Arsene Wenger’s famous comment that finishing fourth is like winning a trophy makes sense only if his side goes on to win the UEFA Champions League qualification playoff.
Until now, Arsenal always has and it maintained its proud record on Wednesday, an edgy 1-0 aggregate victory over Besiktas at Emirates Stadium — all the edgier after Mathieu Flamini was sent off with 15 minutes to go — securing its passage in the group stage of the Champions League, and all the revenue that entails, for the seventeenth successive year.
"We produced the performance we wanted on the technical and tactical side against a good team but we couldn’t finish the game off," said Wenger after the match. "That was difficult in the last 10 minutes when we were down to ten-men. Maybe the referee was on the other side and thought he made a foul."
Arsenal was far from its best, oddly lacking in urgency in the first half, missing a cutting edge in the second, but it was good enough. The goal was typical of its overall performance, full of nice moments that didn’t quite cohere. It began with Mathieu Debuchy playing a one-two with Alexis Sanchez, only for the ball to be lost. It was cleared, possession remained and, as Arsenal came again, Jack Wilshere played a one-two with Mesut Ozil. Wilshere looked to have just run out of space when Sanchez, who had barely moved after the initial attack had broken down, pounced, nipping the ball of his toes and shoving it under Tolka Zengin, the Besiktas goalkeeper.
Wilshere, for better or for worse, was a key figure. With Aaron Ramsey suspended, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was brought in on the right flank, with Santi Cazorla taking up a deeper-lying role in midfield, he and Wilshere flanking Mathieu Flamini. That might have meant Wilshere taking on a more defensive role, allowing Cazorla to break forward. Not a bit of it, though: Wilshere was everywhere — which, as with so many English midfielders, is both his strength and his weakness. There is a lot of effort about his play, but perhaps not a huge amount of thought. Even in injury-time, protecting the lead, he kept going for goal, trying to create chances, when a more prudent player may have run the clock down in the corner or circulated possession.
Nine minutes in, the ball broke out of a challenge to Sanchez, playing — as he had in the first half on Saturday at Everton — as a false nine. The Chilean was fouled but the ball fell for Wilshere who drove into the box but slid his finish tentatively wide — a sign, perhaps, of his lack of confidence. The 22-year-old has been much criticized of late, but this was one of his better nights, even if there remains a recklessness to his tenacity that always threatened to lead to red cards.
Although he missed that early chance, he at least showed the awareness to try to capitalize when others might have hesitated after what was a clear foul, and a flick out wide to Ozil a few minutes later was a welcome reminder of the sort of deft, precise football of which he is capable.
But he can also be wild, as he showed three minutes before the break, lunging senselessly at Ramon Motta as he stretched to reach Olcay Sahan’s low cross. The left-back went down having seemingly been caught by Wilshere in his shooting stride. The Portuguese referee Pedro Proenca didn’t give the penalty and, in fairness to him, if there was a foul it was difficult to make out in a general tangle of limbs.
Whether there was or not, it was a senseless challenge for Wilshere to be making. He was nowhere near the ball and if Motta had checked his run even a fraction, would have clattered obviously through the back of him. In the stand, Besiktas manager Slaven Bilic, banned from the dug-out after his dismissal last week, was apoplectic. It was three minutes later, in first half injury-time, that Arsenal opened the scoring.
Arsenal was crisper and more threatening after the break, partly because of Besiktas’s great commitment to attack, but the relief of a second goal wouldn’t come. Sanchez couldn’t quite reach a Cazorla cross after the Spaniard had been released by a superb pass from Oxlade-Chamberlain, then had an effort palmed away after neat build-up play from Wilshere. Debuchy headed wide from close range, Flamini had an effort blocked at the last and Oxlade-Chamberlain saw Zengin get in the way of an effort from six yards.
But just as to seemed a second goal had to come, Arsenal was reduced to 10 men, Debuchy dismissed for a second yellow card after what appeared a clean challenge — although he had perhaps been fortunate to get away with a clumsy foul in the box in the first half. Suddenly the possibility of an away goal that would have taken Besiktas through loomed.
Demba Ba had one headed chance that he glanced wide — he had earlier sliced into the side-netting when well-placed — but that was as close as Besiktas came. Ultimately, even against 10-men, it simply didn’t have the quality to break Arsenal down.
"Arsenal showed that little bit of extra quality in the box," admitted Besiktas boss Bilic after the defeat. "We are disappointed but we are proud. We gave Arsenal 180 very open minutes. We were a little better in Istanbul; they were a little bit better here. The last 10-15 minutes were very exciting and they were on the ropes."
Job done for Arsenal, but it was anxious progress.