Top four obsession for Premier League clubs says Fraser Watson

Is Arsene Wenger  really under pressure at Arsenal?

Is Arsene Wenger  really under pressure at Arsenal?

The Premier League now has a culture where the failure of big clubs to land the title is glossed over all too easily by a 'top four' obsession, argues Fraser Watson.

After more than 20 years in English football, Arsene Wenger could possibly be forgiven for thinking he’d seen it all.

But even for a man who has been hailed everything from a genius to a failure during his time at Arsenal, to say this week had been difficult for him would be bordering on a ludicrous understatement.
Have fans lost faith?

After 12 seasons without a Premiership title, and a seventh straight Champions League exit at the last 16 stage now inevitable, it seems fans have finally lost patience with their club’s inability to topple both England’s and Europe’s elite.

But as pundits and football phone-ins continue to pour flames on the debate, many are asking why Arsenal Football Club has allowed the situation to drift for so long?

Answer No 1. . .

The first answer is perhaps an obvious one. Wenger’s pre-2005 achievements have deservedly cemented his name into Arsenal folklore for evermore, and keeping the club competitive whilst overseeing the difficult transition from Highbury to the Emirates Stadium was a considerably more complex task than the Frenchman was given credit for.

After all, a grand total of three Premier League titles and six FA Cups, even given the diminishing prestige of the latter, is a record that arguably merits time and loyalty from those above him.

. . . And No 2

The second answer however, can be attributed to the ever increasing financial rewards of competing on Europe’s biggest club stage - and it isn’t only Arsenal or Arsene Wenger who are at fault.

Namely, that even for a club with Premier League title credentials, a fourth placed finish can now be deemed acceptable.

Champions’ League thoughts

Of course, there is much to love about the Champions League since its growth from a knockout affair for the continent’s league winners only – to a 32 team extravaganza with worldwide exposure.

It is after all, where the majority of the planet’s best players are at. Qualification not only means rich rewards, but with it a nigh on guarantee of signing bigger and better personnel.

Furthermore, it’s a competition that year in year out produces unforgettable occasions and famous nights, with modern day television coverage allowing armchair viewers to enjoy any game they wish, irrespective of venues and club nationalities involved.

However, it’s also a competition that has created a culture within English football where failure is readily accepted.

Does Wenger make excuses?

Wenger, and the Frenchman’s loyal lieutenants, have long pointed towards Arsenal’s consecutive Champions League appearances as vindication for a lack of major trophies this past decade. The fact that this season represents the club’s 19th straight qualification has been often championed, the fact that none of those qualifications have been transformed into competition wins, less so.

For some clubs, a top four finish is a genuine target that merits achievement. For others, it is now a safe-bed for title challenges that have inexcusably imploded.

No-one will win the title every year, but for too long, Wenger's Arsenal have developed a tendency to play themselves into the title picture, before subsequently playing themselves out of it, and settling for the glittering consolation of a Champions League place.

Other ’great’ managers also do the same

Last summer, the media were quick to laud he appointments of Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho at Manchester City and Manchester United respectively. Here after all, were two of the world’s very best club managers, set to stand toe to toe in a titanic battle for the title.

The fact both were in their first seasons at their new clubs was deemed largely irrelevant – a statistic negated by glittering CV’s and of course, millions of pounds at their disposal.

And yet now, the noise from both managers and supporters suggests a fourth placed finish is an acceptable goal.

Of course, were it not for the fact a fourth placed finish meant Champions League football, such a final position would be deemed a categorical underachievement by pundits and fans alike, and rightly so.

Spurs’ slip-up goes unnoticed

Last season, Tottenham Hotspur’s capitulation in the final matches as they tried in vain to haul back Leicester City, before slipping below Arsenal into third on the final day of the season, should have prompted serious questions of the ability of Mauricio Pochettino’s young side to perform when it mattered most.

But aside from the frustration at losing North London bragging rights, the capitulation went largely unnoticed. After all, Leicester’s fairy-tale had stolen the limelight anyhow, and Spurs were still in the Champions League, with the added bonus of no qualification play-off.

Liverpool also pleased with a top-four place

Liverpool fans also, are now rightly voicing the importance of a top four finish and a return to Europe’s big stage. But even if they should attain that goal, bigger questions need to be asked.

Back in November, Jurgen Klopp’s rampant side beat Watford 6-1 to go top of the Premier League table. With no European football to contend with this season, a scraped fourth placed finish from that position, along with another trophy-less season, should not be considered a success for a club as big as fans still claim it to be.

And as for Chelsea, don’t tell me anything but a title win from here should be considered acceptable.

Lack of respect for the FA Cup

Another debate to have aroused opinion this season has been the lack of respect shown towards the FA Cup – a competition now primarily used by Premier League sides to blood youngsters and rest so called stars.

The FA have tried to fight the tide by proposing increased prize money – a token gesture unlikely to turn many heads, given the financial gains of Champions League qualification will still far exceed that of a gallant cup run.

Which in turn adds to another increasingly farcical situation. That for managers and players alike, the importance of fourth placed Premier League finish now far outweighs the desire to win what was once English football’s most famous major trophy.

Is there a solution?

Awarding the fourth Champions League place that English football fortuitously enjoys to the winners of the FA Cup is not a flawless plan. You then run the risk of having one of your lower quality, or even still lower league clubs, representing you against Europe’s best.

But it would be a move that could reignite the competition, and force the elite to field strengthened sides and take it seriously. And I for one, would be all for it.

It would also be a move, that low and behold, would prompt Premier League sides with world class players and millions and millions of transfer funds at their disposal to target, wait for it, a top three finish.

And finally . . .

To take the argument to the extreme, English football has now waited more than 50 years for its national side to life the trophy of a major international competition, with the mentality and temperament of its top players on the big stage seemingly brought into question every two years after a failed World Cup or European Championship campaign.

When it is readily acceptable to celebrate finishing fourth in the league, with or without cup silverware to go with it, perhaps it is small wonder that the national side is so often accused of mental fragility at the ‘win or bust’ stages of a tournament.

So while I am one of many who thinks that the time is now right for Arsene Wenger to leave Arsenal with dignity, it’s not a lack of managerial ability that has brought about his current plight.

It is the fabricated insistence that a regular top four finish should represent success, and a failure from those who ultimately control his tenure to demand better, that has eventually taken the situation to breaking point.

It is a lesson that the other so called big clubs, could do well to take heed of.