Well how wrong was I. After predicting before the game that Arsene Wenger had all but given up the ghost, Arsenal went on to secure a rousing 2-0 victory and almost pull of the comeback of all comebacks.
It’s very reminiscent of last year’s tie with AC Milan. Just like last year, the damage was done in the first leg. And just like last year, Arsenal escape with their pride soothed and their fixture list lightened. There’s no good way to go out of the Champions League, but this is as close as it gets. Arsenal emerge redeemed and reinvigorated to focus on the all-important task at hand: returning to this stage by reaching the top four.
Contained within this performance was the DNA of an Arsenal team capable of hauling its way back in to the Champions League. Arsene Wenger must play John Hammond, extract it and bring it back to life before our very eyes, starting this weekend at Swansea.
The components are clear:
- Hard work
- Disciplined defending – not just from the back four, but the entire team
- Efficiency in attack
This was a display that was hugely unlike Arsenal. It was based on a grim determination to keep a clean sheet, and a ruthlessness when occasionally afforded the chance to attack. The two goals Arsenal scored were impressive, but it’s the nil they conceded that marked out a stark improvement.
Intriguingly, Arsenal put together their most cohesive defensive display of the season without their captain, Thomas Vermaelen. Vermaelen’s recent form has not just been questioned, it’s been water-boarded, and after his disastrous display at White Hart Lane he was taken out of the firing line for this match with Bayern. On the strength of Mertesacker and Koscielny’s display, it’s hard to see how he’ll get back in.
All too often this season we’ve seen Vermaelen retain his place on the strength of his status as captain rather than the strength of his performances. For the good of the team, that can not be allowed to continue.
There will be calls to retain Lukas Fabianski too, after the Pole produced a surprisingly composed display in the Allianz Arena. I’d be less hasty to subscribe to propose that. His positive performance is relatively anomalous in his Arsenal career. Szczesny retains my backing – until the summer at least.
I’m glad for Arsenal fans. Particularly for those that travelled to music, but also those watching from afar. Our team gave us reasons to be proud, and reasons to believe. Like Hammond’s dinosaurs, there is life in us yet.