One of Wenger’s key principles is that he almost never criticises his players. Whenever Arsenal fall short, he tends to take responsibility himself, sometimes even praising his team’s “mental strength” or technical quality in spite of a loss. It’s a policy that has served him well for the longest current managerial reign in English football. However, in the wake of Arsenal’s 10-2 aggregate defeat against Bayern, perhaps his approach is due some scrutiny.
When Wenger entered his post-match news conference after watching his side humbled 5-1 at home, silence descended over the assembled journalists. It was almost respectful — no-one wanted to fire the first shot at the embattled veteran. However, even those reporters feeling pity for Wenger’s situation would have been staggered by his opening volley: “I felt that we produced a performance with the spirit and the pride that we wanted.”
How can Wenger talk about pride off the back of such an absolute mauling? Yes, it’s true that Arsenal briefly matched Bayern in the first half, but that was a quarter of the overall tie. It’s also worth mentioning that the Bundesliga giants were 4-0 up at that stage, with little incentive to turn the screw. Wenger might try to sell Theo Walcott’s goal as the start of an unfairly thwarted comeback, but it was never likely to be more than a consolation.
It’s certainly true that the referee played a part in the outcome of Tuesday’s match, if not the broader tie. Laurent Koscielny’s sending off was bizarre at best. However, that simply does not excuse the capitulation that followed.
There is an old saying in football that it can be harder to break down 10 men than 11. Against Bayern, Arsenal played as if they were on a mission to dispel that myth in the space of just 36 minutes.
If Arsenal really were playing for pride on Tuesday, they ought to have realised that with 10 men beating Bayern — even in just one game — was beyond them. Keeping the score at 1-1 or even a narrow defeat would at last have retained a measure of respectability. Instead, Arsenal disgraced themselves.
Of course, Wenger must shoulder some of the blame. His substitutions were odd, leaving Granit Xhaka stationed at centre-back when he had Gabriel Paulista available on the bench. The boss must also admit some culpability for the fact that Arsenal only seem to know one way to play. It’s all-out attack or all-out disaster. There does not seem to be any preparation for how to manage difference scenarios within a game.
However, there were still plenty of seasoned professionals on the field. International-calibre players should know better. Arsenal looked like they gave up and that’s criminal.
Perhaps they sense that the manager’s time is approaching a close. When a coach is on the ropes, their authority wanes. It’s remarkable how quickly a manager can decline once his players sense his vulnerability. Frankly, these players owe him more than that. Many of them have been indulged by Wenger for years. Arguably the likes of Walcott, Olivier Giroud and Aaron Ramsey owe him their careers. With Wenger’s position in question, the team should be fighting for their mentor. Instead, they look troublingly passive.
Arsenal’s manager is underperforming, but so too are his players. Wenger has made a habit of sheltering them from criticism, but perhaps in the battle to keep his own job he should consider calling for more from his charges. One certainly hopes that behind closed doors, harsher words are being exchanged. Wenger is fighting for his future, and he should be able to expect more support from the players he has protected for so long.
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