Another year, another Champions League exit in the first knockout round. The ‘brave performance’ unfortunately doesn’t detract from the fact that Arsenal have once again fallen short against one of the European elite and failed to make it beyond the last 16 for the fourth successive year. Ok, you may bemoan the fact we quite often get difficult draws at this stage but you have to face the best at some stage and if you complain about that, you may as well stay at home.
Once again, it was ‘close’ so we can and will bemoan certain individual moments and decisions that might have swung things in our favour but ultimately, we are still out of the competition. At some point this needs to change. These repeated setbacks may be a learning experience but after 16 consecutive years of competing in a competition looking barely even capable of winning it, you have to wonder if anything has actually been ‘learned’ at all.
You have to ask what our aim is in this competition. Are we attempting to win it or simply turning up each year to make up the numbers? Are we simply savouring the odd decent result and just content to avoid being humiliated? Taking pride in glorious defeat is pretty small time for a club of Arsenal’s stature. The club needs to step up soon otherwise there really is just no point.
That said, this was probably one of Arsenal’s most resolute performances all season and what bigger stage for it to occur? The boys went toe to toe with arguably the best team in the continent and, for the most part, held them at bay. The star performer from an attacking view on the night was Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain whose stock continued to rise after a display that showed exactly how much of a critical component he will be for Arsenal moving forward. If they are to eventually muscle their way into Europe’s upper echelon, the Oc may have a big say in that. Starting in an advanced wide position, the England international was the driving force as Arsenal attempted to hit the Bavarians with admittedly rare counter attacking moves. When he drew a desperate foul from Dante in the opening ten minutes, you sensed his driving runs could cause the home side some headaches as the night wore on. While his contribution ultimately didn’t yield the required result, he certainly gave them something to think about.
Putting our Oz out of joint
Conversely, Mesut Ozil had a night to forget. On the periphery of the game in the first half, the German was unceremoniously withdrawn at half time. While I’m not about to just on the ‘flop’ bandwagon that seems to be in overdrive today, it was abundantly clear on the night that Ozil was struggling. What we now know is that he was actually suffering from a hamstring injury that is set to keep him out for a number of weeks. While it seemed fair to feel let down by his performance in the first leg, what we now know is that there was a mitigating factor is this particular lacklustre display. This is something to consider before drawing the (incorrect) conclusion that he is a ’flop’ or ‘waste of money’ as you might read if you pick up certain tabloid newspapers today. One both hopes and expects Mesut Ozil, one of the most talanted footballers in the world, to come back from this injury and silence some of the over the top criticism being levelled at him.
Arsenal were able to stem the tide of Bayern attacks by sitting very deep and putting men behind the ball. Defensively, the team restricted the home side to very few clear cut chances. Two of the key players in this committed rearguard display were Thomas Vermealen and Lukas Fabianski – intriguingly, two players likely to leave the club in the summer. Since falling out of favour, captain Vermaelen has actually performed fairly well when called upon. Old Trafford, Dortmund away and Chelsea at home spring to mind as examples. Here, he was playing in the unfamiliar left back position and, for the most part, managed to prevent Arjen Robben from causing too much trouble. As unlikely as it seems now, I hope his position at the club can be salvaged because we look set to lose someone who is still a decent defender.
As for our deputy keeper, his cameos seem more impressive with each passing game. Unlucky to concede from close range, Fabianski was equal to everything else that came his way for the Germans. It seemed fitting that he should cap off a fine performance with a late penalty save from Thomas Muller.
Kos for concern
That penalty of course came courtesy of a challenge by Laurent Koscielny on the talented but devious Robben. The Bayern winger had spent much of the evening trying to get up close and personal with the Alianz turf following a series (!) of tumbles that most people would correctly call cheating. Of course, he needed little invitation to go down like a new-born foal under Kos’ challenge but once again, our French centre back made the decision easy for the referee. Every replay you care to watch shows that Kosclieny’s tackle attempt definitely made ‘contact’ with the flailing Dutchman so, while harsh, it could easily be argued that it was indeed a spot-kick.
The challenge was clumsy and unnecessary (especially with the attacker going away from goal!) and is yet another blot on Koscielny’s copybook. Whether you believe he is ‘unlucky’ or not, he really needs to show much more intelligence in those situations – especially against someone like Robben. He continues to give away far, far too many penalties. Thankfully this one wasn’t too costly in the end.
Arsenal’s goal on the night came through Lukas Podolski who, remarkably, also has question marks hanging over his future at the club. Like Ozil, Podolski comes with a big reputation and a certain level of expectancy to deliver in big games. One could suggest he hasn’t done so enough to date but a counter point would be that he hasn’t been given enough of a run in the team this season. For whatever reason, the manager seems reluctant with him so whether he has a long term future with the club remains to be seen. However, Podolski did provide Wenger with some food for thought after hammering in the equaliser with enough force to knock down a small house… possibly.
While his overall performance wasn’t exactly sparkling, what his goal showed was that he is able to make a meaningful contribution now and again. A useful asset that you rather have as an option. Hopefully the manager takes this on board before deciding whether to dispense with him or not.
Ol by himself
A player the manager seems to have more patience with is Olivier Giroud who was once again disappointing in admittedly difficult circumstances. Giroud found himself isolated for much of the game as the midfield struggled to provide him with the required service. However, the Frenchman did very little to impose himself or get involved in the proceedings. He put in the kind of performance that once again has fans clamouring for a better, more effective option in his position.
As an aside, on Twitter this week, I saw a stat being trotted out comparing Giroud’s goal record to a certain Didier Drogba (https://twitter.com/_LS87_/status/442677685488476160) as means of trying to talk up the ability of our man; a prime example of people using selectively taking stats with no context to manipulate their own argument. The comparison was bizarre and quite irrelevant (Darren Bent also out-scored Drogba in at least three seasons…) given the different circumstances and especially when you consider the latter’s proclivity for scoring more important goals and turning it on when the pressure was on in the biggest games to lead his team to success... such as away from home against Bayern in the Champions League! When Giroud does that for Arsenal, regularly, then we can talk.
It’s lazy and obvious to suggest that because we went on a run after going out of Europe last season that lightening will somehow strike twice. However, despite the disappointment of another European exit, coming away from Bayern managing to avoid defeat and playing relatively well considering the difficulty of the task in hand should certainly provide encouragement for the remainder of the campaign – especially with similar ‘tough’ matches on the horizon. There’s also the small matter of the FA Cup. There’s no telling how the remaining 11 (hopefully 12!) matches of the season will pan out but Arsenal will want to use this match as a springboard and push on for a more positive end to the season than we’ve been used to recently.
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