Pretty much everything that could go wrong did go wrong for Arsenal at the Emirates on Wednesday night. As if it wasn’t enough that their goalkeeper got himself sent off, one of their star players missed a penalty with a ludicrously lackadaisical attempt and Kieran Gibbs was forced off through injury before halftime – all of these combined events evaporating almost any chance of a win. The Bayern Munich machine rolled into North London in the second half with two goals that all but condemned the Gunners to an early Champions League exit.
They do, of course, have a mathematical chance of overcoming Bayern in two weeks’ time, but given how the already highly impressive European champions have continued to blossom under the stewardship of Pep Guardiola, it seems highly unlikely.
There will be many Arsenal fans bemoaning their team’s bad luck at the Emirates, and on the face of it, the Gunners do have legitimate reasons to feel hard done by. However, when they are unpicked, we can see that rather than them being dealt a cruel blow by the winds of fate, the problems really have been of their own making.
Let us first consider the sending off of Arsenal goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny. Under the laws of the game it was a cast-iron red card and a stonewall penalty. Of that there can be no debate. Arsene Wenger intimated after the game that he thought the decision to award a red card was somewhat harsh, bizarrely seeming to suggest that the same decision would not have been made in the Premier League. Under the laws of the game, denying another player a goalscoring opportunity by illegitimate means is a sending off offence. Under the laws of the game any foul that is committed by the defending team in their own penalty box results in a penalty kick. Wenger has no leg to stand on. He may not like the rule, but it’s a rule.
Wenger went on to say that the referee made a decision that “killed the game”, once again apportioning blame for the game being “killed” onto the referee rather than his player. It is, of course, his player who deserves the blame. It’s not like Arsenal went into this contest completely unaware of the rules. Every player on the pitch is well aware of the rules regarding red cards and penalties, so for Wenger to blame the referee for ruining the game is an extremely poor show. He would do much better to look closer to home and question his goalkeeper. This is not the first time that Szczesny has acted rashly, and the question marks remain over whether the Polish international has the temperament to operate at the very highest level. The obscene gesture the keeper made as he left the pitch suggests perhaps not.
In any case, Arsenal had had chances to radically transform the game long before Szczesny’s ill-advised challenge. The Gunners started brightly and after nine minutes Mesut Ozil was brought down in the box by Jerome Boateng. The German assumed the penalty taking responsibilities and promptly delivered a lame, low-powered effort that was easily saved, much like the one he missed against Marseille earlier in the campaign.
This was not luck. Ozil, of course, deserves a large slice of blame for a poor penalty, but one must question why the playmaker was allowed to take it in the first place. Ozil has form for this sort of penalty kick, and if – as he suggested afterwards – Wenger does not like this style of penalty, the burden is surely on the manager to either instruct his players not to take penalties like that or to choose a player to take the penalty kicks who won’t take them like that.
However, what was also clear from watching the rest of the game – as well as the dismal penalty kick – is that all is not well with Mesut Ozil. He looked tired, forlorn and frustrated for much of the game, and his tête-à-tête with Mathieu Flamini was not the first time he has argued with his teammates on the pitch this season. In the case of Ozil, Wenger must once again accept a level of culpability.
This is the first season in which Ozil has not had a winter break (a practice that is customary in mainland Europe but not in the UK) and the long and short of it is that he looks knackered. Not only has he had to adapt to a new culture, a new league and a new set of defensive responsibilities that he never appeared to have in Madrid, but he’s also getting played in every single game. One can understand that Arsenal want to use their prized asset as much as possible, but it seems odd that Wenger has not yet decided that the guy needs a break. The performance on Wednesday night was not the performance of a player who’s worth £42 million, but a player in desperate need of some respite. Had Wenger rested him earlier, he may well have put in a better performance, and who knows, he might have netted that penalty.
Arsenal have got a slim chance of overcoming Bayern in the return fixture, and their performance against them last season indicates that they’ve got what it takes to do so. But Wenger must stop blaming luck, referees and everything but him and his players if Arsenal are to progress from also-rans to top table diners.