With the loss to Olympiakos, Arsenal have now qualified for 13 consecutive seasons in the knockout phases of the Champions League. And yet despite that laudable achievement, for the first time since I’ve been watching football, Arsenal are almost certainly the team that the other clubs want to get in the draw.
Arsenal don’t really tackle, they don’t really press (offensively or defensively), and they haven’t had a player who has been able to put this team on his back and carry them through a tough game. In short, Arsenal don’t have a lot of flair. Apart from maybe one or two moments yesterday, Arsenal are a fairly boring team to watch. I fact, this Arsenal team are a copy of a memory of a once great team: as if a talented painter once saw Seurat’s Bathers and attempted to copy it point for point purely from memory.
This ghost of a team had arguably the easiest qualifying group this season. Ok, maybe not the absolute easiest (Man U) but surely Schalke, Olympiakos, and Montpellier were three of the easiest teams any top club could hope to draw. Imagine what Henry, Vieira, Campbell, and Bergkamp would have done to those teams in 2003. And yet this Arsenal limped through the group, backing in to the next round via a loss.
Arsenal were so limp in so many of the games this Champions League season that in the six games Arsenal averaged just 7.8 shots per game. As long as I have been watching them, Arsenal have never averaged such a paltry offensive output. Juventus was in a group with Chelsea and Waxtap and they have managed 22 shots per game (aren’t they a defense first team?).
I will now be accused of reactionaryism but truth is that yesterday’s loss didn’t even hurt. I felt nothing, because it was inevitable, like the club’s exit from the FA Cup or a loss to Man U. This team has been in decline for a long time and we all know it.
And don’t give me this guff about the lineup yesterday. Sure, Arsenal fielded a team of misfit toys and rejects who will likely be sold in January but like I said, the decline in this team is not about just one game. Go back to the home loss to Schalke or the two-goal lead squandered against Schalke, those are what cost Arsenal the top of the group honors. Go back to last year, or the year before, or the year before, how many shocking results do you need before the shocking becomes the norm? Arsenal are a team which stutters and sputters, sometimes they play well (5-2 Spurs), sometimes they play poorly (Aston Villa), and most of the time they play mediocre. They happen to be playing more mediocre than ever before.
Yet, given that nearly all 15 teams above us are probably better teams anyway, and the fact that the team had already qualified, Olympiakos was a match that didn’t really matter. Do we care if Arsenal get Juventus or Real Madrid in the next round? Barcelona or AC Milan? No. So yesterday’s loss to Olympiakos was a chance to get some rest for an Arsenal midfield that is almost certainly in the red zone, a chance to shop some players Arsenal are trying to offload (Squillaci, Arshavin, and Chamakh), get some playing time for a guy coming back from an injury (Rosicky), and see what a couple of youngsters are made of (Ox and Meade).
A chance to rest some players ahead of the really important matches like West Brom this weekend. Arsenal could climb out of mid table with a win over West Brom and start making a charge for the 4th place cup. And ultimately that’s more important than some dead rubber match in Greece.