Low on ideas and excuses, is Arsene Wenger on his way out of Arsenal?
Financial constraints have been lifted but same old failings remain
About 45 minutes after Yannick Ferreira Carrasco had applied what was probably the decisive blow to Arsenal's Champions League hopes, Per Mertesacker emerged from the home dressing room to front up to the media and discuss familiar failings in Arsene Wenger's team.
The predictable mot du jour was "naivety" and, just as Mertesacker was admitting the team had yet again left themselves exposed on the counter-attack, Stan and Josh Kroenke passed by on their way out of the Emirates.
The thoughts of the club's majority owner and director son were not publicly offered but their faces told of the collective deflation.
The Kroenkes have been an increasing presence around the club this season and it would be a big misnomer to believe that their ambitions do not extend well beyond the seeming glass ceiling of finishing third or fourth in the Premier League while reaching the last 16 of the Champions League.
Arsenal's board had also hoped for more in this past decade but there was always an acute understanding that Wenger (right) was working amid the constraints of the biggest rebuilding phase in the club's history.
Yet that era has largely now been navigated and it is this changing narrative that makes Wednesday's 3-1 defeat by Monaco so potentially damaging. Arsenal have now just begun what should be a delivery phase of Wenger's tenure and, with more than £100 million spent on the squad in the past two years, the old mitigation of a lack of funds or experience is markedly less convincing.
The average age on Wednesday was 26. There were nine senior internationals, two World Cup winners and the club's three most expensive ever signings in the starting line-up.
Jose Mourinho's appearance on Goals on Sunday might have served another agenda but, when he suggested that Arsenal's squad was good enough to be challenging his team more closely this season, there was some truth to the observation.
"Arsenal? I don't understand why they are not where we are with Man City," Mourinho said. "Look at the players, look at the squad, they have to win because it's fantastic."
And yet even with some fantastic players now finally free of injury for such an important moment of the season, Arsenal showed a shocking lack of game-management in how they chased Wednesday's match as if the final whistle would signal full- rather than half-time on the tie.
"We looked a bit over-motivated to come back as quickly as possible - that was a big regret," Mertesacker said. Not since 1969 have a club overcome such a deficit in the European Cup, with Mertesacker left talking about the need for miracles as he left the Emirates.
It was strikingly similar to the disappointment Arsenal had felt in decisive first-leg losses in their three previous appearances at this stage of the competition and yet it ought really to have been so different.
The opponents were Monaco not Bayern Munich and Wenger himself believes that he has his best squad since at least 2011. The feeling at boardroom level is that, having delivered a structure that can now churn out annual revenues comparable with just about any opponent in Europe, the club are capable of breaking back into the Premier League's top two and getting past the Champions League last 16.
This is not to say that Wenger's job is any imminent danger. The team are on a wider run of 15 wins in 20 matches, have just broken into the Premier League's top three and are in a quarter-final of the FA Cup.
Wenger's support at boardroom level remains total and Arsenal are not a club that would waver in February of the first season of a new three-year contract for their manager, much less after 90 minutes of an 180-minute match. Yet the bottom line is that Wenger will himself know that he is now working amid subtle but significant differences in expectation.
Last year was especially important at Arsenal for three reasons. Not only did the club win the FA Cup and Wenger sign a new contract until 2017 but their key commercial deals - all connected with getting the finance together to build the Emirates - expired.
A new partnership with Puma and an extended contract with Emirates will add about £40 million to the club's commercial revenues by the time of the next financial year. This is happening while Uefa's new Financial Fair Play rules are reducing the spending power of many of Arsenal's main rivals.
It is not, then, some fluke that Arsenal have suddenly been able to buy talents such as Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez while also having less difficulty keeping key players. Wenger will have a transfer budget this summer that is estimated to be around £50 million.
His first priority is central midfield and a deal in excess of £20 million for Southampton's Morgan Schneiderlin is a distinct possibility. Another centre-back is also on the agenda, even after the signing of Gabriel from Villarreal.
With David Opsina and Wojciech Szczesny both struggling to fully convince, Wenger's options in goal also remains an issue. The bottom line, though, is that he does basically now have the squad that he wants and Arsenal's success or otherwise will essentially come down to his selection, tactics and work on the training ground.
Monaco will certainly adopt the exact same strategy in three weeks' time. Asked if it was a surprise to find such holes in Arsenal's defence, Dimitar Berbatov was fairly damning in his response.
"To be honest, no," he said. "When they go forward, they leave a lot of space at the back. We knew what their weaknesses were and we exploited them."
In response to those who had written off his career, Berbatov added: "It is not about age - it is about class." Left-back Layvin Kurzawa said that Monaco should "apply the same recipe" in the second leg while vice-president Vadim Vasilyev claimed that his club had prevailed largely because of Leonardo Jardim's tactical triumph over Wenger.
Martin Keown yesterday summed up a hardening of the mood around Arsenal. "It's OK to go out to a Bayern, a Barcelona or an AC Milan but to a Monaco? There are different sorts of questions."
With the Emirates now nearly paid off, the search for answers will fall squarely on Wenger over the next two years. And, if there is still no improvement, the clock will be ticking on Wenger's tenure far more loudly that at any previous stage of it. (© Daily Telegraph, London)