Tuesday night’s elimination at the hands of Monaco has led some to suggest that this was merely the latest episode of Arsenal’s Groundhog Day series, the latest in a catalogue of repetitive events that are so predictable as to make raising an eyebrow at their recurrence the most wasteful gesture. That view, however can only come from the most cynical, jaundiced reading of what was a truly stirring attempt at a comeback.
As had been noted beforehand, overturning the 3-1 deficit from the first leg was always going to be an almost impossible task. In producing a performance that was full of skill, tenacity, drive and sheer guts, the Gunners proved that they are a team whose growth potential can only be regarded as skewed upwards.
Apart from the disappointing fact that losing the tie drew unwelcome parallels to recent glorious failures at this stage, Wenger’s side could still point to plenty of positives.
For one, Mesut Özil seemed to have completely rediscovered his mojo, giving a performance of such finesse and relentless energy, as to dispel all previously held notions that he lacks the physical resources to compete in the Premier League. Yes, this may have not been a Premier League game, but against the athleticism and physicality of a very robust Monaco side, Özil more than held his own. His brilliant touch and vision were integral in ensuring that Arsenal moved the ball swiftly from midfield to attack even when confronted with the massed ranks of the Monaco midfield and defence. He constantly kept the ball moving, changing the angle of the attack and threading intricate passes through to Giroud and Welbeck. His performance here bodes extremely well for Arsenal heading into the closing stages of the Premier League and Arsenal’s tilt for another FA Cup title.
Secondly, in difficult circumstances and with their backs against the wall, the Gunners showed excellent focus in remaining conscious of their defensive duties. Even when Monaco made two or three attempts in the second half to break against the run of play, the Arsenal defence was able to recover swiftly to shepherd away the threat from the rapid Yannick Fererra Carrasco amongst others. Mertesacker and Koscielny were particularly outstanding and in midfield, Coquelin was his usual hounding, tackling, best.
Wenger’s boldness in selection had been foreseen, but it was still refreshing to see Welbeck and Giroud especially, ensure that the Monaco defence endured a torrid time virtually from the first blast of the whistle to the last. The fluidity of play and determination to impose their game on what was a very difficult encounter was extremely encouraging. Ahead of what promises to be a testing run in to the end of the season, it surely bodes well for Wenger’s charges that their last two games have seen a return to the kind of play that sees team-mates find themselves instinctively without the need to think before giving a pass or making an intelligent run.
Of course this tie did not exclusively highlight the positives. The very fact that Arsenal have found themselves in this same position of repeatedly having to rally in second legs after showing plenty of carelessness in the first leg is a cause for serious concern. If there remains a glaring Achilles heel to this Arsenal team it’s the proclivity to lose focus at crucial times and in the course of season defining games. However, it appears clear that the team is generally headed in the right direction and has shown itself capable of making amends in the near future.
Ultimately, the Gunners were undone by the lack of focus in the first leg that saw them concede a third goal when ending the game at 2-1 would have made their task in the second leg easier. The hard won lessons from this tie should come in handy if they are faced with a similar set of circumstances in the future.
In the meantime, it is hoped that the mental strength that has seen the Gunners come away with victories at difficult grounds like Old Trafford and the Stade Louis II can be maintained ahead of a testing run-in to the end of the season. Newcastle awaits at the weekend and avoiding any mental backlash in response to the unfortunate failure to advance in the Champions League is of paramount significance. There’s still all to play for in trying to finish as high as possible in the league and attempting to win the FA Cup. If losing out on qualification to the quarter finals of the Champions League was disappointing in many ways, every Arsenal player can at least look back on the performance with a good measure of pride. And hope for the immediate future.