At both half-time and full-time of a brutal Champions League defeat to Bayern Munich, Arsenal were booed off by their irate fans, only for the more understanding sections of Emirates Stadium to respond compassionately with a delayed show of support. Clearly this remains a club torn between loyalty and dissent – not least when it comes to their manager.
The final judgement on Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal tenure will not solely draw on this game for its body of evidence: it was entirely expected that a far superior Bayern Munich, who have tamed the ebullient Bundesliga, would dominate an Arsenal humbled by Blackburn. And dominate they did. Yet a defeat which effectively ensures Arsene Wenger will suffer an eighth trophyless season still exposed some familiar, unforgivable faults.
An unconvincing defence riven by uncertainty; a team with questionable character and little confidence; and a chronic lack of options provided by a squad that has been eroded of genuine quality quite alarmingly over the past few years.
Seeking a response to a second cup exit at the hands of lower-league opposition on Saturday, Arsenal enjoyed five minutes of promise at the start of the game, roared on by an unusually vocal home crowd. But after both Santi Cazorla and Theo Walcott whipped in dangerous crosses – the first of which forced Manuel Neuer into the rarest of things for the Bayern keeper: a save – the Germans ruthlessly punctured any nascent optimism in the home support.
As an enthusiasm killer, Toni Kroos’s thumping volley that kicked up off the turf and rose out of the reach of Wojciech Szszesny after seven minutes was every bit as deflating as Park Ji-Sung’s strike after eight minutes in a semi-final defeat to Manchester United here in 2009. That match also ended 3-1, Arsenal outclassed by a weightier, more accomplished, more powerful rival. It has become a familiar fate.
Jupp Heynckes's lavishly gifted Bayern side are certainly worthy of comparison with teams of the stature of Manchester United and Barcelona. A 20-minute spell and one aberration aside – Manuel Neuer’s decidedly un-German walkabout for Arsenal’s goal – the team 15 points clear in the Bundesliga were everything they promised to be. Classy and composed in defence, authoritative in midfield, fluid and precise in attack and flanked by two tireless, dangerous full-backs in David Alaba and the inestimable Philipp Lahm, this is a team perfectly calibrated and balanced for the rigours of the elite modern game.
Watching Bayern overwhelm Arsenal in the first half – particularly in midfield where Javi Martinez and Bastian Schweinsteiger’s initiative and vigour in a deeper role provided the foundation for Kroos to manoeuvre stylishly – was to watch a team utterly confident in their own ability and identity; drilled, disciplined and deadly. The sort of team that, it seems, Arsenal may never again be under Wenger.
Bayern were helped by some poor defending. Thomas Mueller’s goal from a corner was avoidable, while Mario Mandzukic’s third exposed the grand fragility that was Arsenal’s left flank: all Bayern’s goals came from that side, with the out-of-position and out-of-sorts Thomas Vermaelen offered little protection by Lukas Podolski and then, following a tactical reshuffle, Santi Cazorla in the second half.
The way Mario Mandzukic was left completely free from another Lahm cross from the Bayern right to head wide in the first half was perhaps the most vivid example of Arsenal's tenuous grasp of the art of defending. Heynckes put it succinctly enough: "It was just easy for my team to play."
Wenger, whose anger flared up briefly again in his post-match press conference, only to be replaced by a more sanguine outlook, admitted: “The nerves played a big part. The results bring confidence. It’s a bit of a vicious circle. The players gave absolutely everything. We played against a side who have no doubt at all. They have a history in the last six months where everything is positive, every player is confident to play with full power. That’s not the same for us at the moment. But things can change quickly. In three weeks, we can do it.”
They can't. Bayern have conceded three times only once this season, and only once - Lukas Podolski's opportunistic header - in 2013. They are invulnerable, whereas a decidedly mortal Arsenal have just lost their sixth home game of the season - the most since the turbulent 1996-97 campaign which heralded Wenger's arrival. A different age, in so many ways.
These are two teams separated by a gulf in technical quality and strength. With Mueller at his elusive best, Bayern could enjoy the luxury of having Arjen Robben on the bench, where he sat alongside Mario Gomez - not everyone's idea of a top level striker but a man with an enviable goalscoring record nonetheless given he has almost 100 goals in three-and-a-half seasons with the club.
Meanwhile, Wenger's apparent distrust of Olivier Giroud last night meant Arsenal had to start a stranded and subdued Theo Walcott in attack, because a team engaged in a bitter fight for fourth has mystifyingly left themselves with no other senior strikers. Quality has been dripping out of this Arsenal side for years, never adequately replaced. They have few options beyond the first XI, as that loss to Blackburn proved, and Wenger must take responsibility for this situation - whatever the scale of the financial constraints he has faced.
In truth, after a night when Santi Cazorla played far below his best, Arsenal's only saving grace was Jack Wilshere, again. A combative first half was followed by a more impressive second, one cute turn away from Schweinsteiger and drive forward demonstrating that of all the Arsenal players on show, only Hertfordshire's finest would have any hope of commanding a place in this brilliant Bayern team.
Flinging his arms up in frustration at a mistake from Per Mertesacker and berating his team-mates following sloppy passes, Wilshere was the only player to look capable of dragging Arsenal out of their malaise, to drive them forward with any kind of convincing intent. But it will take more than just Wilshere, however willing he may be, to alter Arsenal's course.
It will take a defence who knows how to defend, it will take deeper reserves of fortitude and it will take an infusion of genuine quality. The belief that Wenger is the man to provide these vital ingredients grows weaker by the week, and last night only suggested that the boos from the home fans will grow ever louder, as support continues to ebb sadly away.
- Sports & Recreation
- Bayern Munich
- Arsene Wenger
- Santi Cazorla