Football is a cruel game. It’s a cliché, but it’s true. Whatever your thoughts are on Arsene Wenger, you cannot help but feel some sympathy for the man as his team fell at the final hurdle on Thursday evening, failing to reach the Europa League Final. If one man deserved a final piece of silverware, and to sign off with the gift of Champions League football, it was the Frenchman. Alas it was not to be and Arsenal found themselves stifled and undone by a superior side with more fight and grit in the final third.
They now find themselves adrift in the league with Burnley breathing down their neck, and face a consecutive season out of Europe’s elite. Their new manager was already going to have a hard job, but Thursday night’s defeat was yet another example of just how big a task this is going to be.
Far worse than just one player
Much of the vitriol and anger from the fallout was aimed at Mesut Ozil. He has often been criticized for drifting in and out of games whilst failing to stamp his obvious quality on proceedings. Arsenal fans will be hurting and they won’t like it, but you cannot put this defeat squarely on one man. Things are worse than that at Arsenal Football Club.
Former defender and three times league champion under Wenger, Martin Keown blasted Ozil, saying he “wasn’t fit to wear the shirt.” He was joined on social media with many saying the midfielder won’t survive the incoming managerial change. They are right to criticize the German — you want your senior players to step up and dominate, and once again he didn’t do it. However you only need look at last night’s opponents to see Arsenal’s shortcoming go a lot further and deeper.
Stark Contrast in the Wanda Metropolitano
In Diego Godin, Atletico have a grizzled veteran in the image of their ever gesticulating manager. Simeone was a battle axe of a player and he has brought that combative nature to his Atletico Madrid side. Godin blocked and deflected everything that was thrown at him, roaring his teammates on throughout. This is a man who has lost teeth and needed reconstructive surgery on his mouth after a brutal collision on the pitch; such is his bravery and commitment. Atletico also have The Gunner’s bogeyman, the ever feisty Diego Costa, who inevitably broke the deadlock last night as well as roughing up Arsenal’s depleted back four.
At their core, Atletico are fighters and want to make things unpleasant for you. Arsenal don’t have that gear at all, rain or shine, they play the same way. At their best, their football is excellent, free flowing and deadly, but at worst it is pedestrian and quite easy to defend against. Players like Ozil and Mkhitaryan can appear passive at best. A disturbing lack of character has crept in to this side, with the players looking lost in the big occasion.
Thursday night’s front three is okay on paper, but would you seriously trade Welbeck for Costa or Lacazette for Griezmann? In their best years under Wenger, Arsenal could field an XI that genuinely frightened teams. Does a trio of Ramsey, Xhaka and Wilshere have the same effect? Atletico certainly weren’t fazed.
Arsenal look bereft of fight and almost terrified in the final third. They needed desperately to take their chances and force and away goal, but their touches failed them at key moments. The fact that they managed just the solitary attempt on Oblak’s goal will be a sore point for Wenger.
Atletico on the other hand is a team full of character. Their away leg result at The Emirates showed that, as they hung on for eighty minutes with ten men, before claiming the decisive away goal. Arsenal had twenty-eight shots on target in that first leg, and really should have put the tie to bed. Once again though, Wenger found his players lacking at critical moments. The Frenchman has defended his player’s fiercely throughout his career, perhaps it’s time that those players come out and admit they’ve let him down.
What next for Arsenal?
No Champions League football is a real blow for the prospects of this proud football club. Whether or not it affects their ability to bring in the desired manager remains to be seen, but it’s clear that they need someone to get results quickly. If not, they could face another year of dreaded transition, and fall further behind the top five.
Whomever they bring in, will need to clear out some of deadwood and big name players who have consistently underperformed. This could mean a massive overhaul of players across two or three windows, and signing personnel who can have a considerable impact.
They’ll always be an attractive club, but no doubt without the Champions League carrot they will struggle to sign the big name players, at the right stage of their career with anything like their former frequency. Liverpool got very lucky in 2011 when they signed Suarez and in 2013 when they bought in Coutinho, but those two were rare rays of light in an otherwise underwhelming period of transfer activity, as they lost top transfer targets to clubs competing in Europe’s elite competition. Arsenal will no doubt face this frustration head on.
Tough years ahead
Like it or not, the immediate post-Wenger years will more than likely be tough ones. A change of style is needed as is an injection of energy. Diego Simeone would be a perfect candidate to bring about this change. His energy and determination would make life impossible for any player not willing to put a shift. His personality would rub off on the players and fans in the same way we’ve seen with Klopp and Conte. However, whether or not the Argentine would want to move to such a reconstruction job is unlikely. It’ll be another summer where he is in high demand and will likely fancy his chances elsewhere if he leaves his current post.
Perhaps they will have to settle for a rookie like Patrick Vieira, and maybe bring in an experienced coach alongside him (see: Steven Gerrard to Rangers). The former Arsenal captain is certainly a populist choice, but a gamble as his CV is bare and experience non-existent, especially for a job with this much work needed. Whether or not the supporters would be patient with their new manager is another matter to consider. Spurs are likely to begin another campaign in the Champions League and ahead of their North London rivals, which will hurt at the Emirates after so many years of being ahead of Tottenham.
Whatever happens, Wenger’s time now looks set to end in the cruelest way, with a whimper in a low profile away fixture in Huddersfield, he deserved so much better.