This was the year when things were finally going to change. This was the year that Arsenal would catapult beyond the Round of 16 and finally enter the quarters with dreams of another, admittedly long, shot at a Champions League title. They were even the favorite after being forced to face Barcelona and Bayern twice each in the past five years and overcome a 4-0 first leg deficit against AC Milan in the other (when a Van Persie apoplectic-causing miss from three feet kept them from drawing the tie even early in the second half). But Monaco were a step down even from the formerly world beating Milan and some pundits even dared to claim Arsenal were a dark horse for the title.
That all began to unravel in the 38th minute of their first leg against Monaco. The Gunners dominated the game from the onset, at one time bossing close to 90 percent of possession and being denied a penalty appeal within the first few minutes. But two blown chances from Giroud, some poor touches by Welbeck and an inability to even get a decent shot on goal came back to bite them when Welbeck gave the ball away needlessly yet again, leading to a seemingly benign counter and long range shot that Mertesacker decided to avoid rather than clear. He failed and the ball careened off him, sending Ospina the wrong way, though he actually froze and watched the ball slide behind him from what looked like a reasonable position to save. That made it 1-0 and there was a feeling the Gunners would quickly reply and restore order. But that was not to be, as the entire team sank into the realization that Monaco was not the pushover they were led to believe, facilitated by that error being the first of three from our new number one between the sticks. On the other two instances, he positioned himself too close to the near post, with both shots beating him across goal and just past his outstretched fingers (one above and one below). Ox brought the tie back to the reasonable level in the 92nd minute, with a lovely curling shot after a layoff from Sanchez, but then inexplicably, the Gunners rushed to try to draw the game in the last minute, with Mertesacker and Koscielny too far up field, along with Gibbs and Bellerin, and Coquelin failing to cover back. Ox gave the ball away 40 yards out and the quick counter was finished with what was essentially the last kick of the game, leaving the Gunners with the task of scoring three against the stingiest defense in the Champions League so far.
It took me a few days to even write this article, depressed by another year when fourth place might be the closest we come to a trophy and another early exit from the UCL soon to be behind me. Yet I write about every Arsenal game, so here are some thoughts:
1. Mertesacker the Mule: for a season and a half, Per Mertesacker showed the form that Wenger had envisioned when signing the lumbering but positionally astute German. He and Koscielny formed a stone wall behind the rather porous Arsenal midfield and lost few games, having the best defense in the league for a calendar year. Then he started reverting to form – his pace hurting him whenever he ventured too far forward and his positionality acuity abandoning him at key moments. Both goals against Tottenham could have been avoided if Mert had gotten his positioning right and all three Monaco goals were at least partially the result of Per’s ineptitude. If the Gunners are to take their offensive weapons to the next step, it is time to bid the gentle giant a fond, or obscenity laden, adieu – depending on your perspective.
2. Giroud’s Follies: Olivier Giroud was finally starting to silence his critics, in the midst of a purple patch that had him near the summit of strikers not named Messi or Ronaldo (8 in 11 coming in). But in big games, the big Frenchman too often flatters to deceive. And in the game Wednesday, he took profligacy to heretofore unrealized heights, with six shots but none on goal and four legitimate chances to get on the score sheet. If he had finished the easiest of the two sitters offered to him, the Gunners would probably be heading into the next round, having never conceded the second and most definitely not the third goals. Instead he left the pitch to well deserved boos from the crowd. He has the potential to be world class but will need to deliver in the biggest games if he is to take the next step.
3. The Wenger Curse: I have stopped my lambasting of our long-term manager of late, wondering if he could finally build a team that could take the next step, after winning the FA Cup and beating Man City. Yet the reversion to form reminds that this team hasn’t been the same since the move from Highbury and the 2006 Champions League Final loss. They tend to shrink in the big games and the Frenchman too often gets his tactics wrong. In recent months he has finally played big games on the road with a little more defensive awareness, but the selection for this home game should leave some people scratching their heads. First he replaced the more defensive-minded Monreal with Gibbs, just back from yet another injury. Then he teamed Coquelin with Cazorla, with Welbeck, Giroud and Ozil further forward. While this is a ferocious combination of offensive talent, it didn’t seem like the right plan against a high pressing Monaco who have conceded the fewest goals in the group stage. And those fears were realized on three separate occasions as the French team stormed through that “defense” and finished chances (missing a fourth one from a fine Ospina save). I put most of this game down to the players, as Giroud, Welbeck, Ozil and Cazorla were all largely abject, giving the ball away time and again with reckless abandon and hovering on the balls like contemplative shamans rather than connecting play and pushing forward.
4. Monaco Magic: One cannot write an article about this game without mentioning the impressive performance of the French club and Berbitov in particular. They were well organized, pressed high, cut off passing lanes and were deadly on the counter, finishing three of their four chances. It was an impressive display and one that should restore some faith to their small but supposedly dedicated fan base. Monaco has never lost a knockout game to an English opponent and only an Arsenal miracle will stop that trend in the return leg. Plaudits, as well, should be offered to Monaco manager Leonardo Jardim, who laid out a perfect plan and got his players to execute it to perfection.
5. England European Woes Continue: In 2012, Chelsea won the Champions League in unlikely fashion, finally giving their Russian owner his greatest dream. Four years earlier, the EPL had three of the four semifinalists, with United beating Chelsea in the final (on penalties). Since 2012, however, England has failed to impress in Europe. This year looks the worst of the bunch with both Tottenham and Liverpool unceremoniously knocked out at the Round of 32, Liverpool failing to get out of their group in the UCL before that, and City and Arsenal facing mountains to climb to get out of the Round of 16. Even Chelsea were only able to garner a 1-1 draw with PSG in a game they probably should have lost. What has happened to England in recent years? Is it the rigors of the domestic schedule that goes through the holiday season and where almost every game is competitive? Is it a question of tactics and skill versus physicality hurting them in Europe? Is it the decline in United over the past few years, as the most consistent European presence during Fergie’s reign? There are countless theories but it is clear that England must redouble their efforts if they are to overcome this slump in continental form.