It is difficult to know where to begin with a defeat like that. I’m going to avoid a blow by blow account of the game – by now you know and are probably sick of the details. We had a ton of possession, a stackload of corners, but came up against an excellent keeper, an organised defence, and got sucker punched at the other end.
None of those facts are rare in cup competition – they are the recipe for most upsets. But for a decade and a half, Wenger’s Arsenal have avoided defeat in such circumstances, always finding enough to earn at least of replay on those danger days, enabling us to chuckle at the Liverpools and Spurs of this world, regularly dumped out by lower league opposition. None of us are laughing tonight.
The post match reaction has been understandably hostile. I do feel that some of the anger is misplaced, particularly at the decision to rotate a few players. I’ve seen many comments that we were ‘prioritising Bayern over Blackburn‘ which isn’t something I buy into. The facts are simple – we are playing the Bundesliga giants three days after a Championship side, and if we were looking to win both matches (as we should be), we should logically play the strongest possible team against the Germans and rotate against Blackburn, in the knowledge that a team of eleven internationals should have it within them to defeat a side who until recently have been the laughing stock of football.
Today’s problem was not that we rotated – we still fielded a team that would be expected to win – but that the eleven that started the game did not do what was expected of them, did not perform at the level required of them. Football is a squad game and the notion that we should play our strongest eleven in every game is a foolish one. We won’t beat Bayern without Wilshere, Cazorla and Walcott – we can and should still defeat any Championship side at home in those circumstances. That isn’t complacency, that isn’t believing we just have to turn up to win, that is just the opinion that if the eleven that began the game had played to the standard we demand from them, and that they are capable of, we’d still be in the cup. They didn’t, and we aren’t.
A big problem with this Arsenal side is the inability to learn from past mistakes. I don’t believe that players don’t try, but performances vary too wildly in intensity, which has a similar visual effect. I’ve lost count of the number of times that players and staff have come out after games admitting that opponents had been underestimated, which is disappointing the first time and inexcusable on every subsequent occasion. I sincerely hope that the club has more sense than to allow such quotes to appear this week but you never know with our PR team. They did, after all, create a poll asking if fans would prefer fourth place or a trophy. Who are we, Spurs? Come on.
Where do we go from here? Well, to Bayern on Tuesday. I’m not saying for a moment we brush this under the carpet, but no players or staff will change before the summer, so any speculation on significant changes are moot at this point, and emotions are running too high to even have a rational discussion in those areas without getting lost in a sea of shouting. We must deal with what we have until then – a Champions League campaign that may or may not be short lived and a battle for fourth. Is that ideal? Not in the slightest – it is actually faintly depressing to type – but we are where we are and no amount of complaining will change it. The season needs rescuing in the meantime.
One of my biggest fears is that when he finally leaves, Wenger’s reign as Arsenal boss will be remembered for days like this, rather than the glorious and unprecedented success he has also brought. I hope it never gets that bad. For some, it already has. I doubt I could ever get to that stage – there have been too many good times.
Some more fun times wouldn’t hurt. Tuesday would be a good place to start.