s history. Not all fans will agree, of course, and many have been desperate for years to see him depart.
But in a Premier League age in which even Man United have gone five seasons without winning the title, it’s reasonable to suggest that supporters of almost every club in the land would be more than satisfied if offered one major trophy every other year over a twenty-year-plus period.
That Arsenal fans are no longer happy with that is testament to a man who, despite his flaws, will be regarded as one of the great managers in English football history.