What can an Arsenal fan say today, after a third straight 5-1 loss to Bayern Munich, this time at the Emirates to complete a humiliating 10-2 aggregate exit from the Champions League. There were positives to take from the game in the first 50 minutes – a 1-0 lead, a high press that was paying dividends and more defensive solidity than we’ve seen in well over a month. And then Laurent Koscielny bumped into Lewandowski in the box, eliciting a questionable penalty call and an even more outrageous red. From there, Arsenal capitulated to a level that has become all too familiar and four more goals followed the successful penalty conversion. The lack of passion, lack of intent and lack of pride were on full display, as was the obvious reasons that few believe Arsene Wenger is the man to lead them forward from here. Three thoughts on the 5-1 loss today and the 3-1 loss at Anfield Saturday.
1. Wenger Must and (Probably) Will Go!
In pregame warmups, Welbeck pulled up ill and Wenger faced a tough choice. Keep Sanchez through the middle and replace Welbeck with Perez, or switch things up with Giroud through the middle and Sanchez on the left. He chose the latter and, though some will question the choice, Arsenal, after a slow start, were rampant for about 40 minutes of game time. Walcott, in particular, was finding joy down the right side, beating Alaba on several occasions before his opener, on 20 minutes. He got past his defender and, from a relatively acute angle, powered the ball high past Neuer with real verve. He had a chance to make it 2 a few minutes later, but went near post and just missed, hitting the side netting. A little later in the half, he was felled by Alonso in the box in what very well could have been called a penalty, but was instead just a corner and Arsenal went in up 1-0.
Giroud was presented with a chance early in the second half, meeting a wonderful lofted cross from Ramsey, but rather than burying a relatively simple chance, he instead appeared to jump early and sent it over the bar. A couple more half chances emerged, but when Lewandowski broke a high line from the Gunners on 54 minutes, Koscielny rushed back and nudged the big Pole with a shoulder-to-shoulder challenge, felling him a little too easily in my estimation, though adding to the pain of the penalty was a bizarre call from the Greek ref, who originally showed him a Yellow before taking advice from the side judge. Lewandowski buried the penalty in the corner of the net and Bayern were off. Robben made it two on 68 minutes, after a half-hearted challenge from a clearly jaded Sanchez. Douglas Costa was then left open for an easy finish 10 minutes later and then Vidal completed a brace in five minutes starting in the 80th. It was 5-1 yet again and could have been more, with Bayern finally putting the brakes on for the final, seemingly endless, minutes of what is likely to be Wenger’s last Champions League game in charge of the club.
Some may argue it should be his last game in charge full stop, but that would be a little harsh. Wenger has earned the right to finish out what should be his last season in charge of the side. The nature of the capitulation today, last weekend at Anfield, in the first leg of the tie at the Allianz and at the Bridge on February 4, all in just the past month, show a team that is completely lost, both tactically and, more importantly, psychologically. Wenger just seems to keep getting it wrong. In this game, Ramsey had some good moments but was again caught meandering on the ball or blowing great counter opportunities on more than one occasion. Why he started in front of Ozil is a question that has no clear answer. Giroud continued to display the lack of composure in big games that has marked his career at Arsenal, even as the numbers show a relatively prolific striker. And in a similar vein, one wonders what Perez has to do to get a starting berth, rather than meaningless cleanup appearances after hope has been extinguished.
More important than any of these decisions was the benching of Sanchez for the first half of a crucial game against Liverpool last weekend that could have given the Gunners some breathing room in their perennial race for the Top 4. He came on to revitalize the side in the second half, assisting their solitary goal and almost helping them to grab the equalizer. What was left of his commitment to the side seemed to wither away as he sat on the bench Saturday afternoon, as he looked jaded and without the passion and will we are so used to experiencing. And who knows how many goals and assists he will add to the 20 and 15 he has accumulated so far this season. One hopes enough to give the side a chance at an FA Cup and a Top 4 finish.
Overall, the numbers don’t lie and they show a team that has lost in the Round of 16 in the Champions League for seven straight years, who have not won a league title since the Invincibles in 2004, who only have three FA Cups to show for the 13 years since, have won only 2 of their last 23 road games against Top 6 opponents in the league and have yet to win a major European honor in the 20 years of Wenger in charge. This season, they have lost five of their last six games, with only a largely uninspired 2-0 win over Sutton United in the FA Cup to show for their troubles, and 7 of their last 16 in all competitions (including a 3-3 draw against lowly Bournemouth), suffered a double at the hands of Liverpool for the first time in 17 years, won only one game against the Top 6 (the impressive 3-0 win over Chelsea way back in September) and are out of the title race even earlier than usual.
Worst of all, it is a pattern that has become far too familiar. Arsenal show signs of mounting a serious title challenge, only to start faltering in November, dropping a few valuable points in December and then absolutely capitulating in February and March. They fall out of the Champions League at the first ask, after an uninspired first leg that leaves them fighting to pull off a near miracle, suffer injuries that are at least partially blamed for derailing the campaign and see their top offensive threats fade as the season goes on. If the pattern follows suit the remainder of this year, they will now wake up from their season-defining slump to catapult themselves back into the Top 4 and treat that achievement-of-diminishing-returns as “success.” And, returning to a leitmotif that persisted before the past couple of seasons, one of two of their key players will head for the exit after refusing to resign. But who can blame them?
Wenger has run out of ideas, run out of energy and run out of ways to motivate his team to succeed. It is time to find new blood that can hopefully restore the excitement, passion and positive, flowing football that once defined Wenger’s Arsenal. His time has passed and the sooner the higher ups realize this, the sooner we can get to the project of restoration and revival.
2. Koscielny Shows His Worth Over Two Legs
Arsenal were ahead 1-0 with an outside chance at the miracle comeback when, in the 54th minute, lightning struck yet again. And not the good kind. Red cards have played a huge role in Arsenal’s failure in the Champions League over the past decade or so. There was the infamous (and questionable) red for Lehmann in the 2006 final with Barcelona, the absurd second yellow to Robin Van Persie as Arsenal stood on the precipice of a huge upset against the Cataluñan side in 2011, a first-leg red for another Gunner keeper, Szczesny, against the very same Bayern in 2014 (after Ozil had missed a penalty) and now Koscielny today. Until that moment, Arsenal had ceded exactly one goal against the Bavarians in 103 minutes with Kos in the team, and, after his departure, a humiliating 9 goals in the 80 odd minutes without him over two legs. It highlighted a simple fact – for as poor as the defense has been playing for the past three months or so, they are even worse without their French defender.
Even with him, Arsenal have been shipping goals at an alarming rate, particularly against the stronger sides. They ceded 1-0 leads in back-to-back games against Everton and Man City as this current slide started in mid-December (though Mustafi was sidelined with an injury), 3 against Bournemouth in a tough-to-swallow though riveting 3-3 draw on January 3, two to Watford in a title-killing loss at the Emirates, 3 to Chelsea and Liverpool on the road, and the 10 to Bayern in the disaster that this tie turned out to be.
Arsenal have simply become shambolic defensively once again, unable to keep clean sheets, unable to stay organized or disciplined and unable to find ways to stop opponents from carving them open on a regular basis. As another season slips away, one wonders what the foundation is for the future. One assumes Koscielny will stay on and it is certainly plausible he and Mustafi can build a formidable partnership in the future, particularly if the new signing returns to his pre-injury form. But Monreal must be replaced, again displaying his clear deficiencies in the second half of this game, and Bellerin must get back to his best, after a second half of the season that has seen a drop-off in the quality of his play on both ends of the pitch. But more central might be the players in front of them, as the combination of Xhaka, Ramsey, Elneny and Coquelin have left that back four exposed far too often this season, unable to emulate the success the side was experiencing when Cazorla was in the fold.
Arsenal also need to find a backup CB who can do the job when either Kos or Mustafi is out, as Holding still needs time to develop, Mertesacker is nearing the end of his career and Gabriel has displayed an inability to fill in with any consistency. As with so many Wenger sides over the past 13 years, it is their defensive woes that will again leave them without a major trophy and, if this display is any indication, without the Champions League space Wenger has delivered for his first 20 years in charge, or a sixth FA cup under the Frenchman.
3. A Season on the Brink
Arsenal have now lost five of their last six games, falling out of the Champions League at the first knockout ask for the seventh year in a row, out of the league race to make it 13 years since their last title and must now work even harder than usual to try to get back in the Top 4. It’s just not good enough and a clear sign that change must come. Unfortunately, it appears that change might include the exit of both Sanchez and Ozil, their two biggest stars. If they miss out on Champions League qualification, a distinct possibility now with games against City, United, Everton and Tottenham still on the horizon, one wonders who will be willing to sign up to replace them. Some names being bandied about include the oft-injured Reus, prolific striker Lacazette or Benzema (though that might be less likely than in the past). Ozil’s departure could be a blessing in disguise, as he – like Giroud and several other of the Gunners – fails to show up in the biggest games and has taken several steps backwards this term. But losing Sanchez is gut-wrenching and he will be hard to replace. The only good news in that regard is the growing sense that his attitude on and off the pitch is actually hurting the confidence of his teammates, together with the reality that his production has declined in recent weeks as the season collapses in tatters.
The FA Cup is certainly still a possibility, an opportunity for Wenger to leave with more than his tail between his legs after one of the worst campaigns in recent memory. Not only is it unlikely we will be celebrating St. Tottenham’s Day this season, it appears equally likely we will finish in fifth or sixth place. And Wenger really has no one to blame but himself. The pundits and ex-players can turn their ire to the players, who have seemed to lack the spine, passion or even pride to maintain a title charge all these years, but ultimately it is Wenger who built this team, Wenger who makes the choice of who plays, Wenger who has passed on so many quality players over the years from Higuian to Hazard to Vidal, Wenger who plans the tactics and, most important of all, Wenger who seems unable to motivate his players throughout the 50 or so games that make up a season.
Some warn that Arsenal could find themselves in Liverpool or United’s shoes if they finally wield the axe, failing to even qualify for the Champions League for a couple years on the bounce, but can we really stomach many more years of this stale mediocrity, hope quashed every Spring? I, for one, would rather take the chance on Allegri, Simeone, Tuchel or even Howe than face another year with the Frenchman in charge. Get ready, because it looks increasingly likely I will get my wish … for good or bad.