If Arsenal digs itself out of its current crisis and puts together the kind of season its history demands, one moment may be remembered as the turning point.
A dramatic penalty save by young goalkeeper Wojceich Szczesny had the initial effect of steering the team past Udinese and into the Champions’ League group stage on Wednesday, but in reality carried even greater repercussions.
Defeat in the final qualifying round of Europe’s top club competition would have meant Arsenal missed out on $40 million of television rights and prize money, which would have significantly affected its ability to recruit the talent it needs to rebuild a depleted squad.
With EPL rivals Manchester City and Manchester United already threatening to pull away both financially and in soccer terms, that would have been a disastrous outcome for a team that has not won a major trophy in six years.
Even more pointedly, it could have spelled the end for Arsene Wenger, the mercurial manager who has built the modern face of Arsenal over the last decade and a half. Wenger is one of the longest serving coaches in Europe, but is a bookies’ favorite to be the first boss sacked this campaign.
Szczesny’s save came in the 59th minute of the second leg, as the Poland keeper dived to his right to parry Antonio Di Natale’s effort. If Di Natale had converted it would have made the aggregate score 2-2 and given the Italians a swell of momentum on its own field. Instead, it gave Arsenal a huge lift and the EPL team went on to win 2-1 on the night and 3-1 overall thanks to Theo Walcott’s 69th-minute goal.
“I feel, of course, this will lift the pressure,” Wenger said. “There has been a little bit of pressure for Arsenal to play in the Champions League and with the players that have left, the pressure would have increased if we had lost. There's a strong attitude and spirit inside the team.
“We live in a society where everyone has an opinion on everything. I'm like someone who flies a plane for 30 years and I have to accept someone can come into the cockpit and fly it better than I do. But that's our job and we have to accept it. Sometimes you have to take a distance from the catastrophes people have predicted.”
Wenger is not out of the woods yet and serious improvements need to be made. The problem is that he is working with a depleted squad, with Cesc Fabregas having finally completed his much-discussed move to Barcelona and Samir Nasri having been sold to Manchester City.
That cash can be reinvested but peculiar factors are at work at Arsenal. Most fans have assumed that the club’s failure to spend heavily in recent years is due to Wenger’s pride, with the Frenchman wanting to build a young team that can achieve success instead of buying one.
That may well be the primary reason, although it is not known how much the building of the Emirates Stadium impinged on the Gunners finances and what resources Wenger has truly been allowed.
Even now, Wenger will not be held to ransom in the transfer market, a reality that arose again this week. Arsenal made an ambitious attempt to lure Kaka, the Brazilian former World Footballer of the Year, but that looks to have fallen through after Real Madrid insisted on a full transfer rather than a loan deal.
The tough times are not over for Wenger, but whether or not he uses his treasure chest to buy any players before the end of the transfer window, he bought himself some time with Wednesday’s victory.
- Arsene Wenger
- Manchester City