So, now what? That, is the only question that was left needing to be asked after Arsenal’s second-half capitulation in Munich on Wednesday.
No inquest was required, no scapegoat was offered to excuse others, nothing. Just sheer and utter resignation to the inevitable.
There is, of course, going to be a lot of people who are going to point out that they have been saying for years that Arsene Wenger should go, and that Wednesday night’s besmirching was just confirmation of that. But as often as Arsenal have been beaten in the last 16 stage of the Champions League, this time just felt… different.
If you’ve ever been in a long-term relationship with someone that eventually didn’t work out for either of you, Wednesday night will have been very familiar. Whenever you have an argument or falling out with a loved one, there’s almost always a way to rationalise it as an anomaly, and convince yourself that it’s worth sticking through it. But eventually, you run out of ways to rationalise it.
For the last five years, whilst the Wenger In/Out debate was melting the internet, I was willing to put up with the constant failure to win a league title or even advancing deep in the latter stages of the Champions League, because I wanted to see what happened if the manager was given the time AND MONEY to implement what he thought was the best course of action. Until the start of this season, he had never used Arsenal’s financial clout to its fullest potential, and I firmly believed that he had earned, at the very least, the opportunity to do so.
On Wednesday night, Arsenal selected a £35m central defender, a £29m central midfielder, a £42m attacking midfielder and a £35m centre forward in their starting XI.
They lost 5-1.
Last summer’s spending spree was interpreted by many as Wenger’s last throw of the dice, and in Munich, they came up snake eyes. It was incredibly unfortunate that Laurent Koscielny had to go off injured at the start of the second half, but Bayern Munich were missing their best central defender in Jerome Boateng. Arsenal would have loved to have Santi Cazorla or Aaron Ramsey available for selection, but Bayern felt the same way in regards to Franck Ribery and Kingsley Coman. Arsenal had the likes of Olivier Giroud and Theo Walcott to come off the bench, Bayern had Thomas Muller.
In every sense, Bayern were better than us at things that Arsenal felt they were strong at. The best way to illustrate this is by comparing the midfields of both teams on Wednesday. Both teams like to play a deep-lying playmaker who can tackle, a number 10 who can work in space further up the pitch, and someone who is skilled at winning back the ball whilst also capable at keeping possession.
In the first instance, Bayern have Xabi Alonso and Arsenal have Granit Xhaka. Alonso is not in the first flight of youth, and Xhaka isn’t up to Alonso’s peak yet, but both are pretty much the same player at this time. At number 10, Bayern have Thiago and Arsenal have Mesut Özil. Özil is the better player, and certainly wasn’t as bad on Wednesday as some would like to think, but Thiago is a far better fit for what Bayern want to do defensively than Özil is for Arsenal.
Then we have the ball-winners. Bayern have Arturo Vidal. Arsenal have Francis Coquelin.
Coquelin is, by far, the best defensive midfielder Arsenal have. Yet he is also, by far, the clearest indication of how far Arsenal are away from challenging for major honours. Every one of our rivals has someone who is brilliant at winning the ball but not a liability with it once in possession, yet Arsenal never tried to bring someone in of the same quality. Coquelin himself was an emergency measure, and whilst he will have games where his defensive work is sound, his inability to retain possession will always mean that Arsenal will struggle in games where they see little of the ball.
Xhaka was brought in to help remedy this, but even with all of Arsenal’s midfielders fit, Coquelin would probably have started in Munich anyway, just because a midfield three of Xhaka, Ramsey/Cazorla and Özil would simply be too offensively minded to play as a counter-attacking unit. It’s not that Coquelin is part of the problem that is the issue, it’s that Coquelin was seen as the answer to the problem.
That was why Wednesday felt different, because it was the same outcome as always, but this time Arsenal had tried its damndest to change. They had spent money, changed tactics, played players in different positions, but still ended up where they started. At 5-1 down, all that was left was for Arsenal was to make it look like nothing was wrong in front of the children. But even then, a three minute press conference told its own story. There was no point in trying to reassure everyone that things were okay, because even the kids could tell that something was wrong.
There is no good way of breaking up with someone who you love, and Wenger is probably going to go with the ‘It’s not you, it’s me’ line when he leaves. He loves Arsenal, and there were only two ways this was ever going to end in his eyes; spectacular success or ignominious failure. I can’t blame him for convincing himself that the former was within his grasp, and he’d be wrong to think that the last few years of his tenure were necessarily bad.
But the fact remains that he’ll have had four years of Mesut Özil at the club, and Arsenal are just as far away from winning the Champions League now than they were before Özil arrived. If you want to put that on Özil’s shoulders, go ahead, but the man who bought him has had four years to build a side around the best creative midfielder in the world, and the result of his work was borne for all to see in Munich on Wednesday.
There’s plenty of time to worry about who’s coming in next through the manager’s door. The least we can do, is hold the door open for the bloke who’s about to walk out of it. The love may be gone, but sometimes relationships don’t have to end on a sour note. Arsene Wenger may not get the fairytale ending that we all wanted him to have, but the very least he deserves is to write the final chapter himself.