By Arsenal correspondent Tony Hughes
How many more chances does Arsene Wenger need?
How many more times can the Arsenal manager preside over a feeble Champions League campaign?
How often can the Gunners’ European campaign be allowed to drift away before the English winter has properly turned to spring?
Heading out: Arsene Wenger remonstrates to the officials following Arsenal’s Champions League exit
The answer, sadly, for those of an Arsenal persuasion is at least one more chance, at least one more time.
Wenger has two years left on the contract he signed last May – although don’t bank on him seeing out the final 12 months – and European football’s longest-serving manager will be back in the dugout in September when the first strains of the Champions League anthem are heard in the new campaign.
For those who believe in managerial job continuity, that is wonderful news. The events at Emirates Stadium are of little interest to the League Managers’ Association. But for Arsenal worshippers aching for their team to be anything other than a pleasant decoration to the Champions League, the immediate future is fairly bleak.
There is overwhelming evidence to show that the Gunners will never win European football’s top competition while Wenger is manager.
A section of supporters might reflect that the club’s fifth consecutive elimination at the last-16 stage was once again in the ‘glorious failure’ category, just as it was when they were knocked out by Barcelona in 2011, AC Milan in 2012 and Bayern Munich in 2013. But, deep down, they know there was nothing glorious about the events that culminated in defeat to middleweights Monaco on Tuesday night.
As Per Mertesacker reflected with searing honesty afterwards, “I think the best team went through, they deserved it because they played much better in the first leg.”
Being second-best to Barcelona, Milan and Bayern, as Arsenal were from 2011 to 2014, is just about acceptable. But being out-gunned by an also-ran who sold their best players last summer when their two years of big spending came to an abrupt halt is not.
Despite an uplifting display in the somewhat artificial surroundings of the Stade Louis II in the millionaires’ playground of Monte Carlo, Arsenal could not get the better of Champions League history. No team has ever overturned a two-leg defeat from the first leg at home.
The Gunners paid the price for being too complacent and cocky in the first leg when they did not appear to think that Monaco could do any damage on the counter-attack.
Ultimately, the blame for that display should lie at the door of the manager. When you are paid a basic salary of £7.5million-a-year, as Wenger is, it is your responsibility to motivate the players, and warn them of the dangers that lurk in the opposition.
Some will point their fingers at Olivier Giroud’s missed chances in the first leg, or the lack of protection the midfield gave Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny in that game as they swarmed forward in search of a second goal at Emirates.
These were significant factors but, ultimately, Arsenal were poorly prepared. Again.
Wenger is a safe pair of hands when it comes to steering a team to Champions League qualification. His record of top-four finishes, particularly when finances were restricted either side of the move to Emirates Stadium, is a highly creditable one. Few would bet against Arsenal boarding the Champions League gravy train once again in September.
In the group stages, Arsenal do what they need to do. They play some neat football, navigate their way out of some tricky groups and fill their supporters with hope that finally it could be their year.
But, in the Champions League knockout stages, Wenger’s vast experience counts for nothing. In these matches, it is the small details that count – pre-match preparation, team selection, tactics, in-game management – and season after season Arsenal fall short in this regard.
In the second leg, Wenger should have started with Aaron Ramsey alongside Francis Coquelin, and used Santi Cazorla’s industry and poise in a more advanced position. He opted instead for Danny Welbeck as one of three attacking midfielders supporting Olivier Giroud. Welbeck had a reasonable match but Arsenal looked far more dangerous when the effervescent Ramsey was on the pitch.
Wenger’s record in the post-Christmas stage of the competition is lamentable. Just one final appearance in 17 campaigns, when they were defeated by Barcelona in 2006, and a semi-final against Manchester United in 2009.
Only twice Arsenal have reached the last four, and not for six years. They are treading water in the Champions League, going through the motions.
Sure, a barren season or two can happen to any club, as it did to Chelsea this year. But elimination at the hands of a mighty fine Paris Saint-Germain side who have the calibre to win the competition was not disastrous. Jose Mourinho’s team will come back stronger next year and be a force once again.
What of Arsenal? Don’t bet on it. Not while Wenger is at the helm.
There were no excuses this year. No European heavyweight blocked the path. For once, most of the best players were fit.
No one could blame a lack of support from the board, either. Following the loosening of the pursestrings two years ago, Wenger was able to field two £30million-plus signings in Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez.
It should have been enough to make a difference. It was not.
At what point, do those in power at Emirates Stadium conclude that, if their team is to be a force in the Champions League, they did a new face in the dugout? Wenger has had enough chances.