Now we’re in the cold light of day, what does losing to Bayern mean for Arsenal? Firstly it means it will be at least nine years without a trophy, which is the longest period in my lifetime. The longest since the great drought to end all droughts of 1953-70. We’ve been in a few finals of course, which is better than we managed for many years in the distant 1950s and early 1960s, but still no trophies. And this comes after the most sustained period of success since the 1930s. Who’d have predicted this in 2005?
Losing to Bayern over two legs is not in itself a huge problem or a huge surprise – they’re a very good team. What I expected against Bayern was to give them a fight. Let no one kid themselves that the away leg was a glorious heroic nearly-made-it match; the tie was already lost in the first leg. At home, in the first half, we had no shots. Zero. Never mind shots on target, we had no shots. The tactics and formation were wrong, and you don’t need to be a coach to see that. What did we change in the second half? Nothing much. The tactics, such as they were, seemed to be to continue to exactly the same plan, even down to the pre-planned substitutions, and wait for the opposition to tire or lose concentration. Without good tactics you need something else: you need desire and damn hard work, but early in a two-legged tie there’s a long way to go and no real sense of urgency.
So Bayern did a good job on us in the first leg. You’d have to be naïve to say, “Oh how unlucky we were, we fought back from a first leg drubbing and missed out by one goal for the second year in a row.” Yes, those are some of the bare facts. BUT: In the first leg both this season and against Milan, we were played off the park. When it came to the second leg our players knew they had nothing to lose and the opposition knew they could sit back and make no real effort, because they didn’t need to win the game to win the tie.
So yes, Arsenal raised their game in the second leg both times, and gave it a shot. And as a result they came close, but both times against an opponent who was not trying their hardest for most of the game, because they didn’t have to. They were holding on to a lead, not trying to extend it. The stats say we broke Bayern’s 24-match unbeaten run, and I don’t know when they last conceded two at home, but would they have played the same way if it had been 3-1 to Arsenal from the first leg? Of course not. Arsenal may still have won of course, but Bayern would not have played with the same mindset in the same way.
What I want as an Arsenal supporter is for that second leg performance to be the norm. I don’t want to have to wait to be a couple of goals down before the players get it in their heads to make that kind of effort, for defending to happen all over the field and for every player to throw their bodies in the way of shots as they did last night. I want to see heart and passion from the first whistle. I’ve criticised the tactics and formation from the first leg, but the players’ mindset is just as important, if not more so.
Arsène Wenger has never been a great tactician. To my mind, two things have changed within Arsenal in recent years (ignoring the changes outside that mean there are more teams richer than Arsenal, so competing is harder): we don’t have the same quality of superstar players as in the Bergkamp/Henry era, and Arsène does not routinely instil the same desire in players as he used to. We were lucky with the personnel for a while, it was a once in a lifetime great team, no doubt about that. But a great manager should be instilling that desire in any group of players. That’s his job.
It would be lovely if Arsenal were always one of the best in Europe, but I’ll settle for consistency in England to start with. I’d settle for a sustained challenge in the league without repeated losses to teams with half the budget Arsenal have. I don’t expect to win everything. I don’t expect to win a trophy every year. But I do expect the passion, desire, heart, or whatever you want to call it, shown in the second legs of losing Champions League ties to be the norm. That is what all fans deserve. If we get that, a top four finish from the current position should not be a problem. Swansea’s players are not better than Arsenal’s; let’s show them that on Saturday.