Arsenal haunted by February failure
How long can this yearly pattern remain acceptable? February arrives and Arsenal's season is reduced to a rescue job. Arsene Wenger's anger on Monday was directed at the media, but he must also be exasperated that his current group of players is by no means the match of its predecessors.
The bald facts of repeated failure should be evidence enough, and Bayern Munich's easy win pushed the case for the prosecution beyond all reasonable doubt.
Even when Arsenal staged a second-half revival that showed spirit, the margin for error was too great and Bayern pounced once more. The need to score three unanswered goals in Munich represents the vainest of hopes and borders on footballing impossibility.
Arsenal's performance was not good enough to warrant a further part in this season's Champions League, and there is no guarantee that they will return to the competition next season.
The double winners of 1997-98 and 2001-02 and the 'Invincibles' of 2003-04 never lost to a lower division club, as has happened twice this season. Their European performances may often have been disappointing but rarely did they meekly surrender, as the current crop did against AC Milan at this stage last year.
Bayern wrote their own version of a well-worn script in ruthless fashion. Fleeting Arsenal flourishes were dashed by their own mistakes, and no mercy was shown. Signs of an Arsenal thirst for the fight only arrived in the second half. They were rewarded with Lukas Podolski's goal, but the revival only happened when the tie was already all but lost. Even when they started playing well, Arsenal never looked like a team capable of winning in Munich.
Wenger's initial selection resembled that of an away team, with Theo Walcott as a lone raider and Lukas Podolski and Santi Cazorla providing often distant support. Walcott's key facet, his pace, was negated when he got lost amid a Bayern backline that, Daniel Van Buyten aside, was his match in terms of speed. The ball never stuck to him and was too often quickly back at the feet of Bayern's midfielders.
Gunners fans remained defiant until gloom finally took its inevitable hold. Wenger's hurt pride is felt as their own. Early pain was shared when Toni Kroos drilled in for Bayern's first.
Seven minutes of optimism had drained into a now habitual pallor of doom, and Bayern's fans were the ones to be found bouncing. Kroos, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Javi Martinez and Phillip Lahm exhibited an unbridgeable gulf in class that only Jack Wilshere and Santi Cazorla looked capable of ever coming close to matching. Around that pair, other Arsenal players turned in individual performances that betrayed nerves and a lack of class.
Wojciech Szczesny's ability to drop a clanger on the grandest occasions did not desert him. Van Buyten's header was palmed only to Thomas Muller, who put the rebound into the roof of the net.
German teams are hardly known for a lack of confidence; if anything, over-confidence has derailed them. Bayern's hellish homecoming in last year's final was such a case, as was the national team's failure at Euro 2012.
Bayern slackened off in the minutes leading up to, and following, Podolski's goal, but recovered their footing and were able to profit from the mistake that Arsenal always had in them. Mario Mandzukic's goal was unorthodox, but Bayern put the Croat in a position to score when once again exploiting an overlap on the right, with Lahm's burst proving again that Thomas Vermaelen is ill-suited to playing left-back. Bayern made use of his shortfall of suitability, and an additional lack of protection, throughout.
"Unfortunately, we conceded another goal and it was a big blow for the team," Wenger said. "We did not keep our structure any more. At 3-1 it looked more like we would concede another one." A chase for fourth place in the Premier League is the crumb for which Arsenal must now scrabble. Should that quest fail, Wenger's future can only be in question - and perhaps from the Frenchman himself. He barely hides the pain of failure. "The results bring out a vicious circle," he admitted. Wenger was correct when he said on Monday that we would miss him when he is gone. He has graced English football. Never one to tip the wink to trusted confidantes, he has always been courteous with the press. Most fully appreciate his willingness to answer any question with great honesty and clarity.
However, the ladies and gentlemen of the press would not be doing their job if they were failing to acknowledge his team's lack of quality. Arsenal's current decline is no media conspiracy.
As a learned man, Wenger would know that revolutionaries rarely last the course unless they can evolve. Football is a pragmatic game. Events can always overtake ideals.
The idealists usually burn out and fade away quickly. Wenger's first teams were a mix of the two; he benefited greatly from hardened professionals inherited from George Graham before moulding his own team with players who inherited the desire of the seniors. The zenith of 2004 was reached with a team of physical strength and a skill level that opponents could not match.
The Abramovich revolution and a renaissance at Old Trafford, which owed much to ideas assimilated from Wenger, have overtaken the Frenchman. Manchester City's cash first bought Wenger's rejects, and then they, Barcelona and Manchester United picked off the stars that might have secured him silverware.
The fact remains that 99% of managerial careers end in failure. Even Brian Clough and Alf Ramsey suffered that fate. Few have hit the heights Wenger once reached, and Arsenal fans have the memories of their club's most glorious period, his first eight years in charge, to cherish. But that does not mean that the eight years of barren underachievement that have followed can be dismissed.
Financial frippery may show that Wenger has overachieved in terms of points and repeated Champions League qualification, but fans of a club like Arsenal are entitled to crave glory. His team simply did not play as if they believed glory was possible.