Tuesday 24 October 2017

Dion Fanning: Systematic failure from Arsenal who again fall to a tactical plan

Dion Fanning

This was as easy as many had predicted. But instead of Arsenal making the big leap forward into the last eight of the Champions League, it was Monaco who made a significant step.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain scored an injury-time goal which promised to provide Arsenal with the cruellest thing of all: hope. But they couldn’t even nurture that and Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco scored a third for Monaco in injury-time.

Arsenal’s opponents were, according to their own coach Leonardo Jardim, the “lucky” draw in the last sixteen and he said that he, along with many others, expected to Arsenal to go through.

It was an expectation that undermined Arsenal almost from the beginning on Wednesday night and the Emirates was silent for most of the second half which could be expected as they were supporting a team that looked like it had surrendered. At the final whistle, the traditional sounds that accompanied an Arsenal defeat could be heard once more.

The traditional post-mortem will also begin, Mesut Ozil was assuming the familiar position as scapegoat but so many could join him - Per Mertesacker, Olivier Giroud, Danny Welbeck from this game  - that it must be considered a systemic failure.

The loud and boisterous Monaco fans celebrated through the evening and it was hard to recall a bunch of high net worth individuals being this energised since the banking crash.

Arsenal hadn’t got beyond the last sixteen since 2010 and only the formalities are between them and another exit at that stage. Their opponents in the past four seasons provided some explanation, reading like a grand tour for an aspirational football club. They had been knocked out by Barcelona, Milan and Bayern Munich twice so a meeting with Monaco was supposed to offer plenty of encouragement.

Instead it was a game that led to familiar feelings of disgust and despair. Arsenal had anticipated a quarter-final but again they discovered that they are always vulnerable to a side that has a tactical plan.

Monaco's French midfielder Geoffrey Kondogbia celebrates scoring against Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium
Monaco's French midfielder Geoffrey Kondogbia celebrates scoring against Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium

Their recent resurgence had suggested Arsenal were changing, that they too possessed some cunning, but their midfield, such as it was, was overwhelmed by Geoffrey Kondogbia and Joao Moutinho.

When the early Arsenal goal didn’t come in the opening minutes, Kondogbia and Moutinho began to advance and it quickly became clear that asking Francis Coquelin to do it on his own was never going to be adequate.

Behind him Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker struggled while Olivier Giroud missed a couple of chances in the second half which offered more evidence of his limitations as a centre-forward.

Kondogbia’s shot had been deflected past David Ospina for Monaco’s first but there was nothing fortunate about it as they were rewarded for their discipline.

In the first half, Giroud had looked offended when the outstanding Aymen Abdennour had energetically blocked a chance and it was a moment that summed up the difference between the sides.

It was an encounter that had prompted plenty of nostalgic reflections about Wenger’s time at Monaco, a club he managed before he was even ‘Arsene Who?’ in the English consciousness.

But Monaco are a very different club today, a club built by an oligarch but a club taking the road less travelled by an oligarch as they embark on a strategic retreat, selling the talents brought expensively to the club. They could afford them thanks to the wealth of owner Dmitry Rybolovlev but in a world of financial fair play and a world in which he had to make a £2 billion divorce settlement to his ex-wife the expenditure seemed unsustainable.

Their progress through the group stage had suggested that they would shortly be making a louche and elegant exit in keeping with their image. Despite topping their group, they scored only four goals but it didn’t take them long at the Emirates to emphasise that their skill is in defence and it was a skill that Arsenal could do nothing to counter.

Monaco had conceded only two goals in their recent run which had seen them lose only once in seventeen matches but they were without Ricardo Carvalho and Jeremy Toulalan while left-back Layvin Kurzawa wasn’t fit enough to start.

There was, of course, Dimitar Berbatov to provide a focal point or, at least, whatever focal point is provided by such a laconic presence.

Arsenal fans started the game by booing him but they had forgotten about that long before he scored Monaco’s second goal that ended all hope.

Behind Berbatov, everything about Monaco was well-defined and purposeful. They looked like a team that had fourteen clean sheets since the beginning of December and Arsenal seemed to diminish once they hadn’t taken a lead in the first five minutes.

Monaco’s record alone made it clear that it was going to be difficult but there had been signs that Arsenal’s season was turning. They had been beaten only once since the defeat to Southampton on New Year’s Day. The run had included victory at Manchester City. They had lost at White Hart Lane but it was hard not to see their failure against Monaco as even more wounding.

Wenger has never been one to gaze wistfully into the past and, given all he has endured over the past few years, the Monaco years might have felt like they happened to another person.

In recent weeks, as Arsenal have moved up the table, it appeared that he could begin to look optimistically towards the future.

The Champions League was central to all hopes of a bright new future. At the final whistle, there were no nostalgic reflections. Instead there was another reminder that Arsenal’s European history is a nightmare from which they are still trying to awake.

Read more: How Monaco was the making of Wenger

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