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Arsenal FC – A Disappointing Week

Per Mertesacker Mesut Ozil Arsenal

Last week I talked about the importance of Arsenal using the depth in their squad, and Arsène Wenger was clearly reading as he shuffled his pack in two of the biggest games in his side’s season.

The loss to Napoli was disappointing but not hugely surprising – Arsenal are somewhat notorious for taking their foot off the gas in the sixth group game, even when there is plenty to play for, like there was on Wednesday night. To be fair to the players, it’s difficult to be 100% focused mentally in games like these when you’re almost certainly through, as teams like Bayern Munich and AC Milan have discovered, when they very nearly let commanding first leg leads against the Gunners slip.

But the manner of the defeat was desperately poor, as was the sending off of Mikel Arteta, which of course means he will miss the first leg of their next Champions League game. Arsenal fans probably would have ripped your arm off for 12 points and second place in that group when the draw was made, but it’s hard not to feel frustrated when a draw in Italy, or another goal for Marseille against Borussia Dortmund, would have been enough to finish top.

As a result, the Gunners faced a pretty horrible list of possible draws for the knockout round, and were eventually pit against Bayern again on Monday. A look at Chelsea and Manchester United, who drew Galatasaray and Olympiacos respectively, is all the proof that’s needed to appreciate how important it is to top your group.

As relentlessly brilliant as the Germans are, however, there’s no reason why Arsenal can’t give them a proper game, or even progress themselves. The Gunners were knocked out merely on goal difference last time around, and the addition of Mesut Özil alone means they’re a far more dangerous side than they were 12 months ago.

I still expect Arsenal to be eliminated and, as much as you want to stay in the Champions League, being knocked out may well be a blessing. The suggestion that the competition is something of a distraction from domestic duties is not so much a myth, as a genuine argument. The two things often are mutually exclusive. Of course Manchester United have shown that you can win both but it’s exceptionally difficult. Chelsea’s glory in 2012 was massively to the detriment of their league form as they finished 6th in the table. Similarly, I doubt it’s coincidence that Arsenal’s form in the two campaigns prior to this only really picked up once they were knocked out of the Champions League.

The difference between this season and those of course, is that Arsenal have not had a woeful start that has ruled them out of the title race, but instead, they’re top and looking to be contenders in the long haul. The lack of a continental distraction, especially if fellow title rivals Chelsea and Manchester City are engaged in energy-sapping European games, could prove to be crucial.

Jumping from the future, back to the past, on Saturday, perhaps Wenger’s biggest change to the line-up was bringing in Nacho Monreal. The decision looked to have been a good one before the game, as the Spanish full-back had impressed when called upon in recent weeks, but, truth be told, Monreal had something of a nightmare, particularly when Jesús Navas came on and gave him a very seasonal roasting.

Not to apportion all blame in his direction of course. Jack Wilshere, deployed ahead of Monreal on the left flank, was woeful, and Mathieu Flamini was not much better as he was completely overrun by the sensational power of City’s Fernandinho and Yaya Touré. After initially being heralded by press and fans alike as Arsenal’s great defensive saviour, his limitations are becoming a tad more apparent and criticism is increasing with each passing game. For a lot of supporters though, the City game seemed to be something of a watershed moment. Flamini should definitely start packing away those Hawaiian shirts and board his plane out of the Maldives because it seems the Honeymoon period is well and truly over.

Some of the comments I’ve seen about Flamini in the last few days, however, have been extraordinarily excessive, and it’s symptomatic of this reactionary, hyperbolic attitude around football nowadays that just won’t seem to go away. Is Flamini Claude Makelele reincarnated? No. Is he a terrible player that should be nowhere near the Arsenal line-up? No. The truth, as always, is somewhere in between.

Despite those poor individual performances and the harrowing scoreline, though, there were positives to be taken from the City game. Özil, whilst generally fairly quiet, always seems to make some sort of impact, and he’s going to be so crucial for Arsenal in these big matches. Theo Walcott is back and firing and will also have a huge part to play in the second half of the season if he stays fit. And I don’t think anyone will go to the Etihad and put the ball in their net five times for a very long time.

The weekend’s results put a lot of pressure on Monday’s game against Chelsea, though. Calling it must-win would be excessive, but we really will have a far greater idea of Arsenal’s title credentials by about 10pm that evening.