There was one word that Arsene Wenger used on Tuesday afternoon, one word that showed how much of a prisoner he is to his own consistent high standards, set and maintained for 20 years.
“I feel guilty,” Wenger admitted, “when we finish second [in a Champions League group] and have a difficult tie.”
For five of the last six Champions League seasons, Arsenal have finished second in their group. That has given them harder last-16 games, stopping them from reaching the competition’s last eight. For a club who reached the final in 2006, and the semi-final in 2009, this decade has not been good enough. Hence Wenger’s guilt.
But it is easy to forget, as we often do, what an achievement it is simply to get there, over and over again. Negotiating a Champions League group stage takes some skill, especially when balanced against the weekly drain of the Premier League. Arsenal have qualified from the group stage 16 years in a row now. There are worse things than getting into a rut of finishing second, rather than first.
Just look at Tottenham. They have worked so hard to get back into the Champions League, improving year-on-year under Mauricio Pochettino. They were drawn into a group with two other good teams, but no big beasts. Yet in their four games against Bayer Leverkusen and Monaco, they were outplayed four times. They can beat Arsenal in a one-off game but they do not have those years of accumulated experience that count for so much in Europe.
Or look at Manchester City. They have come closer than any English side in the last few years, losing in the semi-final to eventual winners Real Madrid last season. But they could not get out of their group in their first two tries, and then stopped at the last-16 in their next two.
Playing in the Champions League is different. It is slower and less power-driven than the Premier League. It requires a different approach. While Leicester City’s anti-possession approach has shocked their group, they have also benefited from diverting all of their resources into it, rather than defending their Premier League title. But Tottenham have tried to balance the Champions League and Premier League, hoping to take their way of playing with them. It has not worked at all.
Monaco vs Tottenham player ratings
Monaco vs Tottenham player ratings
1/22 Danijel Subasic - 6
Did well in his one-on-one with Son to deny Tottenham an early lead but will have known he should have done better to stop Kane's penalty.
2/22 Djibril Sidibé - 8
One of Monaco's stand-out players. A real menace down the right, bombing up and down the wing throughout. Found the space well in between Spurs' centre backs for his goal and set up Lemar with an inch-perfect delivery for Monaco's second.
3/22 Kamil Glik - 6
Bullied Tottenham's forward all night as he pulled at their shirts and nipped at their ankles. Eventually got called out for it when he brought down Alli in the box to hand Spurs a penalty.
4/22 Jemerson - 7
Sold defensive performance. Rarely beaten, using his strength and pace to marshal the Monaco backline.
5/22 Benjamin Mendy - 7
Pressed on well like Sidibe and provided the home side with a constant stream of deliveries. Fulfilled his defensive duties for much of the match.
6/22 Bernardo Silva – 8
Fantastic ability to spot gaps and spaces in the game. Both created and enjoyed a number of chances on goal. Such a prospect.
7/22 Fabinho – 7
Comfortable and composed on the ball. Limited Tottenham’s options within the Monaco final third.
8/22 Tiemoue Bakayoko – 7
Defensively solid behind the ball. Linked up well with those around him.
9/22 Thomas Lemar – 8
A menace early on as he pumped ball after ball into the Spurs box. Fired in the winner from a tight angle. A pesk throughout.
10/22 Valere Germain – 7
Not Moncao’s most threatening player but a nuisance nonetheless. Got in well behind the Tottenham defence early on. A bright spark.
11/22 Radamel Falcao – 6
Kept the Spurs back line busy but not his best of games. Enjoyed a few half-chances but never really got in the right space to challenge Lloris.
12/22 Hugo Lloris – 8
Sensational between the sticks. Pulled off a series of phenomenal saves that kept Spurs in the game and denied Monaco an early goal with a penalty stop.
13/22 Kieran Trippier – 5
Provided a reliable source of deliveries on the right, but defensively weak. Both goals came from his side. Out of his depth.
14/22 Eric Dier – 4
Clumsy defending from the England international. Handed Monaco their penalty and never looked comfortable in the position.
15/22 Kevin Wimmer – 4
Lax in his marking, particuarly under the high ball. Struggled to establish a solid partnership with Dier.
16/22 Danny Rose – 6
Far from his best but one of Spurs’ better players. Lively on the ball and kept going to the very end.
17/22 Victor Wanyama – 6
Picked out some good central passes early on but was repeatedly caught in possession as the game proceeded.
18/22 Harry Winks – 6
Showed his ability and potential in getting out of tight positions. Enjoyed some neat, tidy passing but couldn’t offer anything to help save Spurs.
19/22 Mousa Dembélé – 5
Scrappy, haphazard performance. Battled hard but his frustration clearly got the better of him at times.
20/22 Heung-Min Son – 5
Squandered an early goal-scoring opportunity and repeatedly wasted the good positions he found himself in. Ineffective.
21/22 Dele Alli – 6
Incisive with his passing and enjoyed a few chances in front of goal. Couldn't provide the spark to save Spurs though.
22/22 Harry Kane – 6
Worked hard and registered a few shots on goal but nothing overly testing. His penalty handed Spurs a life line but it wasn’t to be.
“The difference in the Champions League is that, everywhere you go, the teams all play football,” Wenger explained yesterday. “But in the Premier League, even if you have 80 per cent possession you can still lose the game. The pressure on the Premier League games today, is massive.”
The Premier League is certainly more physically demanding, if not mentally, which is why rotation is geared to be fully fresh on the weekend, rather than midweek. “Before the Champions League game was the game you had to prepare,” Wenger explained. “Today, the Premier League game is the game you have to prepare.”
It might not sound like much but it is the balance that Wenger has perfectly struck every year this century. That, more than anything else, is what keeps Arsenal secure at the top table of the English and European games. As Tottenham are finding, one good run is not enough. You have to stay there too.Reuse content