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October 28, 2003

Arsenal falters in Europe

Only the statistics were worse than Arsenal's defeat at the hands of Dynamo Kiev last Tuesday: eight games since a win in the Champion's League, one goal scored in the last three matches, and five points in the standings out of second place with just three games to go. How can a team that has either been first or second in the Premier League for the last six seasons find it so difficult to make the jump to European-level games?

A popular theme in the English press is simply the poor quality of the team, but frankly this is far off the mark. One could entertain the argument that last season's elimination loss to Valencia in the Mestella was a reflection of the superiority of Arsenal's opponent, but this argument surely breaks down when faced with additional losses to Panathanaikos, Real Mallorca, and Schalke ‘04 a couple of seasons ago. In addition, the team even allowed AS Roma to claim a point at Highbury last season after Arsenal had gone a man and a goal up after only 25 minutes. The same 11 players frequently return to England after midweek capitulation to record sound victories against the likes of Manchester United, Liverpool, and Chelsea. Nor can it be the alleged overreliance on the Gunners' French ace, Thierry Henry, since domestically his presence on the team is not necessary to secure victory against the very same championship rivals.

Arsenal's principal problem lies in tactics, and it is a problem that took juggernaut Manchester United as many as five seasons in Europe to address. It is common knowledge that the English Premier League places an emphasis on attack over defense, and Arsenal is no exception to this rule. Since Arsene Wenger's arrival seven years ago, the Gunners have developed into a team brimming with attacking flair which frequently makes up for defensive frailty, and the five domestic trophies acquired are evidence that this is indeed a wise path to take. Alas, in Europe opponents are not so easily intimidated by Arsenal's relentless, high-paced brand of attacking football, nor do they exhibit the readiness of English clubs to attempt to match Arsenal's attack. The Gunners are at their most dangerous when the opposition plays offensive football, since this leaves the gaps that Wenger has trained his legions to exploit so effectively. A well organized European team will always try the patience of Arsenal, which is why so many games that the Gunners should have won have resulted in draws. This point is reflected perfectly in the superiority of their away record to their home record—opponents always play more offensive football away from Highbury. Manchester United did their share of huffing and puffing in the mid-'90s as canny teams from the continent soaked up the Red Devils' overenthusiastic attacks: Galatasaray and Rapid Vienna are but two of Europe's lesser lights that managed to punish Manchester United's naïveté.

Yet tactics alone cannot account for some of Arsenal's more pathetic results in Europe. The last eight winless games have been marked by some notable misfortune. Few would argue that Inter Milan did not deserve to crush Arsenal as they did so punitively earlier this season, but equally it would be folly to assume that the Gunners did not deserve more from the other seven games, which included five draws. Calamitous errors, the woodwork of the opponent's goal and dodgy penalty taking have conspired to rob the Gunners of some well earned points, and the result has been sagging confidence. Over the last two or more European campaigns, there has been only one game where even Arsenal's most ardent critics can claim that the Gunners earned more than they deserved, which was the 1-0 victory in Auxerre last year. This leaves 26 other games where at best justice had been done, and at worst, a robbery of which Ole Gunnar Solskaer and Teddy Sheringham would be proud. It is a point that Chelsea's Italian manager, Claudio Ranieri, has often made and with good reason.

Before you dismiss this all as the whining of an embittered Arsenal fan, consider the important part, which is the solution. First, employ a shaman to secure some much-needed good fortune. Second, learn to play with more patience. One of Arsenal's most composed recent home victories in the Champion's League was that against the then-German champions Borussia Dortmund last season. The key to the team's victory was defensive discipline combined with patient and tactically sound attacking. It was not a game noted for any exciting, end-to-end action but, then again, a win is a win. If Arsenal doesn't respond soon, the only thing the team will be remembered for is suffering from a prolonged footballing schizophrenia, and not even a shaman could fix that.