All pieces in place but again Arsenal crumble

This season was meant to be one of progress for Wenger’s team

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The Independent Football

For an idea of how much beating Arsenal meant to Monaco it was there in the reaction of the principality’s Prince Albert II who, after the final whistle, walked across the pitch with his bodyguards to applaud his club’s travelling support, did a live, pitch-side TV interview and then had his picture taken in the away team’s dugout. This is a man who has spent his life accustomed to extraordinary privilege – and yet even he was excited.

You had to wonder at the mood elsewhere at the Emirates, nowhere more so than in Arsène Wenger’s office, from which he took some time to emerge before savaging his team’s performance in his press conference. In the directors’ box were Stan Kroenke, the club’s major shareholder, and his son, Josh, who had flown from the United States especially for the game.

This round-of-16 tie is not yet over for Arsenal. They still have the second leg at the Stade Louis II in three weeks’ time to redeem themselves, and beyond that there is still the FA Cup and a Premier League campaign, where they are a very respectable third. It is also not as if the owners, manager, players and fans have not had to cope with disappointment before. Despair and recovery have been the norm for Wenger’s Arsenal over recent years.

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Arsene Wenger can't bear to look as his Arsenal side slumped to a 3-1 defeat

What is different this year is that the pieces are supposed to be in place for Wenger to do better. For the second summer in a row, the club have invested heavily in a stellar name, Alexis Sanchez this time, to make the team competitive at the highest level. There is a good strength in depth, with cover in most positions and, for once, the most critical shortage – centre-back – was addressed in the January transfer window.


The Kroenke ownership has been sympathetic to Wenger, to a fault it might be said, but come the 2014-2015 season, the club did not expect to be on the brink of elimination from the Champions League first knockout stage at the hands of the fourth-placed team in Ligue 1.

Per Mertesacker, who was one of the few to speak up afterwards, admitted that the team had been “naïve”, and it would be right to say that it was not a great night for him, either. But the way in which he was talking about the second leg would have been unthinkable when the draw was made. “We have seen a lot of miracle nights,” he said. “When I was a young kid, there were a lot of miracles. European nights can be very frustrating but can as well be wonderful. We need a wonderful night.”

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Arsène Wenger took some time to emerge from his office before savaging his team’s display (Getty Images)

A miracle was what Arsenal required last season against Bayern Munich in the second leg, and also away to Bayern the season before that. In those seasons, Wenger could point to the cruelty of the draw pairing them with Bayern both times, which was in part a consequence of having finished second in their group. For the last four years they have gone out in the round of 16, and this is supposed to be the year that they make progress.

This time they had the benefit of two years’ investment in the team and they have gone two summers without having lost a key player – Robin van Persie in 2012 the last piece of family silver to be sold off. They were almost injury-free, and despite finishing second in the group, the draw had been kind to them. At the very least they were favourites for the home leg, yet they were embarrassed again.

The summer of 2014 was envisaged to be the time when the club’s position would be strengthened. The revenue from the new deal with the Emirates naming rights came on stream, so too the £170m five-year Puma kit deal. At the same time as Arsenal’s profitable model generated money, so they hoped that the Uefa Financial Fair Play rules would restrict the traditional high-spenders, like Chelsea and Manchester City.

 

More than £70m was spent in the summer on Sanchez, Danny Welbeck, Calum Chambers, Mathieu Debuchy and David Ospina, with very little recouped beyond that of Thomas Vermaelen’s fee. Arsenal are entitled to say that they were playing catch-up with some of their wealthier rivals but almost three years on from Van Persie’s sale they are contemplating a fifth consecutive exit in the round of 16.

Overlooked in Jose Mourinho’s Goals on Sunday performance was his withering assessment of Arsenal’s season. “Arsenal? I don’t understand why they are not with Man City,” he said. “Every manager in the world would love to have the stability he [Wenger] has year after year with a chance to buy, to sell, to rebuild, to wait for success... and wait and wait. I think he has a dream job.”

The barb was obvious and it would be unfair on Wenger to compare the challenge he has faced over the last 10 years to those Mourinho has encountered. But at Arsenal now the expectation is different to what it might have been five years ago, when Chelsea were able to strengthen at will. Now they are forced to trade more strategically as the sale of players like Juan Mata and André Schürrle have demonstrated.

Having agreed that new three-year contract with Wenger in the summer, the club permitted no margin for doubt that they saw him as the man to take them into a new era when there would be fewer restrictions on their spending and more on their rivals. A one-year deal, or even two, might have seemed like they were hedging their bets, but three years was a strong endorsement.

As Monaco escaped on the counter-attack for their third goal, a sinking feeling suffused the Emirates. Third in the league and in the FA Cup quarter-finals, it was a long way from mutiny. They are not even out of the Champions League yet, but on Wednesday night the story looked uncomfortably familiar.

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