It’s always been very difficult for me to watch football, and not relate it back to Arsenal. Even when watching games that Arsenal have no interest or investment in, I’m always trying to find a bigger picture where one scenario will benefit Arsenal.
This can be related to the Champions League Final on Saturday night. For me, this match is the pinnacle of football whether you have money riding on it or not with Unibet. Only the World Cup Final is comparable, and I’d rather see Arsenal win the Champions League than England win the World Cup.
In the build up to the game I was wistful. Reminiscing of my trip to Paris in ’06 for our sole final appearance, and re-living our recent failures to advance past the second round. As I tried to sleep in the departures lounge of Charles De Gauille airport the morning after our defeat to Barcelona, I remember wondering at the time whether I would ever see Arsenal play in a European Final again, and while you never know with football, I wouldn’t have expected a fleeting semi final appearance in 2009 to be the closest we came to returning to the final.
It’s not worth reviewing our recent Champions League knock-outs – that would be a blog entry in itself. Although we’ve suffered ridiculous bad luck, drawing Barcelona twice, Bayern Munich this year, and being paired against AC Milan when they were the strongest of the second seeded teams, it’s fair to say we ultimately haven’t been good enough to win this competition.
We were cheated at Anfield in 2008, and again at the Nou Camp in 2011, but teams which line up in Champions League knock-out rounds with Mikael Silvestre or Johan Djourou in defence are never really likely to make the final. (Although our 06 team comprised Senderos, Eboue and Flamini in defence – they are all far superior players to Silvestre).
So as I watched Bayern and Dortmund go head to head at Wembley, I couldn’t help but feel Arsenal are not that far away from competing. Bayern knocked us out on away goals, which is considerably more respectable than the thrashing they gave Barcelona.
Last year we beat Borussia Dortmund at home, and only a last minute equaliser from the Germans salvaged a draw at their place. It’s also worth noting we’ve more than competed with Barcelona in recent seasons.
I watched the two German teams on Saturday very closely, and the style of football they play is far more similar to Arsenal than it is to any of the other English teams regularly featuring in the Champions League. Bayern are formidable: a powerhouse of solid players make up the core of their team, while the flair players on either flank provide genuine movement and creativity.
Dortmund seem to play a more intricate, Barcelona-esque style, yet they are more dynamic than the Spanish counterparts, refusing to play 20 passes between each centre back.
I see Arsenal as an almost hybrid of the two. We finally have a solid defence, a defence which kept Bayern quiet in their own stadium, but our midfield is more reminiscent of Dortmund, technically gifted players who lack the brute strength of the Bayern midfield.
Of course, it would be unfair to label the Bayern midfield as just powerful hustlers, they are also incredibly good footballers with an unbelievable ability to retain the ball and play incisive passes.
The main difference between us and the Germans is our strikers. Our own German striker, Podolski, can’t get in the national team as Dortmund’s Reus has claimed the left striking slot, and in Lewandowski, or Mandzukic, or even Gomez, the two German sides have clinical finishers. I’ve often though Gomez offers very little but his stats speak for themselves. He is the opposite of Giroud, who I believe contributes a lot to Arsenal’s game play, but lacks the clinical finishing that separates a world class striker from the rest.
Arsenal have finally got a solid and stable platform to build from. If our defence can keep up its momentum shown in the last three months of the season, and carry that into next season then there’s no reason to think we can’t compete with Europe’s finest. All the noises coming from the club seem to indicate we’ll be gaining a bonafide striker, and with a proper pre-season together, Ramsey and Wilshere can be the skilful hustlers in midfield that drive us forward.
It seems to be common perception that Arsenal are no longer among Europe’s elite, but the run to 4th place showed a new found resilience and composure that we haven’t seen for a long time. Eight wins and two draws in the last ten games is a great platform to build from, and although we finished the league a place lower this season, we gained more points and controlled our own destiny.
Last season we drew at home to Norwich and lost at home to Wigan and away to QPR in the final weeks of the season. We limped over the line, and it was Tottenham and Chelsea’s failings that kept us in the race. This year we powered our way over the line, building up a momentum and focus that carried us through. Many of the performances weren’t pretty, but this is a results game, and Arsenal did all that was required of them.
For this I think there are reasons for optimism. We’re an experienced side with an ability to grind out results. The last season wasn’t an enjoyable one, but there’s reasons to believe that next season might be.
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