Even the most optimistic, dyed-in-the-wool Arsenal supporter must admit that at the beginning of this Champions League campaign, the Gunners were dreadful. Losing their first two group stage matches to Dinamo Zagreb and Olympiakos, 2-1 and 3-2 respectively, Arsenal left themselves with no choice but to defeat Bayern Munich—who, at the time, had not dropped a single point in any match, in any competition—in order to salvage even the slimmest hope of qualifying for the knockout rounds.
They did. 2-0. And while Arsenal were soundly thumped by the German giants in the reverse fixture in Bavaria, they nevertheless completed their group stage comeback this week in Athens, defeating Olympiakos 3-0 to secure qualification for the knockout rounds. In addition to helping mitigate their miserable start to the 2015 Champions League, Arsenal’s performance in Greece—amid bafflingly omnipresent criticism of the manager—validated Arsene Wenger’s place in charge of Arsenal.
Within the game itself, Wenger’s tactical acumen was instrumental in sparking his squad to life. After an unconvincing, nervy first quarter of an hour, Wenger opted to flip the players on Arsenal’s flanks, swapping Joel Campbell and Theo Walcott, such that the England veteran moved to the lefthand side, with the Costa Rican international playing down the right. The impact was immediate.
Arsenal looked less shaky defensively, and a few minutes later saw their first solid chance of the match as Mathieu Flamini hit the crossbar. Even though it wasn’t converted, it was clear that the Gunners had shifted from back foot to front, and from that point on—despite a few chances for the home side—controlled the game. Olivier Giroud nabbed his first Arsenal hat trick, and both Joel Campbell and Mesut Özil seemed to have clones on the pitch, as they were both involved in nearly every dangerous attacking move, while also tracking back well and winning the ball for the Gunners.
In particular, Joel Campbell provides something of a vindication for Wenger. Having signed with Arsenal as a teenager from his hometown club Deportivo Saprissa in the summer of 2011, Campbell was denied a work permit to play in England, and spent the next two years being farmed out on loan to a variety of clubs.
Even after receiving his permit, Campbell still wasn’t a part of Wenger’s plans in 2013, and was given another loan move to the very same team he helped defeat this week, Olympiakos. He had a great season in Greece, but even while being initially included in the team for 2014-2015, he was nonetheless loaned out again during the second half of the campaign.
For more than two years, during Campbell’s protracted work permit problems and seemingly perennial loanee status, he became a stand-in for Wenger’s apparent absence of ambition in the transfer market, a tongue-in-cheek “oh at least we have a Costa Rican teenager no one’s ever heard of” foil for the lack of big name signings at the Emirates.
Now, as Arsenal are smack-bang in the middle of a veritable injury crisis, Campbell has been the unlikely hero to step up and prove himself an integral part of the squad. In addition to his fabulous assist for Giroud’s second goal—one in which he combined vision, well-weighted passing, and superb control on the ball—Campbell defended with aplomb. In winning the ball, he was second behind only Hector Bellerin — in beating defenders off the dribble and completing key passes, he was second to none. (Thanks to 7am kickoff, via Arseblog, for the statistics.)
In this time of injured superstars—Alexis Sanchez, Santi Cazorla, Jack Wilshere, Francis Coquelin and Danny Welbeck are all out, with Theo Walcott only just returned and still lacking full fitness—some might say that Arsenal are lucky to have Campbell finding excellent form. Others might suggest that, really, there’s not much luck about it. Arsene Wenger bought a gem, and knew him for one, even when his detractors saw only hard-packed roots and clay.
But beyond his vision in finding Campbell, beyond the recent flourishing of Mesut Özil as arguably the best creative midfielder in the Premier League (the “big signing” many had so desperately longed for, and then poo-pooed for his less-than-perfect first season with the club as the manager begged time for his new midfielder to adjust), Wenger is also the winningest manager in Champions League group stage history. And that’s no easy feat.
Wednesday’s victory over Olympiakos marked the 13th consecutive season in which Wenger has led the Gunners into the knockout rounds in the competition’s current format, and the 16th year he’s guided them out of the tournament’s initial group stage—that’s something no other manager has accomplished.
Think about it. Many of the youth players that Wenger and his staff at the Emirates are currently scouting have never seen an Arsenal team that did not both qualify for the group stage of the Champions League, and also navigate those groups successfully into the next round. A manager known for both finding and developing young talent, with a sterling reputation in arguably the world’s most illustrious club competitions, who has proven time and time again that his tactical intelligence is the equal of his long-term vision for untapped potential in young players—who else would you want at the helm of your club?
Arsenal’s injury woes might mean that their title challenge peters out in the new year, and they may fail to win a trophy this season altogether. But those who would blame Wenger as the root of the club’s problem have a problem of their own: a false belief in scapegoats.
But, as they say sing, there’s only one Arsene Wenger.
Three Premier League titles, including the only Premier League era undefeated season, six FA Cups, unprecedented runs of qualification for the Champions League and equally unparalleled progression from its group stage—if you so much as pretend to be a student of history, you must respect his achievements.
And this week, thanks to both his “ho-hum he’s a nobody” Costa Rican and “finally he’s splashed the cash but why was he not immediately perfect” German signings, we’ve seen a game that shows Wenger’s vision, both from the perspective of in-game tactics and long-term personnel strategy, remains sound.
The ‘Wenger out!’ trolls will troll. The unappeasable Arsenal woebegones will steadfastly remain in their woe, but amidst the senseless vitriol and scapegoating, levelheaded Gooners must agree: for nearly two decades, Arsenal have been damn lucky to have Wenger at the reins.