For some at Arsenal, it remains a 20-minute spell that still stands out as a surprise amid 20 years at the club. After Arsenal Wenger’s team had been so thoroughly outclassed 3-1 by Bayern Munich in their 2012-13 Champions League last-16 tie at the Emirates, sources say the French manager sought out a solitary room in the stadium to ruminate on all that had happened. He didn’t come out for over a quarter of an hour. Club sources at the time said it was something they hadn’t really seen before.
At the time, that Bayern Munich team were trampling all over the rest out of Europe in successful pursuit of a sensational treble; it didn’t seem like the type of defeat to warrant such severe introspection. It wasn’t that bad a loss. So, was it about something else instead? Was it about the realisation that he was so far off winning the competition?
Those close to Wenger say winning the Champions League is an “obsession,” more than even winning the Premier League again. He has already described the defeat in the 2006 final to Barcelona as his “biggest regret” and his general inability to win it is arguably the biggest failure in his career. It’s the most glaring gap in all the celebrations for his 20th anniversary.
It is not just that he hasn’t won it, though. It is that he has rarely come close. That 2006 defeat to Barcelona stands out because it is one of only two times in Wenger’s tenure at the club that he even got to the semifinals. On the other occasion, in 2009, they got routed 4-1 on aggregate by Manchester United. Wenger just hasn’t suffered the amount of near-misses that his grand old rival at Old Trafford, Sir Alex Ferguson, did. He has actually been eliminated before the quarterfinals in 11 of the 17 tournaments he has been in, a significant majority.
The grand irony, of course, is that neither the 2006 team nor 2009 team were even close to being among his best teams at Arsenal. So, when should he have done better?
2003-04: lost in quarterfinals
It was his best league season at Arsenal but consequently one of his worst European eliminations. Really, this should be his biggest regret. In Amy Lawrence’s book “The Wenger Revolution,” he explained why the 2006 defeat was so painful: “I’ve thought to myself 100 times: what could I have done differently?”
It’s actually hard to answer that because Arsenal were themselves in a very difficult situation. They were already down to 10 men against a supreme, Ronaldinho-led Barcelona. Even allowing for the fact that Arsenal were 1-0 up with 15 minutes left, the Barca pressure was growing. So much was stacked against them. That was not the case in 2003-04. So much was stacked in their favour.
For one, all of the other favourites, from Real Madrid to defending champions Milan, were eliminated by the semifinal stage. There’s also the likelihood that Arsenal themselves were the best team in Europe that season anyway, as proven by how they were the going undefeated to the Premier League title … and then drew a Chelsea team that hadn’t beaten them in six years. That changed, as they lost 3-2 on aggregate to a late Wayne Bridge goal at Highbury. It should have been the Invincibles’ crowning glory. It is instead one of Wenger’s biggest failures.
2005-06: lost in final
In saying all of that, history could have been so different — as could everything said about Wenger in these anniversary celebrations — had Thierry Henry scored one of his late chances in that 2006 final. That undeniably explains Wenger’s huge regret about that game even if they were playing Barcelona. The Catalans were far from their best, after all, and a big opportunity fell to Wenger’s best player when already 1-0 up. He was clean through but couldn’t take it. It could have killed the game, as well as an obsession, and so much debate.
2002-03: eliminated in second group stage
Arsenal had just come off the back of a brilliant double and continued that form the following season, going unbeaten until Oct. 19. That involved three straight victories in the Champions League to immediately secure their place in the second group stage, and they started with a supreme 3-1 win away to Roma thanks to a devastating Henry hat trick. That should have been a launch pad, but instead it would be their last win in the competition that season. Arsenal drew four and lost one of the last five of a group that also included Ajax and Valencia.
1998-99: lost in first round
This was Wenger’s first season with Arsenal in the Champions League and it came after winning the Premier League in his first full campaign at the club in 1997-98. Given how dazzling they’d been during that run-in, and how close they ran eventual Champions League winners Manchester United in the 1998-99 title race, they should really have gone much further in Europe. Instead, they set a disappointing tone by going out in the first group stage.
The situation wasn’t helped by the fact that like Tottenham this season, Arsenal chose to play their home games in Wembley and they never looked comfortable. Their only victory at the stadium was against Panathinaikos, and only other win in the group was away to the Greek side. Otherwise, they only took two more points off Lens and Dynamo Kyiv to eventually finish third. So many of Arsenal’s issues stemmed from that, as it started their tough time in the competition.