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As Arsenal continue to fail against Europe’s elite, how much further can Wenger take them?

Feb 20, 2014, 2:00 PM EDT

Britain Soccer Champions League AP

At the end of his post-match press conference following Arsenal’s 2-0 defeat to Bayern Munich, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger was asked about why his side keeps faltering in the final stages of the UEFA Champions League, year after year.

Wenger paused and then gave a measured response that concealed the very reason why Arsenal have failed to win a trophy since 2005, and now their participation in this seasons Champions League is hanging by a thread.

“It isn’t over because we will fight until then end,” Wenger said. “Make of it what you will, but in the last five years we’ve played Barcelona twice and Bayern twice in the last 16. They are not average.”

But against the top teams this season, and in the past, too many times Arsenal has been average.

That may seem like a knee-jerk response on a team just beaten 2-0 by the reigning European Champions, after going down to 10-men and defending superbly for most of the match, but it isn’t. The reason they’ve faced Barca and Bayern four-straight times in the knockout stages, is that they haven’t been good enough in the group stages to avoid the big boys.

(MORE: Three things we learned in Arsenal’s battling defeat to Bayern Munich)

Since 2006 the Gunners haven’t fared well in the first leg of knockout stage games in the Champions League, winning just two of their 12 opening matches of a home and away series. Add in their results against the current top four in the Premier League this season, and it doesn’t make happy reading for Arsenal fans. Liverpool at home, won 2-0. Manchester City away, lost 6-3. Chelsea at home, drew 0-0. Liverpool away, lost 5-1. Just one victory in four matches, and they still have Chelsea to play away and Man City at home.

All that shows that Arsenal, once again, struggle to take down the top teams when it really matters.

source: AP

Ozil has failed to score in his last 14 games, and missed a pivotal PK vs. Bayern in the biggest game of the year.

This isn’t me slagging off the Gunners, I respect the way they play and the ideals Wenger has drilled into his charges. For years he’s had his spending limited due to the construction of the Emirates Stadium, and the fact that the one player he’s now splashed all his cash on (Mesut Ozil) looks like a bad buy is neither here nor there.

But you just get the feeling Wenger has taken this team as far as he can.

With no new contract signed, officially, the 64-year-old manager is keeping everyone waiting when it comes to his future in charge of the Gunners.

Many expect him to sign a long-term deal before this summer, but for the sake of Arsenal and the evolution of the club, maybe Wenger should step aside.

(MORE: Wenger – Robben ‘made a lot of’ Szczesny contact; penalty ‘killed the game’)

If the Gunners win a trophy this season, either the PL crown or the FA Cup look more likely now, then that might be a good point for Wenger to step down. However if another trophyless season plays out in the red half of North London, should Wenger stick around?

Regardless of whether or not Wenger stays on, Arsenal must turn the screw and get the job done against the big boys. It’s no good passing the PL’s also-rans into submission and dazzling against the weaker teams in Europe. It’s time the Gunners started firing on the biggest stages of all. How they do it is a complex equation that, quite simply, can be overcome by spending huge amounts of money on new players. Unless that happens, Arsenal will continue to be the nearly men in the PL and in Europe. But ultimately the foundations for success are there, it’s just getting over the final hurdle that’s been Arsenal’s main problem in the last eight years. That extra bit of quality needed in the biggest games of the season has alluded them, and has been replaced by silly mistakes. The defeat to Munich on Wednesday was a prime example of that. Will a new manager and a fresh approach bring that added nous that had evaded the Gunners?

They now have a one off game against Bayern awaiting them in mid-March where Arsenal can finally show what they’re made of. They won 2-0 at the Allianz Arena last season in the last 16 of the UCL, so why can’t they do it now? Their squad is stronger and more resolute than 12 months ago when they last visited Munich. But they seem to be no closer to taking down the big teams when it really matters.

Arsenal’s season is entering a pivotal stretch and their campaign could, as it often has in recent years, come crumbling down around them.

  1. jaysfan19 - Feb 20, 2014 at 3:28 PM

    I don’t normally comment on this site, nor do I normally have a problem with the analysis but this post is way off. I agree that they have not faired well against the top teams this season, however pointing to 4 games as evidence of a trend is lazy and incorrect. I realize that in football you do not get as many games against the same opponents as a sport like baseball where you would play the best many times throughout the year; however to simply select a four game sample size, couple it with one leg of results in Europe to make an argument is very weak. 4 games is subject to such variance that anything could happen if you played them over again.

    Furthermore, you go on to say that the reason why they are not competitive is that they have not spent huge amounts of money. This, after exculpating Wenger for not having money to spend. So you have essentially answered your own question by accident: Wenger (or anyone else seemingly according to you, because it is money and not the manager who wins CL cups) can take them as far as their pocketbook can open. So it wouldn’t seem to matter whether Wenger stays or goes. Yes, there are a bunch of anecdotes after about silly mistakes that a new manager could fix, but the crux of your argument is money.

    An aside on Ozil. He has played less than a full season in the EPL. He is best at picking out players who have made runs in behind the defence. Without Walcott and Ramsey, there is one player on the team who does that consistently: Oxlade-Chamberlain. And when he has been in the lineup, Ozil has looked much better. To say a player is a bad buy because his best strength is currently not being utilized is an odd argument. And to say it after half a season is, as with the Wenger analysis, lazy. Did he look good playing as a quasi right-back against the best team in the world with 10 men yesterday? No. But the jury is still very much out on that buy.

    I like this website a lot because it balances world coverage very well with MLS but c’mon man, the quality of a piece like this has got to improve.

    • Joe Prince-Wright - Feb 20, 2014 at 3:42 PM

      Appreciate your long and detailed response, but I did state the fact that Arsenal keep losing in the last 16 of the Champions League as the main reason why a change could freshen things up.

      Just my opinion, as PST’s model is, that Arsenal may have gone as for as they can with this current financial model and manager. Unless they throw around the same kind of money Chelsea and Man City do, top 4 and the last 16 of the UCL is the best they can hope to achieve each season.

      In the last three years of the UCL they have gone out to Barcelona and Bayern. And look to be falling to Munich this season. There’s certainly no shame in that.

      But are Arsenal’s fans content to stay as also-rans? Or do they really want to challenge for a Champions League title?

      • jaysfan19 - Feb 20, 2014 at 4:09 PM

        Well I am an Arsenal fan and I can tell you I’m not, but the financial model isn’t going to change so why replace a manager that knows how to succeed in it. Would I love them to buy A Mesut every transfer window or have ponied up for Draxler this window or Navas and Higuan before, yes. But changing managers isn’t going change the financial model. That would take Usmanov or some other billionaire buying the team outright. otherwise it ain’t gonna happen.

  2. narfmoo12 - Feb 20, 2014 at 3:36 PM

    You also forgot wins over Dortmund and Napoli, along with 2 wins over rival Tottenham, and a second win over Liverpool in the FA cup. Suddenly, that’s 6 and a draw against top teams in Europe, with a home game against Manchester City still on the schedule.

  3. danielofthedale - Feb 20, 2014 at 5:09 PM

    Bayern has been the best team in the World the last two seasons. No shame in losing to them. I would say that when even strength yesterday Arsenal had the best of the game. In the EPL I would say that Man City clearly has the most talent followed by Chelsea. Arsen has done more with less than either The Special One or Pellegrini. Then you get to the real business end of this topic, who is better than could be had by Arsenal to replace Wenger? If you are going to put out the idea that Arsenal should toss out one of the best managers working today you should at least have one name if not a list of names that you feel could do a better job.

  4. lewpuls - Feb 20, 2014 at 6:27 PM

    The grass is always greener with a new guy, for many soccer fans, and it seems PST just follows the crowd like lemmings. Who are you going to get that’s likely to do *better* than Wenger? No one. And we see Man City spend boatloads of money, but they fail against weaker opposition in Europe. Then we can ask, which team last year tied Bayern in goals, losing only on the away goals rule, as Bayern marched to the championship? Arsenal.

    Sometimes the writers here seem to turn off their brains and join the English tabloid crowd.

  5. unclemosesgreen - Feb 20, 2014 at 7:58 PM

    He should manage the Gunners for as long as he wishes. They’d be fools to fire him.

  6. orenthal - Feb 20, 2014 at 11:21 PM

    I agree with almost all of what jays fan wrote, although I think your response, jp, is fair. The main issue I had while reading this article, and your argument is a sentiment many share as of late, is that it assumes that Arsenal’s current transfer policy leaves when Wenger leaves, that his message has gone stale amongst the players, and that another manager could take them further than the rd of 16 with the current level of talent. There has been no indication that Arsenal’s ownership has had a desire to spend more but have been held back by Wenger. While it can border on the seemingly ridiculous, like failing to seal Higuain whose transfer price was exceedingly reasonable for a champions league caliber striker, this model has produced consistent top 4 finishes and thus champions league births. And typically when a team needs a fresh voice, the implication is that the manager’s voice has gone stale. But the players all seem to respect and follow message. (This coming from a Man United supporter where the not so subtle digs at Moyes are more apparent with each loss).
    No manager has been able to keep a ship running while losing the amount of talent Wenger has, lost talent that goes unreplaced due to the organization’s insistent on frugality, not necessarily solely Wenger’s insistence. Henry, cole, fabregas, clichy, nasri, van persie have all come and go with nothing close to replacements talent-wise.
    Looking at teams like man city and Chelsea, not to mention barca, real, and bayern, it’s amazing that arsenal continues to stay as consistent as it does with nowhere near the talent. City’s fourth striker would be arsenals first team striker. While I really like Mourinho, it is crazy of him to say Wenger is a failure bc of his lack of trophies. I would contend that annual Champions League appearances, particularly round of 16 visits, and top 4 finishes with that talent level, and yearly surplus, is more impressive than an FA Cup.

  7. godsholytrousers - Feb 20, 2014 at 11:48 PM

    Arsenal have exactly everything they need to remain exactly where they are.

    If you like it, fine, if you don’t like it, fine, but don’t pretend they are something they are not.

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