As Arsenal prepare for yet another European campaign, their 17th in a row, the ghosts of the previous seasons will no doubt be haunting Wenger. After an appearance in the final of the Champions League in 2006, they have struggled to have any measure of success in Europe. Over the past few seasons, they have not even been able to make it out of the round of 16.
The previous seasons have all followed an all too familiar pattern for Arsenal. After getting off to a strong start in their group, they have gone on to lose their final game, thus losing the top spot in the group. This results in a round of 16 meet with one of the big clubs of Europe, which Arsenal then lose despite their best efforts.
It has become so common a pattern that even the players are speaking out about it. According to Jack Wilshere:
Over the last few seasons we almost thought we were finishing top and we lost the last game and it has cost us. Finishing top of the group is the target at the start. We always said that.
The previous season it was at Napoli, and losing that game resulted in us being drawn against the defending champions Bayern Munich. And despite fighting bravely until the last second, the away goals rule eliminated Arsenal at the round of 16 for the third time in three years.
This years’ last fixture is also a tricky one, an away game to Galatasaray, whose home stadium is infamous among English football fans. Arsenal will be hoping that they will be able to win this time around, avoiding repeating the familiar pattern again, and coming up against too dangerous a team.
But before that match, there is the away game against Borussia Dortmund midweek, and that is another game Arsenal cannot afford to take lightly. Borussia is a team who have shown their grit and skill, and they have faced Arsenal at the same stage last year as well. That game was won by Arsenal courtesy of a goal by Aaron Ramsey header; and all the Arsenal faithful will be hoping that we can pick up the three points this time around as well.
To Arsenal’s advantage, the Dortmund frontman, Robert Lewandowski, one of the most lethal strikers in Europe, now plays for Munich. That, coupled with injuries to Marco Reus and defensive lynchpin Mats Hummels, leaves Dortmund vulnerable. The midfield menace of Shinji Kagawa could still pose a menace, but provided Arsenal shut him down, this should be an encounter heavily in favour of the Gunners.
And Wenger will undoubtedly be thinking of the long term; a winning start should convert into momentum throughout the rest of the group, and by topping the group, Arsenal should finally be able to break their losing streak in the round of 16. This run has seen them face the likes of Barcelona, AC Milan and Bayern Munich.
This will not only be a massive psychological boost for a team that has struggled in Europe of late, but qualifying at the top of their group for the last 16 should strengthen Wenger’s position in the January transfer window. The club still lacks the serious depth needed to compete in Europe, especially in their defence. The injury to Mathieu Debuchy clearly highlighted that. Arsenal have also tended to struggle with injuries midway through the season, and a strong showing in Europe might buy them enough firepower to cross the line.
A few final comments by Wilshere clearly highlight the importance the manager and the team as a whole place on a strong European run:
He [Arsene Wenger] has been in it 17 years and had one final [against Barcelona in 2006] – he came close to winning that, he was unlucky, he had Jens Lehmann sent off – so I think this is the one he really wants. As well as the Premier League, he wants it for us. If he gives the Champions League to us it will also be like a present from us to him if we win the Champions League.