Exiting the Champions League at the last-16 stage has effectively become part and parcel of the Arsenal season. The are, by now, firmly out of Premier League contention, with the FA Cup a source of solace rather than a reflection of the ambition at the North London side.
The early season acceleration has now fully run out of smoke, and the confidence of Arsene Wenger, so long the defiant and optimistic manager of perennial let downs and “so nearly’s” may have this time permanently run aground.
If any indication was apparent that Wenger can no longer manage this team, then this was it. Contentious decisions by the referees are no excuse for the capitulation Wenger witnessed on home turf. Perhaps even more startling was the lack of any attempt to salvage some dignity from the game after the equaliser.
Mirroring their season as a whole, the Gunners made a good start. Theo Walcott’s opening goal, a beauty in its execution, reduced an already dire situation to 5-2 on aggregate.
But Bayern were stirred into action with some fortune. Laurent Koscielny was adjudged to have fouled Robert Lewandowski. Having initially booked the centre-half, Greek referee Anastasios Sidiropoulos decided to upgrade his punishment to a red card, an act which Wenger labelled ‘irresponsible‘.
Irresponsible though it may have been, Wenger had every opportunity to restructure an already unsteady Gunners squad to contend with the 56th minute loss of their defender. Failing to bring on any relief until the 73rd minute introduction of Francis Coquelin was borderline madness against a Bayern team already sensing weakness across the Arsenal line. So it proved. 4 goals conceded in an 18 minute onslaught. Meanwhile, Arsenal were effectively lambs to the slaughter, Wenger on the touchline, beleaguered and without a plan B.
Of the past seven seasons of champions league football, five of them have been ties against Bayern and Barcelona. Worringly, the aggregate scorelines have gotten progressively worse as the years have gone by, a further indication of how increasingly ill equipped Arsenal are to compete against European elite, tactically and personnel-wise.
This has happened before for Wenger, in 2012. The 8-2 demolition job by Manchester United was a low point in which they were 8 years without a trophy and bereft of quality. Wenger may have survived by the skin of his teeth thanks mainly to Robin van Persie, but not this time.
What of the players then?
Give them credit, Arsenal were up for the fight in the first half. They reduced Bayern to just a scuffed effort by Lewandowski, and were roared on by a capacity crowd once Walcott had blasted in over the head of keeper Manuel Neuer. Sanchez was running the show from out wide, Olivier Giroud was once again the airborne menace, and Walcott’s fleet-footedness caused problems too. It was better from Arsenal. As much as Bayern attempted to starve them of possession, the Gunners ran hard and created the better opportunities of the two.
It was the decimation of the squad that was the most alarming. Having held their own almost admirably for the first 45, Koscielny’s sending off proved a final curtain for many of them. Sanchez, amidst the uncertainty of his future, almost gave up after that. Giroud was squeezed out by Mats Hummels and David Alaba, and Walcott’s hard running seemed to have finally caught up with him. Giroud and Sanchez were sacrificed, with Sanchez signalling a forlorn goodbye to the remaining fans, as Bayern upped the gears and ran ragged over the ten men.
An exodus is inbound. Sanchez seems certain to leave, and Mesut Ozil and Hector Bellerin will not be far behind him. The two Alex’s – Oxlade-Chamberlain and Iwobi – are highly rated with time on their side and will interest parties like minded in the youngsters ambition.
Wenger, it seems increasingly likely, will join them. He has never been silent in the face of adversity from the fans who have loved and respected the two decades of work he has put in. He admitted Arsenal were luckless last night. The cold fact is that they were, yet again, well beaten by a side that are among a dozen who look stronger at the highest level than Wenger’s troops. Wenger himself must be held accountable for the failure to keep up with Bayern, Barcelona et al. and this time, it could cost him his beloved job.