Tomorrow the Champions League resumes with an away fixture for Arsenal. Lisbon is the destination and Porto is the opponent. It may be longer than that but at the minimum, Arsenal have qualified from the first group phase for at least the past 8 seasons. However success in Europe’s premier competition still have not come in the way of Arsenal despite the continuous success domestically.
Now that the team seemed to be struggling in the shadows of United or Chelsea in recent times in the league, our European fortunes seemed to have gone on an upward trend. 2006 saw 10 Arsenal players fought tooth and nail against the mighty Barcelona in the final only to fizzle out in the last 15 minutes. Last season, we got into the semifinal only to be trumped by United. Contrastingly, we have struggled to mount a serious assault on the league title in those same years.
However, the pattern wasn’t always that way and in fact in the early years of Wenger’s reign at Arsenal, the pattern was reversed. We were the only side in the country that was capable of preventing United from winning the league every season but have found it hard to get going in Europe. Even the very best of them, the Invincibles in 2004 could not scrape past the wall that is Chelsea, losing in the quarterfinal stage. With Porto facing Monaco in the final of that season, we were left wondering of what might have been, had we been able to overturned Chelsea.
The biggest difference I believe is down to the way Wenger has shaped and build his team in the latter years. Gone were the powerhouse of yesteryears like Tony Adams, Patrick Vieira, Emmanuel Petit, Ray Parlour, Gilberto, Robert Pires, Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry. With these players in the team, there was no way we could’ve struggled like we did against sides like Stoke or Bolton, though not all of them played together. However, the movement of teams in Europe was a different scenario. We could not cope with the continental play of Bayern Munich or Juventus.
That all change as Wenger embarked on his youthful journey to re-energize the squad and perhaps changed the way we played in Europe. The 4-4-2 normally used was replaced with a more solid 4-5-1 where there is extra protection in midfield and an attacking unit that is ably supported by 2 wide attackers. The team became more dynamic in every area of the pitch. The ball playing skills of Alexander Hleb and Tomas Rosicky and the precision passing of Cesc Fabregas enabled Arsenal to become a fearsome team in Europe. Real Madrid were played off Santiago Bernabeu and AC Milan were humbled in San Siro.
Finding the right formula and balance to compete on 2 distinctively different competition is a big challenge for any manager. That is what Wenger needs to find right now, the right concoction to lift his holy grail that is the Champions League and to regain Arsenal’s place in the top echelon of English football.