15 May 2013

The burden of 15 years in the Champions League...and counting.

As Gunners calculate and recalculate the team's chances of securing a top-four finish, wondering if we'll stave off Spurs to claim 4th or even overtake Chelsea to seize 3rd, the 800-pound gorilla in the room is Arsène's 15-year streak of Champions League qualification. Absent any actual trophies, this streak has had to placate the Arsenal faithful; it is, in fairness, an unparalleled achievement in modern football. It's one that we should rightly be proud of even if it hasn't led to an actual trophy. The trouble is that the streak itself has achieved a life of its own. As a result, the burden of the past threatens to drag down the present and sink the future. Simply put, this streak will have to come to an end at some point. I'm not calling for it to end this year or at any time in the near future. As heretical as it may be, I'm simply saying that it will, at some point, end.

A streak creates tremendous pressure, and its end can bring relief. When Joe Dimaggio's hitting streak finally ended at 56 games, for example, he said, "I'm glad it's over. I've been under strain."The burden of sustaining such a streak can be immense. Whether it's an individual player or a team, each game poses a double-challenge: one, you must continue the streak to feed history. Two, you must win the game to sustain the present.  At times, these challenges coincide: go all in to continue the streak and climb the table. At other times, these challenges conflict: go all in to continue the streak even if it jeopardizes your form in the league. We've seen quite a few examples of teams that have relentlessly pursued one at the expense of the other. Last year, to cite a recent example, Chelsea put all of its eggs in the Champions League basket and won it all. In the process, however, they dropped to 6th in the Prem. Competing on both fronts--the Prem and the Champions League--will sap the strength of the biggest and best. One is like kryptonite to the other. It's therefore a bit unjust to our current squad to insist that they continue this streak. It's Arsène's streak; it's the club's streak; it's not the current squad's streak. Many of our players have joined the club long after the streak began, and that's a heavy burden to inherit. After all, it's arguable that a lengthy portion of that streak is down to how Arsène revolutionized how football is played and how players prepare. As the rest of the world has caught up to, imitated, and stolen from him, it has become infinitely harder to replicate that level of success.  Nonetheless, he and the club have continued to do it, often by confronting and, every once in a while, triumphing over clubs that spend and spend and spend.

Arsenal will never be mistaken for a minnow, not in Europe and certainly not in England. However, one of our trademarks of the last decade has been our ability to compete with and dispatch clubs with bigger budgets and more blue-chip talent. At the risk of this becoming an ode to Arsène, who else has achieved so much with so little? It's therefore a bit troubling to hear Theo say this about the streak:

The Champions League is big for the future of the club and the players. We have been in it for the last 15 years, and we don't want to be the players who are not part of that. We just have great experience in knowing what to do when the time is right. It happens every year, and we tend to finish very strong. I think it is just because the players want it so much.
His attitude speaks volumes about his emergence and growth of the man and the player. "We" have not been in it for the last 15 years; the club itself, represented by any number of players, has been. He attests to it more truly when he says, "we don't want to be the players who are not part of that." No one wants to be the one who breaks the streak. That creates pressure. That pressure can breed mistakes and miscues and may even explain some of the errors and dropped points we've suffered this year. The streak, then, becomes the proverbial monkey on our back.

Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe Arsenal will continue this streak of Champions League qualification for another decade, long past Arsène's reign, long past the tenure of any current player. However, with each passing year, the burden of that streak will only grow larger. In an ideal world, we fall just short, just once, if only to break the streak. Then, instead of fighting to finish 4th or better, Arsenal can focus its energies on winning Prem games as a path to the top of the table and let Champions League qualification become an afterthought instead of an achievement in and of itself.

Having said all that, I'm by no means ready to see the streak snapped this year or next or any year after that. Let's dispatch Newcastle to continue the streak for another year, and then set our sights on sharpening up the squad enough to dislodge one or both Manchesters from the top of the table. With Arsène at the helm, and with our current squad, we've shown enough quality to challenge. If we finish the job this year, we come back all the stronger. The addition of one player, maybe two, might be just enough to see us through.

Whatever the future holds, it looks to shine bright. The last two months of this season have seen an impressive, if not indomitable, string of results. 23 of 27 points taken. A defeat of Bayern at their house. One loss since February. Defeat Newcastle, and the streak continues. Victoria Concordia Crescit, indeed.