Arsene Wenger’s team came up short again in their Champions League defeat to Bayern Munich and Arsenal fans will feel like they have seen it all before, writes Adam Bate.
Beforehand, Arsene Wenger had called it “psychologically a different problem” for Arsenal to be playing the away leg first. Afterwards, it looked like his side had shown those all too familiar frailties having capitulated to a 5-1 defeat to Bayern Munich. Same old Arsenal.
It was even the same scoreline as their previous visit to the Allianz Arena in last season’s group stage, but if that brought back unpleasant memories for the travelling support, it’s the overarching theme that will leave the wider Arsenal support so downcast in defeat.
Out in the first knockout stage for a seventh season in a row? Eliminated by Bayern for the third time in that period? It seems inevitable. If there is to be a difference it is likely to be the scale of the beating. They have already conceded more than in the previous ties.
But it’s the minutiae of the detail of this defeat that will have had an eerie familiarity for those Arsenal fans already veering between anxiety and apathy. Certainly, it seemed as if Francis Coquelin was the only man in Munich unable to see Arjen Robben’s goal coming.
Five-star Bayern rout Arsenal
Bayern Munich thrashed Arsenal 5-1 on Wednesday to take full control of their Champions League tie.
The Dutchman’s jink onto his favoured left foot might be easier to spot than stop but Coquelin did neither, darting in the wrong direction for reasons unclear. It was indicative of Arsenal’s early passivity, seemingly unable or unwilling to do anything to challenge Bayern.
After the infuriating start came the equally frustrating glimpse of hope. Arsenal got into the game – Alexis Sanchez’s one-man press finally sparking something in his team-mates. First he helped win a free-kick and then a corner from which a penalty was conceded.
Even that was a mini-drama with Sanchez scoring at the third attempt. Mesut Ozil might have given the Gunners an unlikely half-time lead too had Manuel Neuer not saved with his feet after Sanchez had again put the Bayern defence under pressure to force a mistake.
But it was in the second half that the gulf between the two teams was truly highlighted. In particular, one crazy 10-minute spell in which Bayern scored three goals – the magnificent Thiago netting two of them – to kill the tie. Arsenal appeared helpless to prevent it all.
Could they have stopped it?
And yet, while Wenger could point to misfortune in having lost Laurent Koscielny to injury with the scores level, the feeling persists that – as brilliant as Bayern are – much of what was witnessed was eminently preventable if Arsenal had been playing with more purpose.
The fifth goal, scored by substitute Thomas Muller after Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain surrendered the ball on the edge of his own area, capped a nightmare night. It was the error of a team who have long since lost belief. Even Wenger admitted it was a collapse.
Quality is a factor. Bayern had the better players. But they also had a better plan. Wenger made a small tweak to the team in opting for the more defensively capable Oxlade-Chamberlain and Alex Iwobi on the flanks but was that really enough to make a difference?
Coquelin and Granit Xhaka were still left to deal with a three-man midfield and were passed around with ease. Arsenal finished with under 26 per cent of possession. Only FC Rostov and Dinamo Zagreb have had less of the ball in a Champions League match this season.
Such a situation requires a diligent defence and a team set up to play on the counter-attack. Even with Ozil at his most diffident, Arsenal had their moments when they suggested they could do the latter, but any hope of the former disappeared down the tunnel with Koscielny.
All of which left Sanchez bereft, as so often it seems, the last man to give up hope. The Chilean made a compelling case for player-cam as he gesticulated at opponents, the referee, but mostly the others in Arsenal yellow – urging them to join him in haring around.
What happens next?
Whether he, Ozil and their manager are to join the rest in extending their stay at the Emirates Stadium is the big question now. It has been suggested that Ozil, in particular, is keen to for Wenger to confirm he is staying before committing his future to the club.
But while Wenger has unwittingly become the embodiment of the status quo, a one-time perennial winner who continues to deliver top-four finishes but no longer the big trophies that fans demand, Sanchez’s visible anger more accurately expresses the fans’ frustration.
There is an appetite for more appetite. A desire to see something new from this Arsenal. Instead, under the increasingly beleaguered Wenger they seem only capable of dishing up more of the same disappointments. A different problem? In truth, it’s anything but.