Given his noticeable demeanour of a studious individual, Arsene Wenger looks less like your archetypal football manager and more akin to someone who enjoys a 1000-piece puzzle. The online shop offers fans of the club the chance to build a 3D version of the Emirates Stadium but Wenger has his own puzzle which he has maintained for the past 19 seasons – the Arsenal side. Whichever incarnation of Wenger’s side you examine, perhaps not the Invincibles however, le professeur’s teams have always been missing one or two pieces from becoming the formidable outfit that it could well be. The most obvious piece of his jigsaw which the 65-year-old seems unable to find is in midfield. Wenger has never been able to replace Patrick Vieira as a combative midfielder who takes the game by the scruff of the neck and turns the centre of the pitch into battleground where opponents fear to tread. Francis Coquelin has been tasked with filling Vieira’s sizeable boots and indifferent performances from the Frenchman, including against Monaco this evening, suggest the man from Laval looks unfit to lace his boots, let alone fill them. There are still a menagerie of questions over Arsenal’s centre-halves and forwards, but Wenger’s perennial inability to accept his midfield deficiency will prove his undoing. If Arsenal are to progress in the future, in the league and in Europe, a Vieira-esque player is a must.
Like Manchester City the night previous, Arsenal started against Monaco like a lumbering locomotive, with its fire being gently stoked to allow the machine to reach its full speed. Wenger, the conductor of this train and as stubborn as a field of mules which is situated alongside the track, like Manuel Pellegrini, got his opening gambit totally wrong. One would assume that the Monegasque side would provide less of a threat than the behemoth that is Barcelona, but all teams that make the latter stages of the Champions League need to be shown respect. Wenger, whose affiliations with both Arsenal and Monaco runs deep within his Strasbourg veins, was punished in the 38th minute for his slow start. True, one cannot legislate for deflections but the Frenchman would have seen Monaco’s record in Group C and the first goal is this tie was perhaps the most vital. The expats within Ligue 1 conceded just once in the group stage and as exceedingly resolute in defence. Arsenal, who now face an incredibly tough task in the Principality to qualify for the next round, cannot afford to start slowly again. The fact is, Arsenal were blown away by a team that scored just four in the group stage and it comes directly from their sluggish start.
Since reaching the final in 2006, Arsenal have struggled to make it back to that level in the Champions League. The greats of that era have long since departed but of that side, it was full of leaders. This team is not. Per Mertesecker, who won the World Cup less than eight months ago, captained the side against Monaco and Wenger would expect the giant German to have led his side with the same assurances he offered to his national side before his international retirement. Mertesecker, who turns slower than some oil tankers, made the wrong decision which put the game, and perhaps the tie beyond the Gunners. His poor decision led to Dimitar Berbatov’s goal and away goals are the most treacherous mountains to climb in the Champions League. He knows about his lack of pace and Wenger must be catatonic with rage about his on-field leader handing the tie to Monaco. Wenger is long enough in the tooth and will definitely have a plan to try and resurrect the tie which requires that of Lazarus proportions. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s goal gives the Gunners a modicum of hope but can Wenger write the script to deliver the perfect performance on his return to his old haunt?
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