When Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain pulled a goal back in second-half stoppage time, feinting to shoot before curling his shot past the stranded goalkeeper, it looked as though Arsenal’s Champions League dream might still be alive. Yet Monaco went straight up the other end and scored their third goal of the night moments later, prompting their young manager, Leonardo Jardim, to race down the touchline in celebration as Arsene Wenger headed for the tunnel.
He had plenty to reflect on as he headed out of sight. Once again his team came up monumentally short in a big game, unable to take advantage of an inferior opponent missing some of its key players. Once again his stars seemed to shrink in the limelight, not replicating the success they have enjoyed in this competition with other clubs. Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez have both reached the latter stages of the Champions League for Real Madrid and Barcelona respectively. Neither was nearly influential enough given their reputation and price tag.
Sanchez deserves less criticism because his contribution usually has been extremely important since arriving at the Emirates in the summer. Ozil’s impact, however, has been negligible, a particularly disappointing signing considering that he was supposed to mark the beginning of a new, big spending era when he pitched up at Arsenal in 2013.
Save for a promising first few weeks, Ozil has looked sluggish in an Arsenal shirt, his languid movement often a point of criticism from supporters. Yet Dimitar Berbatov, the only player on the pitch on Wednesday night who is less inclined to exert himself, made his contribution tell, linking up brilliantly with his Monaco team-mates, and showing great composure to slot home their second goal on the counter-attack.
Apart from Berbatov, who we know all about from his time at Tottenham and Manchester United, and Joao Moutinho, Monaco’s players are relatively unproven at this level. That is what made this latest Champions League defeat even more painful for Arsenal. They were outplayed by a modest team that defended well but offered little in the way of quality. As Berbatov suggested post-match, they simply seemed to want it more. In Geoffrey Kondogbia, Monaco have a highly promising box-to-box midfield player.
Indeed, Kondogbia was just the kind of player Arsenal could have done with in midfield. They lined up with Francis Coquelin, a functional but effective holding player, and Santi Cazorla as their central midfield pair, which was always going to leave them vulnerable to Monaco attacks. Cazorla is a superb player, but is limited when operating from deep, and does not have the defensive skills or the stature required to play in such a physically demanding area of the pitch.
Just as important as Wenger’s tactics, which were clearly wrong, was Arsenal’s mindset. All the talk in the build-up had been that, after years of being faced with tricky games at this stage of the competition against the likes of Barcelona, AC Milan and Bayern Munich, this finally was a round of 16 tie that Arsenal could win, allowing them to build some momentum heading towards the latter stages. Underestimating Monaco, a team that lost its two best players in James Rodriguez and Radamel Falcao in the summer, was evidently a mistake.
Arsenal’s temperament has become a perennial problem. Although Wenger claims they have mental strength, as demonstrated in difficult circumstances last season such as clinging on to their Champions League status and coming back to win the FA Cup, this team is still liable more than most to unacceptable lapses in concentration. Their defending against Monaco was extremely sloppy, with Per Mertesacker the poorest performer, and the way they allowed the French team to score a third having just clawed their way back into the game through Oxlade-Chamberlain was almost criminal. Having to score three times without reply in Monaco three weeks from now will be next to impossible on this evidence.
Defeats like these suggest that there is a deeper reason for Arsenal’s failure in the Champions League over recent years than that they have had bad luck and difficult draws. Although it would be absurd to write off anyone with three Premier League titles and five FA Cups to their name, not to mention someone with his impact on the English game, the absence of European silverware is a notable gap in Wenger’s trophy cabinet. Although they reached the Champions League final in 2006, and the semi-finals in 2009, it does feel rather as though Europe is a blind spot for Wenger, a manager whose success in the Premier League era is bettered only by Alex Ferguson.
Furthermore, you have to wonder whether Wenger will ever win the Champions League with Arsenal, given that he was unable to do so when he had built one of the best teams in the world. This current crop does not compare with the ‘Invincibles’ team that went a record 49 games unbeaten, or even the 2008 team with Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri and Robin van Persie working in tandem. There is clear potential at Arsenal, a team with plenty of quality, but too many of their players continue to show merely flashes of brilliance before going missing for big league games and on Champions League nights.
Wenger seemed to have sorted many of the problems that afflicted his team against fellow title challengers when he masterminded last month’s 2–0 victory at Manchester City. Yet this latest Champions League blow suggests that this was merely a case of one step forward, one step back. Their failings against Monaco, which included terrible defending more than a hint of complacency, were frustratingly familiar.