Forget The FA Cup: Fourth Place Must Be Arsenal's Priority

Arsène Wenger appears determined to end Arsenal's long wait for a trophy. He must be careful: Champions League qualification is more important than silverware...
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Arsène Wenger appears determined to end Arsenal's long wait for a trophy. He must be careful: Champions League qualification is more important than silverware...

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In recent years there’s been a debate focusing around the respective achievements of Arsenal and Liverpool, two sides who are undoubtedly no longer as good as they once were. Arsenal ’s fall from grace has seen them finish consistently in the top four, while not winning any trophies. On the other hand, Liverpool have plummeted as far as 8th, their final position last season. However, they did pick up silverware in the Carling Cup, something Arsenal memorably failed to do a couple of seasons ago.

During this FA Cup weekend Arsenal take on Gus Poyet’s Brighton at the Amex, hoping to finally end their trophy drought. It seems their most realistic and perhaps only chance at a trophy, considering how far behind the leaders they are in the Premier League and the fact that in the Champions League they face a daunting prospect in Bayern Munich.

The longer Arsenal go without a trophy, the more it’ll be used as a stick with which to beat the Gunners and their manager. They seem to be becoming more and more desperate to shake the money from their back. For example, Arsène Wenger sent out a full-strength side at Bradford in the Carling Cup quarter final. Even then, they lost.

It’s likely that Wenger will again send out a first-choice side at Brighton, and he will hope that they’ve learned their lesson from their shaming at Valley Parade. In truth, the manager shouldn’t have to be afraid to play some of the fringe players because they might mess things up, but the debate about Arsenal’s squad strength is for another day.

What Arsenal will want to avoid is burning out the first-team players whom they’ll be almost forced to select. Santi Cazorla is the obvious example: while he’s sparkled at times, and looked close to being back to his best against West Ham, he’s been thoroughly overplayed by Arsenal, with Wenger seemingly reluctant to use Jack Wilshere in the advanced playmaker role and Tomáš Rosický perenially injured. Cazorla has therefore looked tired at times, and it’s important that he’s kept fresh for the Premier League.

Lots will disagree, arguing that it’s more important to win a trophy than finish in the Champions League places. Indeed, the amount of people who’d say that has grown over the years in which Arsenal have missed out on silverware. Arsène Wenger’s comment that fourth place is ‘like a trophy’, while pertinent, didn’t help matters.

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While winning something would certainly boost morale and provide a retort to those who jump straight to Arsenal’s lack of success, if won at the expense of Champions League football it might not do Arsenal much good. The self-belief of some players might be reinforced – and that’s what Arsenal have struggled with lately – but finishing 5th and winning the FA Cup would mean that they’d simply reassessed their priorities. A real sign of improvement would be combining a top four finish with that elusive trophy.

Look at Liverpool. Despite not being helped by mostly clueless owners and, let’s be honest, an out-of-date manager in Kenny Dalglish, dropping out of the Champions League places hugely damaged their profile as a top-rate team. They’re still a big club, without a shadow of a doubt, but their struggles have been evidenced this week by the way fans have been worried about missing out on Inter Milan’s Coutinho as Southampton made a late bid.

Obviously it’d be great for Arsenal to end the drought, so to speak, but not at the expense of missing out on the Champions League. Not only is the television money an obvious boost, but being in the Champions League is what identifies a great team. Would Giroud, Cazorla and Podolski, three players who starred in the 5-1 win over West Ham, have joined a team in the Europa League? And would Arsenal have been able to afford them? Given the stadium debt, that’s a doubt.

It was quite misleading of Peter Hill-Wood to insist to Arsenal fans pre-Emirates that the stadium move would help them compete financially with the likes of Chelsea and Manchester United, but in fairness that’s what the move was geared towards. The club hadn’t predicted the sudden surge of oil money in the Premier League, and now have to be responsible with their spending.

The main hindrance is the poor commercial business. New data was recently published by Deloitte showing Arsenal to be the 6th richest club in the world by revenue. Only Real Madrid and Manchester United topped their matchday income, but the Gunners’ commercial earnings were comfortably the lowest of the top ten wealthiest sides.

Would a trophy be great for Arsenal? Of course. But Champions League football is a must, and sacrificing that to really go for the FA Cup would not be a wise move – it wouldn’t exactly ensure that they’d win the trophy, as nothing in football is a sure thing. Arsenal fans will be more familiar with this than anyone after their crushing loss to Birmingham in the 2011 Carling Cup final.