Connect in the back of the net

Arsene Wenger stands in the tunnel of the Stade de France, in his home country, ready to lead his Arsenal side out into the cacophony of noise being the 2006 Champions League Final.

The Arsenal side wearing yellow shirts march onto the pitch side by side with the red and blue striped Barcelona. Little did Arsenal fans know that over 11 years later Wenger would still be Arsenal manager and that this would be their last taste of a major European football.

This final straddled Arsenals move to the Emirates Stadium, and as soon as Arsenal moved they had to start paying the £390m bill for it, in part by selling their best players. 

 

That match against Barca

On Wednesday 17th May 2006, Arsenal and Barcelona, on paper, were evenly matched.

Barcelona were the best team in Spain and Arsenal had finished 4th in the Premiership having previously been champions. Each team had one world-class player, in Thierry Henry and Ronaldinho.

Barcelona had won just one European Cup before in 1992, Arsenal were in their first ever final. The two teams met on a relatively even footing. Barcelona scraped home 2-1 in a tight game.

A crowd of 79,500 watched as Arsenal gloriously failed to win the final despite taking the lead. However, it was Jens Lehmann’s sending off which inevitably was the telling incident in the game.

The teams were evenly matched and Arsenal had good European pedigree that season. Arsenal’s famous victory over Real Madrid at the Bernabeu in the semifinal showed that they had the ability to win the competition. However, in Paris a valiant Arsenal side succumbed to defeat.

The Arsenal team that day included Gunners legends such as Henry, Ljungberg, Pires, Cole, Campbell. While on the bench was the attacking prowess of Dennis Bergkamp and a young Robin Van Persie.

 

The Emirates move

This was a team with great potential to push on in years to come to get to another Champions League final and one day win the coveted trophy under Arsene Wenger. In contrast, Arsenal have not reached another Champions League final.

The following season, 2006-07, Arsenal moved into their new ground the futuristic Emirates stadium. This was in vast contrast to the old school English stadium Highbury.

This move was a signal that Arsenal were a club making progress and were destined to become a European and English superpower. However, the main down side of the new stadium being built was the fact that the purse strings would need to be tightened in order to finance the stadium costs.

Dutch legend Bergkamp retired that summer and many were sold. In a summer of transition Pires, Campbell, Cole were all sold and replaced by the likes of Denilson, Rosicky and Gallas.

The history books will tell these were not like for like replacements and inevitably led to a decline in standard from the squad.

 

Henry’s departure

The summer of 2007-08 was key in the period of transition the club had found itself in.

Club top scorer and prodigy of Wenger, Thierry Henry left the club and was replaced by Eduardo. This should have led to alarm bells ringing in the heads of supporters.

Henry’s departure from the club was in effect the end of any hope Arsenal could compete for the Champions League.

Wenger had stated that Henry had wanted to stay at the club for the 2007/08 season and in 2006 Henry declared his love for the club and accepted a four-year contract, and said he would stay at Arsenal for life.

In 2006 also, David Dein later claimed the club had turned down two bids of £50 million from Spanish clubs for Henry before the signing of the new contract. It should be noted that had the transfer materialised, it would have surpassed the then-world record £47 million paid for Zinedine Zidane.

 

Steady decline

Following 2007-08 Arsenal have been on a steady decline since with the calibre of player slowly decreasing.  

“We suffered a lot to build this stadium,” Wenger has previously admitted. “We have to be very tight financially to pay it back.” 

This was until the more recent signings of World Cup winner Mesut Ozil and former Barcelona player Alexis Sanchez. However despite Wenger eventually opening the checkbook to sign these stars, Arsenal’s only trophy of any stature to date is the FA Cup of which they have made their own.

A club like Arsenal should not be only winning the FA Cup especially following their relative European success in 2006.

Some sympathy has to be given to Wenger as his remit following the move to the Emirates Stadium was to save the club money.

He done this incredibly well and despite the standard in players decreasing he consistently got Arsenal into the top 4. This is a great achievement especially since following 2006 Manchester City have became a force which has led to the downfall of Liverpool FC and their lack of Champions League football in recent years.

 

Inadequate replacements

But if we look back to the team that featured in 2006 it is awash with leaders and although Wenger was told to cut the squad and look after the finances he may have made many mistakes.

The summer of 2006/07 was a summer of transition and in all honesty this was too much of a transition for the Gunners. The players that left were experienced pros who could lead the team.

Sol Campbell was allowed to leave on a free transfer. Surely his experience was more value than his dent on the wage budget. Dennis Bergkamp retired and was not adequately replaced while Robert Pires, somewhat of a Gunners icon, was replaced by Denilson.

To this day, the Gunners have not replaced any of the players that featured during the final. However, would it have been any different had Arsenal won the Champions League?

The answer is uncertain as the Emirates Stadium bill would have still hung over the board and investment would have been of a similar level.

 

What if they had won in Paris?

Wenger still believes Arsenal should have gone on to win the trophy in 2006.

Speaking about the introduction of Video Assisted Referees (VAR) into the modern game he named Barcelona’s equaliser as a key moment, he would choose, from the past that would have needed VAR.

“I would choose Barcelona’s equaliser in the 2006 Champions League final because it was offside, and we were 1-0 up with 30 minutes to go. That’s the trophy I miss here, you know, so that is for me the most important one.”

How different Wenger’s dynasty would have been had Arsenal held out and won in Paris? He would have won all major trophies as an Arsenal manager.

There is even an argument that he would not have felt the need to continue for as long as he is doing because he would have fulfilled his own personal remit.

Wenger today is not the same manager as he was in 2006. He is tactically naïve and not seen by many as one of the world’s top managers.  

Would Arsenal be in the current predicament they are today had they been successful in 2006? Nobody knows.

 

Contrasting fortunes

But in contrast to Barcelona in 2006 they are light years apart. Ten years on, Barça have now won five Champions League titles, with Arsenal still stuck on none.

Barcelona are the biggest football brand in the world, while Arsenal, for all their steady progress off the pitch, are in the second tier of global clubs.

 

Written by Andrew John Carroll

Follow Andrew on Twitter @AndyDCarroll

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