So that is it. Arsenal are out of the Champions League again at the round of sixteen. It was a strong performance from a team that is on a run of form at the moment. Normally a 2-0 win away in the Champions League is generally a great night for us, but since we went out of the competition despite the win, it doesn't get the celebration it deserves. We can go through all the what-if scenarios about how we could have gone through but in the end it is the first leg that sank us.
At home, we should not be conceding in the fashion that we did but yet we did and have done constantly in this competition. Looking back at the last several years, we have lost to Barcelona, AC Milan, Bayern Munich (twice) and now Monaco. To make the trend worse is that we always choke in the first leg and put in a hard fought gutsy second leg. Barcelona: won 2-1 at home, 3-1 loss away (our only recent first leg win). AC Milan: 4-0 loss away, 3-0 win at home. Munich, 3-1 loss at home, 2-0 win away. Munich: 2-0 loss at home, 1-1 away. Monaco: 3-1 loss at home, 2-0 win away. See the pattern? We lose these match-ups in the first leg. Had we not lost these first legs in such disappointing fashion we would moving on to the next round and who know where it would have taken us.
I am not saying that we would have won. We may have been just delaying the inevitable but the fact is we are better than that. We should be challenging the top teams and instead we crash out to a team like Monaco (even AC Milan, who were and still are a shell of their former selves). Nothing shameful about losing to a team like Bayern Munich or Barcelona, they have so much money that their napkin dispensers are full of euros. They attract they top players from across the world and as a result they created super teams that can destroy anyone. Despite this, we are capable of playing just as well on our night and we can beat them home or away. We just don't do it in the first leg.
I do not know what causes us to lose our concentration in such glorious fashion. Wenger always laments “mental strength” after one of these losses. It is hard to pin this on any one cause. Is it the manager? He is the one who sets the starting XI and establishes the tactics. Is it the players? They are the ones who actually play the matches. It is the manager's job to get the players motivated and set the tactics, and from there it is the player's duty to play to the best of their abilities. However, with poor set up the team may be doomed from kick-off. We never seem to get our footing and in the end we concede stupid goals and we are out of the competition. Against Monaco, at 2-1 with a late goal to keep things manageable, everything didn't seem too bad and getting a 2-0 win at Monaco would have seen us advance. What we got instead was Monaco walking down the pitch and scoring the goal to make it 3-1, thus ending any real chance we had at advancing.
Our stumbling in the Champions League could also be attributed to not winning the group. Getting the top spot in the group stage doesn't necessarily guarantee an easy match in the knockout stages but it does help your chances. With that top spot, you generally avoid playing teams like Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich etc, in the round of sixteen. Sure you will end up facing them later but at least you can delay it and make it further in the competition. A downside to this is we seem to underestimate our perceived weaker opposition. How thrilled were we to get Monaco in the draw? Against all the other teams we could have drawn, this was our best option. I was delighted as I watch a bit of French football and know that while Monaco are tough, they are absolutely beatable even by a team as inconsistent as we are. Then we go ahead and lay an egg at home and that was that. Frankly there are so many ways that we could avoid this fate it would take too long to list them all.
Eventually we will find the winning formula to win this competition and add that coveted trophy to our trophy cabinet, next year perhaps. Until then we have to work on securing Champions League football next year. In order to do that we have to continue our run of good form. We are only a point behind Manchester City in second and seven behind Chelsea. It is too much to think we will take Chelsea and win the league without a monumental collapse from them but Manchester City are not looking like the team that won the league last season. Our squad is starting to gel at the right time to see us through the final stretch of the season. Giroud is scoring regularly, Ozil, Ramsey and Cazorla are really starting to create and Coquelin is bossing the DM role. Obviously, we have to avoid injuries to our key players but as long as we keep playing our game we will get top four and another chance at the Champions League. Let's not forget that we are still in the running for the FA Cup so lets focus our efforts in adding that trophy and call it a season. The end of the season is fast approaching.
We head to Newcastle on Saturday. This is a match that we can and should win. I expect some changes to the lineup that faced Monaco. Welbeck will head back to the bench as Wenger will go back to his more defensive minded setup. I think Alexis may get a break as well so Walcott may get a start.
Until next time,
Come on you Gunners!