Sometimes the bright LEDs of the scoreboard tell it all, a piercing image burnt into the retinae of Arsenal’s away support. And you were all getting antsy about whether it should be David Ospina or Petr Cech in goal?
That now seems as important to Arsenal fans as which day of the week Armageddon will fall after an evening in Munich that will surely mark the start of Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal farewell. If this is not the end then it is at least the beginning of that end. Kieran Gibbs, Arsenal captain vs Bayern Munich, seems a pretty good title for the last chapter.
‘We are a ******g shambles,’ tweeted Ian Wright with at least 120 minutes remaining in a tie between two supposedly elite clubs . That is not just the knee-jerk reaction of an Arsenal Fan TV regular, offering his two cents to get a rise. It is the response of a passionate, desperate Arsenal ex-player and fan, and there are thousands more like him. Just because it isn’t an eloquent take does not mean that it fails to represent the mood; it nails the mood.
This is now the seventh time in succession that Arsenal will exit the Champions League at the last-16 stage, the seventh time in succession that they will be consigned to European also-rans. The list of those clubs who have progressed beyond that stage since Arsenal last did includes Shakhtar Donetsk, Schalke, Inter, Marseille, APOEL Nicosia, Benfica, Malaga, Galatasaray, Monaco, Porto, Wolfsburg and, yes, Tottenham. Europe’s financial elite have created a semi-final citadel into which only the most effective squads and managers are invited. Arsenal aren’t even on the ‘maybes’ list.
This was a defeat so demoralising because Arsenal were in the game after 50 minutes. Despite Bayern Munich’s early onslaught, during which Arsenal struggled to touch the ball let alone attack their hosts, only a superb Arjen Robben goal was the significant difference. Alexis Sanchez’s rebounded penalty gave Wenger’s team a foothold, a fortress to defend and take back to north London.
Then, as so often with Arsenal, implosion. Do not underestimate the magnificence of Robert Lewandowski’s finishes or Thiago Alcantara’s creativity, do not overlook Robben’s dribbling or Douglas Costa’s speed. Yet Arsenal’s propensity to collapse like a cardboard box left out in the rain made this an assisted suicide. Their defensive house of cards tumbled to the ground after Laurent Koscielny’s substitution.
The second half was an embarrassment, as one-sided a match as you could ever imagine between two teams with apparently realistic ambitions of lifting this trophy. The only reason to keep Wenger in charge is if Arsenal consider him the best man to make Arsenal competitive but, on this and other evidence, they have rarely been further away. It’s important to remember that this isn’t even recognised as a vintage Bayern team.
Yet do not let the issue of Wenger’s employment absolve the players of blame. If these are the occasions on which individuals must step up and prove their aptitude and attitude, this squad requires emergency surgery. Gibbs was abysmal, Alex Iwobi anonymous, Mesut Ozil missing in action again, Francis Coquelin mediocre to the point of humour and Granit Xhaka almost entirely ineffective. How did a £35m tenacious central midfielder make only three tackles in 90 minutes? Why would only two of Arsenal’s starting line-up get into Bayern’s first-choice team? The questions could continue until morning.
It shouldn’t be this easy. It shouldn’t be this predictable. Arsenal shouldn’t look so tired, so limp, so soft. For an entire evening this was Sanchez and ten others against a team that truly deserves to be labelled as elite and, if the Chilean hadn’t already made up his mind, Arsenal supporters must hope that he has a fetish for masochism. Why else would a genuine star work through this ever-repeating nightmare? Who wouldn’t look at Bayern’s team and ask ‘Why can’t I play for a team like that?’. You can, Alexis.
To lose 5-1 to Bayern Munich once is instructive, but to do so twice in the space of two seasons is conclusive proof of what most of us already knew: Arsenal are coasting towards comparative mediocrity because that is precisely the mood that has been allowed to fester. No pressure applied by board to manager, no pressure applied by manager to star players, no pressure applied by first-teamers to those in reserve. They are European football’s ultimate fair weather club.
After close to 20 years as Arsenal’s guardian, Wenger is now an absent parent, and this his final fall from the wagon. The toddlers are drawing all over the walls, there’s no dinner on the table and the nappies ran out two months ago. It’s time to take Arsenal into care.