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Ruined again and again by hope


Bayern Munich's Thomas Muller celebrates his goal against Arsenal with team mates Arjen Robben and Philipp Lahm

Bayern Munich's Thomas Muller celebrates his goal against Arsenal with team mates Arjen Robben and Philipp Lahm

Bayern Munich's Thomas Muller celebrates his goal against Arsenal with team mates Arjen Robben and Philipp Lahm

The press room at the Emirates was redecorated recently and the story of Arsenal is now written on the walls. One side is dedicated to framed newspaper pages of the great days in Arsenal's history.

Frank McLintock is on the front of the Daily Express on the shoulders of his team-mates after Arsenal had done the double at Wembley in 1971. Tony Adams is there, lifting the league trophy at Anfield in 1989 and then nine years later, but in another life and another era for Arsenal, he has his arms outstretched and he's running towards the crowd having scored the goal at Highbury that won Arsenal's first title under Arsene Wenger.

The Invincibles are celebrated too as they claimed the title at White Hart Lane and vowed to finish the season unbeaten. The final three newspapers bring Arsenal's story up to date. They show Arsenal's new stadium and there's a piece on the memories from Highbury before the last back page celebrates another historic event: 'Ozil to the Arsenal' is the headline which announces the signing last summer which was going to change everything.

The arrival of Mesut Özil was a significant moment in modern Arsenal history. It announced that the club was ready to compete financially, even if it came at the end of the summer when they had failed to buy the world-class striker they needed.

This, it seemed, was Ivan Gazidis's promise being realised. Gazidis had said in 2012 that soon nothing would stop Arsenal competing. "As our financial capability develops, as economic rationality enters the world of football, our ability to compete at salary levels for the very best talent will be enhanced," he told the BBC two years ago.

Football, it seems, always wants economic rationality but not yet. Gazidis had promised that Arsenal would be able to challenge "with any club in the world" but they may not be ready to offer a player a contract worth £85m which may mean that they will always have problems competing when others panic or reveal the extent of their ambition.

Despite Financial Fair Play, football continues to operate outside the normal rules of reason and Arsenal have been waiting a long time for the world to applaud their common sense and think as they do.

Özil's arrival was seen as progress but hanging a picture on the wall to celebrate his arrival highlights how hard it has been to find something to honour at Arsenal in recent years.

The more truthful newspaper cutting would have been from the financial pages, recognising Arsenal's accumulation of wealth, their increased turnover or their new kit sponsorship deal with Puma worth £30m a year. They have been as significant in Arsenal's recent history as the signing of Özil and, after last Wednesday night, suggesting Özil's arrival was historic seemed rash.

It is unfair for Özil to be made the scapegoat for Arsenal's recent problems, especially as they mimic the problems that tend to reveal themselves at this time every year.

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On Wednesday, Wenger complained that the referee had ruined the game as he followed Arsenal's brave performance with a press conference that was full of self-pity.

Bayern Munich had dived, the referee had killed the game and the press should be happy because Olivier Giroud had been rested because Wenger is criticised when he doesn't rest him.

None of it mattered. Again they face elimination in the Champions League, again they can be consoled by the idea that nobody expected them to beat Bayern, just as nobody expected them to beat Barcelona or Milan or Manchester United. These are the great clubs in European football but Arsenal have been close so often that by now they should be considered one of them. Results are the only thing holding them back.

The tragedy may be Arsene Wenger's tragedy. For nine years, he was as great a manager as English football had ever seen. He created teams of rare beauty and he made footballers think differently about themselves and he made the world beyond football think differently about the game. He was urbane and articulate but he was ferociously competitive and blind to any failings his side displayed in pursuit of victory that mattered so much to him.

Wenger's revolution allowed Arsenal to be ambitious. They built a new stadium and sold out a new stadium which promised so much. But in doing so, in asking Wenger to suppress that competitive desire and be satisfied with more abstract achievements as they worked with prudence, something was lost. Wenger understood their world, after all he has a degree in economics, but he may have understood it too well.

There's an episode of Mad Men where Roger Sterling explains the mind of Don Draper and how to work with the talented in advertising. "You know how to deal with that, don't you? Just assume that he knows as much about business as you do but inside there's a child who likes getting his way."

Wenger knew almost as much about business as the people on the business side and he refused to be childish, refused to want things his own way as the club was acquiring great cash reserves. Wenger would build a side with shared values rather than importing from the ranks of the peripatetic whose loyalty could be questioned.

"I also felt the best way to create an identity with the way we play football, to get players integrated into our culture, with our beliefs, our values, was to get them as young as possible and to develop them together," he said in 2008. "I felt it would be an interesting experiment to see players grow together with these qualities and with a love for the club. It was an idealistic vision of the world of football."

Until players wanted to achieve more and moved to Manchester City or Barcelona, the values were shared. Arsenal finished in the top four every year; Arsenal made it to the knockout stages of the Champions League every year but they could go no further.

Arsenal's problems wouldn't be solved by winning the Carling or FA Cup if they finished regularly outside the top four.

Their more fundamental problem is a failure to sustain a challenge for the Premier League or the Champions League. Özil's arrival was supposed to herald a change in the philosophy but this season has looked worryingly familiar.

Every year there is some stroke of bad fortune that prevents Arsenal getting where they deserve to be. Every year there is a hard draw or a bad referee or Nicklas Bendtner on the end of their best chance.

Wenger's side will go to Munich clinging to the result in the Allianz Arena last season, even if in that return leg they could have made things more uncomfortable for Bayern in the 80 minutes between Arsenal's first and second goals.

Last Wednesday, they had another grievance. They had, as Pep Guardiola said, played "incredibly" in the opening 15 minutes but Özil's missed penalty meant that was irrelevant.

Many teams enjoy spells of dominance but it's what they do with them that matters. The manner in which Arsenal lost the second goal as they went forward chasing an equaliser was as revealing as anything in the game.

They had an opportunity to lose 1-0 which would have made things hard but not as difficult in Munich. A team with a more realistic set of values might have been content with that. A team that hasn't relied for so long on hope might have recognised that there is a time to be cavalier and a time to wait.

Instead Laurent Koscielny went forward for a free-kick which was wasted by Jack Wilshere. Bayern broke and, as Koscielny tried to get back, Thomas Müller found space behind Mathieu Flamini, who was covering for the central defender, and headed in Bayern's second.

In those moments of giddiness, Arsenal's failure to achieve more can arguably be explained. It is a close relation of the game at Anfield when they stood off Liverpool and failed to be solid defensively when they were 2-0 down. It is connected to the team that can only respond to that defeat by drawing at home with Manchester United or the team that concedes six goals at Manchester City but still talks proudly of its defensive record.

Arsenal lost only one game last season after they were beaten in the first leg by Bayern. But there were no trophies to fight for, even if the top four is always a prize.

Perhaps they'll do the same this season when it would be sign of real intent. If this is a crisis, it's a curious one. Arsenal showed yesterday what they're capable of and they are one good weekend away from a return to the top of the table but in four key games recently they have lost two, drawn one and beaten Liverpool in the FA Cup.

There is much to be hopeful about in the coming weeks but there is also much to fear in March. History suggests that Arsenal will always be ruined again and again by hope.

Ten days ago Wenger rejected the idea that his side crumbled in these situations. He had already suggested that it was a fear of failure that stopped other teams saying they were in a title race. Wenger is not a specialist in failure as Mourinho suggested, he has achieved too much for that. The pattern suggests another problem. When Wenger talked about other sides, maybe he recognised something in his own players that holds them back, something that ensures they approach every big game with hope rather than expectation. When that changes, the Arsenal walls will once again celebrate something other than the abstract.

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