I always try to put myself in the position of the supporter when watching a game in which I’m a neutral and tonight was no different. Watching the second leg of the Arsenal-Monaco tie in the last 16 of the Champions League, I thought I was in for an exciting game. It becomes particularly interesting in cases like that of Arsenal, where you have a cause to get behind, a comeback to encourage, some excitement to make the game interesting.
With that in mind, I sat, steak baguette in hand, waiting for the miracle. And for the first 60 minutes of the game, it seemed almost guaranteed to happen. A first half goal from Giroud, followed by a second half goal from Ramsey pulled the aggregate score equal at 3-3, with Arsenal leading Monaco 2-0 away from home on the night. These goals emphasised the dominance Arsenal had over the game. They attacked constantly for 90 minutes and, to use a Martin O’Neill phrase, pressured the Monaco goal with ‘wave after wave of attack’. The only thing that caused them to go out tonight was part poor finishing, part bad luck, and part leaving it too late.
So, after all that, keeping my mindset in that of an Arsenal fan, I’d be asking what next for the team? The fifth year in a row in which they have gone out at this stage in the competition, combined with only one major domestic trophy in the last decade, suggests Arsenal are going nowhere fast. The ‘Wenger Out’ debate has been running a long time now and, while those who defend him would say that he has kept the club consistent during the second half of his tender, is consistency what you would really want in this situation? The starting team tonight had attacking talents that would surely rival those of the Invincibles and of Wenger’s first Arsenal title winning side that included players ranging from Henry, Pires, Ljunberg and Bergkamp to Wright, Overmars and…. erm…. Bergkamp.
My point is, I was excited to see an Arsenal side who were forced by their own failings into a situation where they HAD to attack. The talents of Giroud, Cazorla, Ozil and Welbeck, with talent like Walcott available to come off the bench made it an exciting prospect. While they didn’t pull it off in the end, they played in a way that will have many Arsenal fans asking one question – why can’t they play every week the way they did tonight? Ignoring the game in the context of a two-leg tie, they played with freedom and verve, comfortably beating a side who had given them a footballing lesson in the first leg. So I ask, would Arsenal beat more sides this comfortably if they played without reservation? They have the talent up front to score goals and, in very simple terms, the shortcomings of their defence are a lot easier to mask if the ball isn’t anywhere near them.
I still think Arsene Wenger could bring success to Arsenal but only if he abandoned the reserved way in which he plays football these days. It has come to almost mirror the conservative way in which the club is run under the current ownership. The club is coming out of the other end of a prolonged period in which they ran a very tight ship. They have a club in rude financial health but have only recently began to flex their considerable muscle in the transfer market in recent seasons. This will need to continue this in order to fill the until-now bare trophy room at the Emirates. And, perhaps, a change in footballing culture at the North London club can follow this. A return to the open, free flowing football that has brought the Gunners so much success in the last 20 years. Can it happen? We’ll see.