Arsene Wenger has received a lot of criticism from the football community by insisting that finishing in the top four is like winning a trophy. To fans this seems like the gibberish of a manager trying to defend a long run of trophyless seasons, and there is no doubt the bragging rights that come from watching your team life a trophy do not exist with a top four finish. However, the point I believe Wenger has been trying to make is a top four finish is more important to the club than winning a trophy.
The revenue generated by appearing in the Champions League is well publicised and is much higher then the revenue generated from winning the FA Cup or League Cup, so there is a financial logic in favouring a top four finish over these trophies (a logic fans find difficult to understand). The more powerful need behind a top four finish however is the ability to attract players. If you have two clubs both attempting to sign the same player, one of which can guarantee an FA Cup and the other can guarantee Champions League football, most players are going to choose Champions League football over a trophy.
It is a fair assumption that as a top four team you should also be able to win a cup competition from time to time to give the fans their moment of glory, and this is where Wenger and Arsenal have fallen down. The likes to Van Persie, Fabregas and Nasri have left for clubs able to offer Champions League and have won recent trophies. However, their departures are much more down to Arsenal’s tight wage structure then anything else. Can you honestly say if Arsenal had won three League Cups in the last eight seasons that Van Persie would still be at Arsenal?
Arsenal had a financial tightrope to walk since moving from Highbury balancing the payments for the new stadium with player transfers and wages, something Wenger was not willing to stray from to keep players at the club. There are a lot of clubs that move stadiums and suffer relegation as a result, Coventry, Leicester, Darlington and Southampton to name a few. Wenger has successfully managed to continue to get Arsenal into the top four while maintaining a strict budget since moving to The Emirates, but following Arsenal’s defeat to Tottenham at the weekend this run looks to be coming to an end. Fortunately for Arsenal the new stadium is essentially paid off, so in the short term not having the Champions League money should not affect them too badly. What Arsenal may now encounter is a problem similar to that of Liverpool, where attracting the top players without the allure of the Champions League becomes increasingly difficult and a long term slide into mid table can easily follow. The advantage Arsenal has over Liverpool is the much bigger stadium. With Wenger’s record in the transfer market over recent seasons being average at best, whether he will be able to find the players capable of returning Arsenal to the top of English football without the Champions League money on a more long term basis will be the determining factor to where Arsenal goes as a club. A few years without making the top four and mistakes like Andre Santos would not be so easily forgiven and not so easily corrected.