Foul Throwdown: Would it be a major achievement for Arsenal to lift the Europa League?
This is our first debate piece. Drink it in.
We are going to be discussing what it would mean to Arsenal football club to lift the Europa League trophy at the end of this campaign. Not in the sense that we'll be evaluating the importance of attaining Champions League football, but rather, where the success would rate in the annals of the Gunner's history. Would it be remembered as a glorious continental triumph or par for the course in a tournament they should see as a ticket back to the big time? In short, would it be a major achievement if Arsenal won?
To argue each side are us - Will Jones and Will Almond. To avoid any forename-based confusion, we're strictly Jones and Almond from now on.
We realise if Arsenal fail to get past Atletico Madrid then this piece will be entirely redundant. We've made our peace with that.
As an Arsenal fan, my desire to see us win the Europa League stretches beyond just wanting to see us back at the continent's top table next year. I want to see us win it primarily because winning it would be bloody brilliant. Because winning anything is bloody brilliant, but European trophies especially so.
It's not like we have form in the European arena either. If we were tripping over Champions League medals then I'd concede the Europa League crown as being something of a damp squib. But we're not.
There are only two European successes in Arsenal's history: the UEFA Cup Winners' Cup (1993/94) and the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup (1969/70). Neither of those competitions exist anymore.
Any opportunity for Arsenal to add some more entries to our European honours list on Wikipedia must be taken seriously. To achieve it, even at Europa League level, would be a major success for Arsenal, and one I'd savour.
As a Leeds fan I do understand the desire for trophies, don’t get me wrong. The closest I’ve been to celebrating a trophy in recent memory was finishing second on a dramatic last day of the season to achieve promotion from League One back in 2010. But although I celebrated like we had won something that day, it still wasn’t a major achievement. It came at our lowest ebb and so was to be celebrated as progress rather than success. Arsenal are at their lowest ebb for 23 years – the last time they finished lower than 5th was the 94/95 season – and so I’d say the same about this competition for them.
To make a more appropriate and more recent comparison, Manchester United were mocked last season by Arsenal fans for being in the Europa League. Even after winning it, Jose Mourinho’s treble claims were dismissed as the ramblings of a manager rapidly losing his touch. United fans (with the exception of those actually in Stockholm) celebrated the win as a ticket back into the premier European competition.
I think that for Arsenal to view winning this trophy as a major achievement would be admitting defeat. It would be a fundamental lowering of their sights. I’m not saying it would be inappropriate for Arsenal fans (in Lyon and beyond) to celebrate if they won, but a club like Arsenal should still see a tournament like this as a means to an end. Their rivals certainly do.
One thing needs clearing up here first of all. On a personal level I can say that I didn’t mock United for the Europa League success. I’m not aware of a huge number of Arsenal fans who did, but given the intense, blinding tribalism of football fans it wouldn’t surprise me if it were the case. I’ll also confess that, in the moment, I wasn’t jealous of their triumph either.
What I did mock (openly and extensively) was Mourinho claiming a ‘treble’. We all laughed because he included the Community Shield in that trio. That’s just funny.
Anyway. That’s Manchester United. Arsenal are not Manchester United and that’s my point. We went toe to toe with them for a decade, when we were the only team who could - that is to Arsène Wenger’s eternal credit. But it should not disguise the fact that they are a bigger club with Champions League trophies in their cabinet.
The FA Cup aside, comparing the clubs’ honour rolls will show United to be a cut above. They are our rivals because for a period we made ourselves their rivals. I wish that were still the case, but we have to consider the kind of club we currently are. That’s a club with little to no European pedigree, under a club legend of a manager with no continental success under his belt, and the underdogs in a Europa League semi final against the favourites.
In 2018, Arsenal are a club that should count winning the Europa League as a major achievement.
In any time frame, Arsenal are a club who should be pleased to lift any continental silverware.
Consider our failure to overcome Galatasaray in the 2001 UEFA Cup final. The hurt of that defeat - whilst certainly not a patch on what we suffered at the hands of Barcelona in the 2006 Champions League final - was very real. If that pain works in inverse proportion to the joy of lifting essentially the same trophy then that’s all the proof I'll need that Arsenal winning the Europa League would be a big deal.
Wasn’t the Emirates built so that Arsenal could compete at the top table after Vieira, after Henry, and even after Wenger had left the club? Arsenal are not Manchester United, no. They don’t have the pedigree and they can’t quite match their financial resources, despite the new stadium. But is this any less true of Liverpool who will take to the field tonight, three goals to the good in a Champions League semi-final? Is it any less true, now, of so-called ‘austerity Chelsea’ who won a league title a year ago? Arsenal aren’t Manchester United, but they never will be if they admit defeat before they start.
As for the presence of Atletico Madrid, I’ll admit that complicates it a bit this year. They’re a team with legitimate Champions League pedigree in recent years who don’t belong in this competition any more than Arsenal. Beating them to the trophy does make it more of an achievement because it would mean defeating top quality opposition.
If Arsenal were to lift the trophy though, Atletico Madrid would be the only truly top team they would have had to beat. I’m not sure that winning such a competition can be defined as a major achievement. Getting to a Champions League last sixteen, or even a quarter final, which used to happen regularly for the Gunners, would likely mean them already having played more than one side as good as Atletico. Beating Atletico would be an achievement in itself, but Arsenal should be aiming to beat them in the Champions League, where it really matters. Failing that, they should be aiming to at least play them where it really matters.
So there it is, an in-depth discussion likely to be rendered moot by 21.50 BST on Thursday.