I am concerned.
There is a theory among many that finishing fourth is something of a holy grail. It brings riches, glorious nights against top European opposition, credibility in the football world and excitement for fans. And this is true, to an extent. It does bring all of those things.
What is actually brings is a qualifying round in August, which the new format of the Champions League guarantees is anything but straightforward. Udinese could have knocked us out six months ago, and sent us even further into a downward spin than we were already headed after our horrendous start to the season. But the issues with finishing fourth run deeper than that.
Last week, we heard a lot about Arsenal’s finances, about how our ‘cash in hand’ is tied inextricably to Champions League revenue, and looking back, August held plenty of evidence to back that up. A dearth of signings for months despite a threadbare squad meant that we went into the season not so much on the back foot, but on the hurtling backward trajectory of a bungee run. Only when Champions League qualification was assured did we make our last minute purchases.
I am concerned that finishing fourth could see us witness a repeat. If you finish outside the top four, you know that you are taking a significant financial hit, but at the same time you know where you stand in May. Right from the start of the summer you can plan for a restructure based on your new financial strength (or lack of), and aim to break back into the elusive quartet. Even better, finishing third means that all that lovely money is guaranteed, and you can again plan for the season ahead as soon as the last ball is kicked.
Finishing fourth is different – it leaves you with a difficult choice. You can either plan based on the assumption of losing the qualifying round, and treat qualification as a fantastic bonus, or you can gamble on saving your pennies until the matches are safely negotiated, and hope there is still time to conduct the necessary business thereafter. For me, we took that gamble last year and lost, despite knocking Udinese out. Primary targets were missed, and more crucially our season didn’t start until September, by which time the crisis talk had already begun. It is a mistake we would be wise not to make again.
Of course, ideally we would break the top three, which is where tomorrow’s game comes in. Anything less than a win and I think we can kiss St Totteringham’s Day goodbye for 2012, along with hopes of avoiding a nervy banana skin as our season opens. And I have to admit, part of me wonders if Tim Stillman, in his column for Arseblog, has a point when musing how much of a disaster finishing fifth would really be, if third became unattainable. Next season would certainly feel fresh, even if you could claim that is for entirely the wrong reasons.
Even putting all that aside, tomorrow’s game is huge. We owe Spurs for a few matches in recent years, and we certainly need to break our habit of throwing away two goal leads against them. Bizarrely enough, I’m rampantly optimistic about the game for a reason I cannot put my finger on – perhaps it is the sense that these players would love to stick fingers up at everyone who ever doubted them, perhaps it is the sense that the Spurs bubble is due to wane is the dismal way a deflating, twitching balloon does, or perhaps it is pure blind optimism. I’ve already put a punt on a 4-1 win. Yes, really.
Because imagine if we do win. Our worst season in recent memory coincides with their best, and we still have a chance to catch them? North London is ours, fellas. Always will be.
Enjoy the game.