Arsenal’s illusion of comeback and final collapse

Arsenal’s illusion of comeback and final collapse
March 08 11:37 2017

By Barney Ronay

This was a strange, decelerating, ultimately rather sad occasion for a great club and a wonderful manager caught in the final stages of his own torturous long goodbye. Before kick-off a caravan of two hundred or so Arsenal supporters had staged a procession from Highbury to the Emirates in protest at Arsène Wenger’s continued employment, a kind of Jarrow march for the parochially enraged of north London. “We want you to go, we want you to go,” they sang on the streets outside the stadium. “No New Contract,” the signs read. Which, as rallying cries go, is not exactly the Levellers but you get the idea.

By the end of this 5-1 capitulation there was above all an air of sadness, of valedictory notes. The stadium had been quiet before kick-off, as it often is. The atmosphere was taught and resigned, politely attentive rather than hostile. Necks were craned and some scattered applause heard as at last he appeared on the touchline, the man with the coat and the face: dear old Arsène, fronting up in his chalk rectangle, floor-length navy blue sports gown revealing a stretch of charcoal grey and those terribly tender skinny little ankles.

Nobody booed or raged or raised a daubed red and white bed sheet, although Stan Kroenke was told once or twice to fuck off out of our club. Indeed, by the end, as the seats emptied, with pitch invaders gambolling about the turf and factions singing to themselves in every corner there was almost something demob happy about all this.

“We love you Arsenal,” those that stayed behind sang as Bayern went to 3-1 and then 4-1, then 5-1. “One Arsène Wenger,” could be heard from the scattered tiers behind the goal as Wenger paced his touchline looking impossibly thin and tall, gripped with a maniacal energy, an ancient mariner in quilted sportswear.

Make no mistake, Arsenal were crushed without resistance across the two legs of this tie. Outclassed, outplayed, outpassed: none of these really does it justice. Instead they played quite well twice, maintained a fiction of parity twice, then simply collapsed without resistance.

This was at least something other than the same old Arsenal. Instead it was the worst-ever Arsenal, the heaviest home defeat in Europe, a 10-2 aggregate defeat by Bayern Munich the worst for any Premier league team in the Champions League. Wenger was genuinely angry at the end, furious about the decision to give a penalty and send off Laurent Koscielny that changed the game if not the tie.

Wenger called the referee’s decision “scandalous” and said the match official, not the players, had let him down. His voice cracked a little with anger, was even a little incoherent at times, the sound of a machine beginning to flicker and stick, an ageing, brilliant well-tended robot smoking and clanking through its gears. From here Arsenal will fight desperately to keep that top-four run going, a commercial imperative and a recruitment necessity. However, the talk will surely be of succession, of a need to build on what Wenger leaves.

Despite the agonies of the second half and the clear gulf at times between these two teams, there is plenty of trapped energy in this Arsenal team.

For the opening 45 minutes they produced a performance of pointless elan and drive against one of Europe’s superpowers. Theo Walcott was thrillingly direct. His opening goal was a sensationally fine piece of power and skill, one of those head-scratching Pure Theo moments where suddenly, all power and grace and purpose, he is unstoppable.

Taking a high-speed give and go from Olivier Giroud, Walcott took a touch and spanked a lovely shot into the roof of the net above Manuel Neuer’s head, the goalkeeper opting for a strange double-fisted air punch above his head that looked oddly like a celebration. Six minutes before half-time Walcott even riled the unflappable David Alaba into squaring up to him on the touchline, with both booked. He might have had a penalty, Xabi Alonso trapping his foot as he tumbled at high speed.

Somehow one knew it could not last. Arsenal duly began to be Arsenal. Koscielny was sent off, a little harshly, and conceded a decisive penalty in the process. At which point things began to fall apart. Alexis Sánchez, who played with real anger in the 5-1 defeat in Munich, was largely invisible. He gave the ball away to allow Arjen Robben to make it 2-1, then left the pitch on 71 minutes, offering a touch of the glove to his manager and wave to the fans that felt like another kind of farewell.

When the history of Wenger’s final days here is written this match will probably merit a subheading, if only for the pure oddity of it all. For a team who lost 10-2 on aggregate there were even some positives here, not least the fine performance of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in midfield and the early aggression in defence and on the flanks. With the sense of endings now in train it will be fascinating to see how this team unspools into the final knockings of late Wenger, a manager who does, for all the recent traumas, deserve to leave to the sound of something other than protest.

Culled from Guardian (UK)