It’s 55 minutes in at the Nou Camp. Robin van Persie has just been called offside, but shot anyway. The referee is about to send him off, and Arsenal’s resistance at 3-2 up on aggregate is set to collapse. But what if the card hadn’t been brandished? What if the sides had stayed at 11 men each?
This is all wildly speculative – any article like this is never going to be anything but – however, the sending of Van Persie hugely hampered Arsenal. They were shorn of a target man of any sort, forced to endure the final 35 minutes against such a dominant Barcelona side, and hardly had much of a chance.
Imagine if Van Persie had stayed on, the Gunners had held out and defeated the seemingly invincible Barcelona side. The side had been threatening to come of age for a while – the 2-1 defeat of Barca a key part of that – but crashing out at the Nou Camp having come so close took a lot out of the team.
Of course, there were other key moments in the demise of Arsenal’s season – the Szczesny/Koscielny mix-up in the Carling Cup final, not to mention the 4-4 collapse against Newcastle. It was a season of highs and lows, but the Barcelona knock-out blow was a huge low point, especially given the injustice with which it was inflicted.
The game afterwards was at Old Trafford in the FA Cup, and the Gunners have for a while had something of an inferiority complex at the home of Manchester United. It finished 2-0 to United, after a limp performance from Wenger’s men. It could have been much different had they had the confidence after triumphing over Barcelona.
Had the Gunners gone through, they would have faced Manchester City at Wembley like United did in the semi. City triumphed, and they may have as well if Arsenal had been their opponents – however, redemption would have been on the cards for the Gunners. After all, they’d just been humiliated at Wembley by Birmingham, and a second chance would have surely been welcomed. If they could have gotten past City, there’s a very real chance they could have beaten Stoke in the final, at last ending the trophyless years which had haunted them.
Again, a lot of ‘what ifs’, but that’s what this article is about – exploring the fine lines in football which lead to a domino effect. Not only would Champions League progression have helped Arsenal’s chance in Europe of course, but also might have spurred them on in the domestic cup.
As for the league, what happened after the Barcelona knock-out blow was that things quickly went down-hill for Arsenal. They recorded just 2 wins in 10 Premier League games, stuttering to a disappointing 4th place finish. Their title challenge disintegrated, and it was another trophyless finish, in addition to a poor end to the season.
First place had seemed a very real possibility for Arsenal, and yet they ended up 12 points behind eventual winners United. Had draws in games that they should have won – West Brom, Blackburn, Liverpool, Tottenham and Fulham – turned into victories, they’d already be 10 points better off. Losses to Bolton, Aston Villa and Stoke were equally damning, and another 9 points they missed out on.
If Arsenal didn’t manage to win the league, they could have at least ended positively, finishing 2nd or even 3rd, rather than 4th. The domino effect of finishing 4th was that players decided to seek trophies elsewhere – Fabregas, Nasri and Clichy, although the latter was not a huge loss – and a Champions League qualifier had to be played.
The qualifier made transfer business tricky for Arsenal – if they spent money which they didn’t have but were gambling on having via Champions League money, before failing to qualify, they’d make a big loss. Not such a big deal for other clubs, but the Gunners insist on spending only what they have (sometimes not even that), and so big signings before Europe was secured were always unlikely.
Big signings were needed too, with Fabregas and Nasri on their respective ways out, and yet Arsenal had to wait until after the qualifier to do business. By then it was too late, and they had to settle for Mikel Arteta. The Spaniard had a fine season, but shifting Aaron Ramsey into the playmaking role saw the Welshman suffer, and Arsenal suffer from a lack of creativity.
Had Arsenal ended the previous season on a high note, perhaps they would have been able to keep at least one of Fabregas and Nasri, and not had to endure a transitional season afterwards as they suffered from the loss of the midfielders. Things could have been a lot different last season then, too – not just the season before.
All of those possible outcomes hinging on the brandishing of a yellow card/Van Persie shooting after the whistle/the linesman waving the flag (it depends on who you want to blame – I’d be fine blaming Van Persie, but the referee is surely most culpable). Football – it’s a funny old... well, you know the rest.