Well, we didn’t really expect anything else did we? I have read a lot of tweets today and they vary between blaming Wenger and berating the players to applause for our performance for 70 mins and even slight praise from Alex. Alex as always is optimistic, and short of the Emirates being swallowed by a sinkhole I don`t know what would make him despair.
In fairness to him, Wenger says that we were technically naive and that he was furious that we had let the familiar mistakes we make in the Premier League filter into the Champions League. Most people would agree that I generally criticise Wenger for his lack of tactical nous and his failure to sign players.
In this instance, I have to agree with him that it was the team which let him down and I would restrict that criticism to one player in particular and that was Mertesacker. He had been tremendous along with Monreal and Bellerin in keeping the three amigos quiet, Koscielny was doing his usual job tidying up and keeping the back four together. Coquelin was disciplined and steady in midfield even though Barca were playing the ball around in their usual way. (At half time a commentator had said that they had made over 500 passes). All was going to plan and Wenger must have been purring despite his gymnastics at the side of the pitch. We had made the better chances in the first half and there didn`t appear to be any reason why it could not continue until the break.
The second half started with a bit of a change of gear by Barca and the pass count must have been near to 700 but they were still not putting Cech under serious pressure. Then on 72 minutes we got a free kick outside the box on the right side of the pitch and to my horror, I saw “The Ambling Alp” move up to join the row of Arsenal players waiting for the cross from the free kick and worse still Coquelin joined him. The free kick was simply a straight punt along the defensive line. The ball broke to Neymar on the left wing just inside Barca`s half and off he shot. Shades of disasters past flashed before my eyes and I knew what was going to happen. Bellerin chased Neymar heroically but Messi flew down the centre. Monreal meantime left his position to help Bellerin, leaving Messi with the whole of the centre of the pitch to himself and of course Neymar released his pass at the perfect moment and the greatest player in the world gleefully accepted it and beautifully beat the gallant Petr Cech who had been horribly exposed.
The body language in the Arsenal team was obvious – sweated brows pointed downwards in dismay and shoulders dropped. It was not hard to read the thoughts of the players in sweat stained shirts that had been betrayed by the same naivety from Mertesacker and to a lesser degree, Coquelin. Coquelin was less guilty because most of our previous blunders preceded his inclusion in the team. Mertesacker is the senior player and the most common perpetrator of the mistake of invading the penalty box when he should have been covering for any breakout by the other team. He should have learnt from his mistakes and coached Coquelin not to make the same ones. Worse still the German, our captain appears to be blaming his team mates for not scoring??
At this point, I have to criticise Wenger. He took Coquelin off and brought on Flamini. Was that to punish Le Coq for deserting his post? If it was, it was a mistake made twice. Firstly, because if it was for disciplinary reasons, it should have been confined to after the match and it ignored the much more serious misdemeanour by Mertesacker yet he allowed him to continue. In reality if he wanted to make a point Wenger should have taken Per off and replaced him with Chambers. Secondly, we were a goal down and running out of time so what was it that Wenger saw in Flamini which might have addressed that? He would not produce a threat to Barca, but there was every chance that he would damage us with his recklessness. That would have been the case in any match but we were one down to the best team in the world and there was a referee on the pitch who had been extremely sympathetic to them throughout the match. It was a recipe for disaster, so in that regard, Wenger let a mistake which he has committed often in the PL and let it leak into this game.
The tragedy was complete when the Big Foolish German half cushioned an innocuous ball in the penalty box whilst Flamini looked on. It went straight to a Barca player and with the automatic reactions of a flesh eating flower, Flamini struck taking his legs – Penalty and game over. The two disasters on legs had conspired to gift Barcelona what looks like a passport to the next round.
This is not a vindictive article, nor is it an exaggeration of the culpability of our skipper. He knows how to defend. He was centre half for Germany and served with distinction yet he committed the same schoolboy error yet again when he has already publicly admitted his mistakes after previous games. What possible excuse can he have? He was not bamboozled by a world class player getting the better of him. It was his own stupidity and it cost his team mates and the club dear.
For once Arsene, although he made the mistakes identified above, is to an extent exonerated. He had almost his full squad available and his tactics were working until Mr. Mertesecker`s aberration. In the words of Rabbie Burns “The best laid plans of mice and men………….”