Struggling Arsenal must rise above the growing tension
There were those who asked themselves the question before Arsenal’s Champions League last-16 first-leg tie against Bayern Munich, at roughly the same time as Arsene Wenger, his words dripping with contempt, took the media to task at his explosive press conference on Monday: how many of the Arsenal squad would make it into the Bayern team?
By 9.30 on Tuesday night, the question needed to be reworded: would any Arsenal player make it into this Bayern team, the one that resembled a machine, whose parts clicked seamlessly and whose power was, frankly, intimidating?
Jack Wilshere would vie for selection and the thing that elevated his gutsy performance was that he frequently resembled a one-man band. Arsenal’s number 10 did not have the support of a Bastian Schweinsteiger or Javi Martinez or Toni Kroos.
And that, folks, is it. On the evidence of 90 minutes when Bayern seized on Arsenal’s first wobble to take such a stranglehold that it felt as though they came to play a little within themselves, the difference between the clubs prompted two more questions.
For Arsenal it was not so much the 3-1 defeat – hardly unexpected – rather, how had they come to lag so far behind one of Europe’s elite clubs? Secondly, and perhaps more urgently, how do they pick themselves up to ensure they are not cast further adrift?
Forget the second leg in Munich on March 13th; Arsenal’s season has distilled into 12 Premier League matches, beginning at home to Aston Villa on Saturday, in which they must make up the four points on fourth-placed Tottenham Hotspur that currently separate them from readmission to the Champions League.
The good news is that they are against teams on their level, apart from the fixture with Manchester United, who have long since galloped into the distance and might even arrive at the Emirates Stadium on April 28th as champions.
And so it will boil down to whether Arsenal can rise above the suffocating tension to express the talent they possess. One of the many paradoxes about this squad is that, according to Wenger, they have tremendous mental strength, the ability to recover from setbacks, and ignore the background chatter and analyses of the many pundits and experts for whom he has developed such distaste.
And yet these are the players who cannot seemingly begin to play with freedom until they are a goal or more behind.
Wenger said on Monday that Arsenal’s slow starts were caused by “psychological” factors, which he did not want to go into, but it is alarming, to say the least, to hear a manager highlight such an area of weakness.
In this calendar year the team has conceded first-half leads in five of its seven league fixtures. Bayern were 2-0 up after 21 minutes.