If the loss to Blackburn on Saturday was an example of Arsenal’s lack of commitment, then Tuesday night’s humbling loss to Bayern Munich was a stark reminder that this team is also desperately lacking in quality. The Emirates stadium was designed to be a monument to top quality football. It was built to help solidify Arsenal’s place among the best clubs in the world. How ironic that it was the stage for two demoralising cup exits in the span of four days. The latest of which may have been the last time the beautiful new ground hosts a Champions League match for some time.
Arsenal’s Champions League adventure ended not with a bang, but with a whimper. While the tie is not officially over until the final whistle blows at the Allianz Arena on March 13th, there is little reason to believe that a comeback is in the offing. Arsenal didn’t lose the first leg of this tie because they lacked heart, or conviction, or desire. We were beaten because we were inferior. Bayern Munich outclassed Arsenal over 90 minutes and even the usually evasive Arsene Wenger had to acknowledge that there was “a difference of quality in their display compared to ours.”
What Tuesday night’s loss made me realise is that I’ve totally misjudged this Arsenal side. It’s not that I believed they were world beaters, but I had been labouring under the misapprehension that they were a quality side struggling with consistency. Now I see how badly I’ve overrated them. Bayern Munich are among the best in Europe and the way they comfortably handled us on our ground is a clear measure of how far we’ve fallen from the top of European football.
Many supporters will console themselves with the knowledge that few teams in Europe could beat this Bayern side. But as far as I’m concerned, that’s an unacceptable excuse. If Arsenal expect to be taken seriously as a Champions League team, then we should have a squad that is capable of competing with whomever we draw. Being beaten by Bayern is not unforgivable. Being swatted aside with relative ease in our shiny new stadium is hard to take. And it’s hard to take because the decision has been made that this squad is strong enough as it’s currently constituted.
We have every right to expect our team to fare better than this against any opposition. Arsenal managed a draw and a win at the Emirates against arguably tougher Barcelona teams. And those results were achieved by mostly disappointing Arsenal sides. But the erosion of quality at the club seems to have well and truly caught up with us. We now find ourselves neither able to focus enough to dispatch lesser opposition, nor possessing the quality to handle the top sides. On Tuesday night we got a first hand look at what a potential Champions League winner looks like, and we saw just how far we’ve fallen from that standard.
There were so many players found wanting on Tuesday night that it hardly seems necessary to name them. Unlike disappointments of the past, there can be little argument that this was essentially our strongest XI. Left-back aside, the manager had every player to choose from and the players he chose were overmatched. It’s fair to point out that Thomas Vermaelen’s struggles deputising at left-back were a huge problem in this match. But the fact that he was the only player available for the position is every bit a crisis of our own making.
What this match made me realize is that the players we consider mediocre aren’t even that good. And the players we consider quality are mostly mediocre. In the humdrum existence of a midtable Premier League side, players like Lukas Podolski and Mikel Arteta and Per Mertesacker may seem like world-class talents. But when confronted with a truly talented opponent like Bayern, it’s easy to see that they are far from what’s required if we ever hope to be the best.
The best players are daring and confident in the face of any opposition. But most of Arsenal’s players hid from the spotlight on Tuesday night. According to opta stats tweeted by @orbinho, Mikel Arteta completed 29 passes to Per Mertesacker. All game long the midfield and defence passed the ball back and forth between one another, unsure of how to attack Bayern. We lacked the cunning, the courage and the class to do it. We failed to muster a shot on target in the first half, and only managed a goal thanks almost entirely to comical refereeing and even worse goal-keeping.
Because we love Arsenal, we love the players who play for Arsenal. We view them like our children and want to protect them from criticism. Much like a parent who doesn’t want to admit their child is stupid, we do not want to admit that our players aren’t good enough. But just like there are many stupid children, there are many poor Arsenal players.
We get plenty of excuses for the paucity of talent in the squad. Unfortunately, it’s now clear that the excuses have done nothing but hold us back. Think of how many times we’ve been told that Abou Diaby would be a massive player for us if he could ever stay fit. Think of the “gamble” Arsene took on him this summer when he decided to sell Alex Song and not buy a replacement. Well Diaby is fit now, and he wasn’t even selected on Tuesday night. And our lone replacement for the best striker in the Premier League was sat beside him on the bench as well.
We can defend players that we know probably aren’t what we need, but defending them only serves to reinforce the reality of our new position on the footballing totem pole. Praise Giroud or Diaby all you want, but the manager didn’t believe in them enough to start them Tuesday night. And the likes of Ramsey and Arteta and Mertesacker and Vermalen and Podolski and Szczesny were a distant second best to the men wearing Bayern Munich shirts. Only when we acknowledge that we don’t truly possess the quality players we need, can we accept the reality of our situation. For all our financial success, we have become a second tier team on the pitch.
I feel badly for Jack Wilshere. His energy and passion is exceeded only by his skill. In him you see the pattern of Cesc Fabregas’ career potentially being played out again. Cesc loved Arsenal and treated Arsenal fans to some absolutely magnificent football. But he was never surrounded by the proper pieces to achieve the success he craved. Loyalty may have ultimately driven him back to Barcelona, but it wouldn’t be outrageous to suggest that frustration with failure may have contributed to his departure. Hopefully the same won’t be true of Jack.
So where do we go from here? We are a team adrift, and what remains of this season is a truly dismal proposition. From now until May, Arsenal will be reduced to chasing a top four finish in the Premier League. Aside from a trip to Sp*rs, the demoralizing second leg against Bayern, and a visit from United, there are no big fixtures left on the calendar. There are no nights of cup magic. Nothing on the schedule to fill the ground with 60,000 rabid supporters. Just visits from Everton, Reading, Norwich and Wigan. Not exactly the glamour of Barcelona, AC Milan or Real Madrid, let alone a cup final.
It’s another lost season. Most of the intrigue and all of the fantasy gone by February. You can forgive the supporters if the interest wanes. Hopefully the players will find a way to stay engaged just long enough to sneak back into fourth place.