Arsene Wenger’s boots remained un-muddied. His shin pads stayed in England. His perspiration borne out of anxiety and pressure as the hot flash of humiliation subsided into a cold sweat.
Bayern Munich, on the other hand, barely broke a sweat as they eased past the Frenchman’s Arsenal at the Allianz Arena, running out 5-1 winners and effectively guaranteeing their ticket to the Champions League quarter-finals. Their trip from Munich Airport to London Heathrow will be a relaxed one and their night at the Emirates Stadium, barring the most unlikely turn of events, will be a cakewalk.
This result has been used as yet another stick with which to beat Wenger, and the ever-growing ranks of the Wenger Out brigade have a point. Arsenal have not really progressed over the course of the past five to ten years and he was indeed the man responsible for laying out the tactical plan and motivating his players for their trip to Bavaria. Alas, the 67-year-old couldn’t step over the white line when the first whistle sounded, it was down to his selected eleven to uphold their end of the bargain. Losing by four goals shows that didn’t happen.
Bayern are certainly not the opponents Arsenal would have hoped for when they topped Group A, thus securing a tie against a runner-up from the group stages. The Germans are among European footballing royalty and have won eight league titles since the Gunners were last kings of England, so a loss was always expected. The optimists would have dreamed of a narrow victory or even a score draw to take back to the north of London, but the gulf between the two teams on the night meant that was never really on the cards, even when Alexis Sanchez levelled the scores after 30 minutes.
The gap between the two teams plays out in the stats. Bayern enjoyed almost three-quarters of possession, out-shot Arsenal by 25 to seven and had seven more corners. The only major stat that was anywhere near being equal was the foul count, which the Gunners ‘won’ eleven to twelve. It only amplifies the humiliation.
The initial set-up, Wenger’s tried-and-trusted 4-2-3-1, and his words before kick-off clearly played a role in this, but the manner in which the team went about their business on the pitch was shoddy. When Bayern really ramped up the pressure in the second-half Arsenal folded, and by the time the clock hit 70 minutes it appeared they had given up. Startlingly, between the 50th and 60th minutes, they shipped three goals and didn’t win a tackle.
Culprits can be identified all over the pitch, but Francis Coquelin ranks among the worst in the gold shirt. The Frenchman was horribly off the pace, making just nine passes, of which only six were completed. To put that into perspective, his opposite number in the holding role for Bayern, Xabi Alonso, played 111 passes with a success rate of about 90%. That’s 100 passes, almost 17 times as many as Coquelin. The numbers don’t get any better when you consider that the 25-year-old failed to win a tackle across his 77 minutes on the pitch, despite Bayern being heavily on top and his role being to protect the defence.
Coquelin was by no means alone. Mesut Ozil – the ‘pass-master’ – played 24 passes in total, a number matched by Bayern goalkeeper Manuel Neuer. Granted, the home stopper was merely stroking the ball out from the back, making this a somewhat moot comparison, but Ozil is seen as Arsenal’s playmaker, so for him to have been matched in terms of passes made by an underworked goalkeeper is as surprising as it is worrying.
No matter where you look on the pitch the Arsenal players lost their individual battles. Shkodran Mustafi struggled all evening with Robert Lewandowski, Hector Bellerin and Kieran Gibbs could not deal with the inventiveness of Arjen Robben and Douglas Costa’s, while Alex Iwobi looked every inch the inexperienced 20-year-old he is up against veteran campaigner Philipp Lahm. The only player who had even a semblance of joy was Sanchez, and even his tireless running and fierce will to win were not enough.
It may be simplistic, but the manager cannot win individual battles on the pitch. He can tinker and set up so as to not magnify his players’ weaknesses and must take responsibility for some being exposed, but ultimately those on the turf have to take the initiative and work to ensure they are not so out-played. If this was not possible, games would always be won by the better set of players, and while on the whole the stronger team wins the match, that’s not always the case.
It may indeed prove that this is a bridge too far for Wenger. His side are effectively out of the title race and will surely take their leave from Europe on March 7, while their EFL Cup quest ended at the hands of Southampton. The FA Cup remains there to play for, but even a third victory in four years won’t represent the progress and reward for investment demanded by the fans, despite the board’s seeming contentment to extend his contract beyond its summer 2017 expiration.
The players, however, will stay, but their culpability really should be questioned to the same extent Arsene Wenger’s is. They should be the ones sweating on their futures.