Per Mertesacker’s response to Arsenal plummeting out of the Champions League on Tuesday night can be summarised by one simple, three-letter word; “Far.”
When quizzed on how close the Gunners are to winning European football’s most coveted prize, that was the German’s answer. A single-syllable phrase that spoke more than a picture and a thousand words combined, saying more about the paradoxical state of affairs at the Emirates than this article likely will.
To the more militant Arsenal support, Mertesacker’s response will demonstrate a worrying lack of ambition throughout the squad, but to those with a more realistic mindset, it encapsulates honestly and accurately the seemingly eternal difference between Arsenal and the rest of the European elite – even clubs considered below them in the continent’s pecking order like AS Monaco.
After all, from 17 straight seasons in the Champions League – the sheer mention of which during practically every European fixture or top four clash Arsenal are involved in only further highlights their lack of success over the last decade – the north London outfit have never lifted its trophy and surpassed the quarter finals only twice.
Despite all the St. Totteringham’s Day annual jibing at their local rivals, it’s actually Spurs that have come closest to winning the Champions League in the last five years; Arsenal eliminated during the first knock-out phase five times on the trot, Tottenham reaching the quarter-finals in 2010/11.
We all know that on their day, Arsenal have enough quality going forward to destroy anyone. On Tuesday night they scored twice past the best defence in Ligue 1, who spent the whole ninety minutes with ten men behind the ball protecting a three-goal lead, in their own stadium. Few pundits were particularly surprised – even if they had ruled out a complete comeback before kick-off.
Yet, the Gunners’ naivety in that belief has become more abundant than ever over the last few seasons. Last term, it was demonstrated through their poor results against the Premier League’s big boys. This year, it’s trickled into their European escapades; drawing with Anderlecht in the group stages after going three goals up and losing 3-1 to a Monaco side that now form, by far, the weakest link in the Champions League’s remaining eight clubs. On their day, Arsenal are unstoppable – but their lukewarm days, their off days and their no-show days, where their attacking flair is as absent as their pragmatism and grit, are the real problem.
Whether it’s philosophy or mentality compelling Arsenal into these situations each season remains open to debate. Against Anderlecht, there was a clear shirking of defensive responsibilities as the players eyed a five or six goal win, but the fact of the matter is that clubs have known how to defeat the Gunners for some time – simply compound pressure in the middle of the pitch before exploiting gaps between the centre-halves and full-backs on the counter.
If you have seven work horses, two tricky wingers and a striker in decent enough form, you’re likely to score past Arsenal at least once, and any side involved in the Champions League has more than enough quality to expertly execute that basic game-plan.
Either way however, Arsenal’s tribulations all stem from the dugout. After all, their squad is entirely assembled of Arsene Wenger-purchased players, who all follow the Frenchman’s tactics and resonate his mindset collectively.
If the north Londoners are to ever break their European hoodoo, it seems a change in management is desperately required. As Albert Einstein said; the definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. This is now Arsene Wenger’s 17th try, and unsurprisingly, the results are yet to change.