Speak to any Arsenal supporter about the rise of Tottenham under Mauricio Pochettino, and you have around ten seconds until you hear those same words: ‘Yes, but what have they won?’
There is a fair chunk of irony accompanied with that rhetorical question. After all, Arsenal measured its success for at least five years by its ability to finish in the Premier League’s top four, to the extent that the sarcastic notion of a ‘fourth place trophy’ became a cliche. It was in February 2012 that Arsene Wenger uttered the fateful line: “The first trophy is to finish in the top four. And that’s still possible. I believe finishing fourth is vital for us, so let’s focus on that.”
Part of this dismissal of Tottenham’s progress lies in rivalry, of course. Whereas once Arsenal supporters were celebrating a young foreign manager relying on scouting and a core of English players to cause a surge in performance in north London against bigger budgets in Manchester, now they would prefer to ignore it. To expect Arsenal fans to appreciate Pochettino’s work is to misjudge things completely.
Yet Arsenal’s predictable criticism contains a grain of truth. When you look back as a supporter 20 or 30 years later, you remember moments of triumph over seasons of progress. Results such as those against Real Madrid in the Champions League will hardly be forgotten by Spurs supporters, but there is nothing quite like the feeling of celebrating winning a competition. And I speak as a fan of a club whose last ‘major’ trophy was the Zenith Data Systems Cup in 1992.
In this sense, Tottenham and Arsenal are polar opposites, two clubs operating with contrasting ideals. Since 2013, Arsenal have gone from third to fifth in the Premier League but won three domestic trophies. Spurs have gone from fifth to third but won nothing. You could argue all day about which is better, and find tens of thousands of people prepared to do so, but let’s just settle on them being different.
That all puts Arsenal and Wenger in a quandary this season. Going purely on bookmaker odds, Arsenal are 6/1 to win the Europa League, but 7/1 to win the EFL Cup, 10/1 to win the FA Cup and as long as 100/1 to win the Premier League. They are shorter odds to finish in the top four, but the route from Europa League victory to Champions League participation poses an interesting question: If Europa league victory secures trophy and achieves the realistic aim for the season (Champions League participation), should that not be the priority?
In September, Wenger was coy on the issue. “We will take it seriously but the priority is to focus on the Premier League and combining the two,” he said. “Then, in December, we will see.” We shall bring forward that judgement date by ten days, but Arsenal are sixth in the Premier League and will top their Europa League group.
So far, Arsenal have treated the Europa League very much as the lesser sibling. The side picked in Cologne was actually stronger than the one that faced Red Star Belgrade home and away, but still comprised of a group of players who – Danny Welbeck aside – have little to no chance of breaking into the first team.
The entire XI picked in Germany has just 16 league starts this season, and Welbeck accounts for six. Could you honestly back him to break past Ozil, Sanchez or Lacazette on Saturday’s evidence? Next come Per Mertesacker, Mohamed Elneny and Rob Holding on three. One is retiring next May, another has never looked at the level required to merit a starting place and the third has started one league game since August.
Therein lies the issue with Arsenal’s squad. The first-choice side is so established that seven players have started ten or more of the 12 league games, and that doesn’t include Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil and Laurent Koscielny. So far this season, there is one XI for domestic matches and one for Thursday nights.
That avoids the issue of Thursday-Sunday fatigue which Wenger has regular revealed as an anxiety (and an issue that he is unaccustomed to dealing with), but Arsenal may have to adapt that strategy if he believes Arsenal can go far in this competition. Reiss Nelson and Eddie Nketiah are players for the group stages, not final stages.
It’s all a question of priorities, but Wenger may well find himself pondering the same questions as Jose Mourinho did 12 months ago. Manchester United’s manager circumvented questions about league progress by ensuring success in the Champions League’s little brother. Wenger could do the same.
It’s all a question of priorities, but Wenger hasn’t won a European trophy during his career and Arsenal haven’t won one since 1994. When the automatic retort to your rivals’ progress is to point out their lack of silverware, the perfect response is surely to prove that trophies really do matter to you.