Sneezing sounds

This week Sam Limbert battles a cold and James Bale battles jetlag as they talk about our win over Sutton and defeat away at Bayern. We have the usual mix of insightful opinion, banter and some top 10 challenges too.
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A sad humiliation that could signify a seismic shift

An embarrassing and brutal defeat in a big game, unfortunately, isn’t anything new for Arsenal. Wednesday night’s 5-1 capitulation against Bayern Munich, made all the more stark by the fact the Gunners were right in the game at 1-1 at half-time, had a slightly different feel to it though.
There was the same sinking feeling at seeing a rampant Bayern rip Arsenal to pieces to run up the same scoreline for the second year running, seeing Arsenal give themselves almost no hope in the second leg, and watching the Gunners virtually secure their exit in the last-16 of the Champions League for a seventh consecutive year. But there felt like there was something more at play on Wednesday. It’s something we’ve all known had to come at some point, but now feels closer than ever, for better or worse.
It wasn’t just the size of the defeat on Wednesday that was painful, it was the performance that went with it. The goals conceded were all avoidable from a defensive point-of-view. Arjen Robben’s strike is a great one, but why does Francis Coquelin just allow him to wonder easily into a shooting position on his favoured left foot? No effort was made to block Phillip Lahm’s cross for the second goal before Shkodran Mustafi just watched Thiago run through to finish the third. The fourth was a depressing deflection and the defending was non-existent when Thomas Muller was allowed to stroke in a fifth goal.
That Arsenal’s goal came from a missed penalty, a shanked rebound and then an excellent finish from Alexis in some ways typified the feeling of the evening. Arsenal never seemed in control as Bayern and made things harder for themselves with some basic errors. When Laurent Koscielny went off injured early in the second half, it shouldn’t have led to the capitulation that followed, but it was as if he took every player’s brain with him when he limped off. By the end, it looked like Arsenal had given up.
After such a result, the second 5-1 defeat to the Germans in as many seasons, the media spotlight has unsurprisingly and intensely been on Arsene Wenger. And while the man at the top of it all has to take the responsibility for such a performance, the players have to take a look at themselves. Wenger’s tactics might not have been right, he might not have picked the right team and his message might not be getting through, but it was thoroughly disheartening to see the players just completely freeze and not perform in the second half. These aren’t young kids Wenger has thrown in, every player bar Francis Coquelin were internationals and surely some sort of professional pride and nous should have kicked in at some point.
But ultimately it does come back to the manager. Regular readers and listeners will know the esteem in which I hold Arsene Wenger, and I don’t want to see him sacked. As much as I am desperate for him to bow out in a blaze of glory by winning the league or the Champions League, it now feels like that dream has died. Such is pressure being applied from certain sections of the fan base and the media, and the repeated failures in big games, it just feels like we’re heading towards a change this summer. Without a change, the questions, the fan split, the media hysteria and the pressure will only continue, and that’s not a healthy position for the club to be in.
For the benefit of perspective, Arsenal are still right the middle of the battle with five of the top six and could yet finish second in the league. They’re in the last 16 of the FA Cup and did at least make it to the knock-out stages of the Champions League. Had that been the performance of a manager in their first season at the club, the Arsenal fans and the media might have been slightly more forgiving. But with Arsene Wenger passing 20 years at the club, to be going through similar seasons year-after-year without making any tangible progress is where the questions come from.
With his future undecided beyond the end of this season, we’re approaching the stage where there could be a natural stopping point for the boss. He wouldn’t be breaking a contract, something he didn’t want to do with Arsenal, and would still be leaving a good squad in place for his successor to work with. But while he might be ready to move on, I fear that the club aren’t ready for him to. Such has been his association and influence in the club, it’s never going to be as simple as just recruiting a new manager. There are many more structural changes that need to occur in the footballing side of the club, and I have serious reservations about whether the current Arsenal board are up to the possible task of overseeing those changes.
It’s probably a good thing that after the FA Cup tie with Sutton, Arsenal have almost two weeks without a game. It’ll give everyone time to do some serious thinking and hopefully enable some clarity to be established about the future. The manager needs to be honest with himself about how his messages aren’t getting through to the players and how many more of these painful defeats he can take. The board needs to consider if two-year offer to Arsene Wenger is the best option for the club at the moment, and needs to have plans in place should he not take them up on that offer. The players need to ponder how they’ve let down a man who has put a great deal of trust in them and who bears the brunt of the criticism following these ridiculous non-performances in big games.
While many others will say that the end for Wenger has been a long time coming, for me it felt like Wednesday was the beginning of the end. Wenger has been ever-present in my time as an Arsenal fan and it worries me what the future might hold. But Wednesday’s woeful display means that uncertain future is surely about to be upon us.

Arsenal's strong selection pays off as Ludogorets stun PSG

Arsene Wenger made six changes for the game with Basel from the weekend win at West Ham, but it was a much stronger side than expected for a game that seemed like a dead rubber. I didn’t expect to see Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez in the line-up, but they both were in from the start.
It was a difficult decision for Wenger because if he picked a strong side and PSG won comfortably against Ludogorets to seal top spot, as had been expected, and one of his big players picked up an injury, questions would have been asked. On the flip side, had he picked a significantly weaker side and Arsenal didn’t capitalise on any slip-ups from PSG, he’d then have been criticised for missing another chance to top the group.
In the end, Wenger’s decision to make sure Arsenal kept up their end of the bargain was entirely justified as his side strolled to a comfortable 4-1 win against Basel, while Ludogorets twice went ahead against PSG before finishing with a 2-2 draw. It was ideal for the Arsenal manager as his team built on the momentum gained in the thumping victory at the Olympic Stadium, and with Arsenal four goals up with half an hour to go, he was able to take Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil off with the game won and keep them fresh for the weekend’s Premier League game.
The 2-2 draw in Paris was a surprise, but merited for a Ludogorets team that have applied themselves well in a difficult group. Even in the 6-0 defeat at the Emirates, they played some positive football and had chances before getting taken apart by Mesut Ozil. With PSG wasting plenty of chances, the Bulgarians hung in there and deserve to take their place in the Europa League by virtue of finishing third in the group. 
For Arsenal, along with Alexis and Ozil playing superbly, the fresh players brought into the starting XI all stepped up and made their mark, in a way they didn’t do against Southampton a week earlier in the EFL Cup. No-one took their chance more than Lucas Perez.
The Spaniard has had a stop-start opening to his Arsenal career as he’s tried to adapt to English football, and he suffered a nasty ankle injury that kept him out for a month, but he showed great goal-scoring instincts in Switzerland to bag himself a Champions League hat-trick with only three shots in the game. 
The first two were very simple finishes, but he had to be in the right place to get a couple of tap-ins after Kieran Gibbs twice snuck in behind the defence when charging forward from left-back. For the first one, Gibbs was found by a sumptuous pass from Alexis before he squared the ball across the six-yard box for Lucas to score. Moments later, a move of more than 30 passes ended as Mesut Ozil slid a perfectly-weighted pass to Gibbs, whose shot was parried and Lucas gobbled up the rebound to net his second. 
In truth, Lucas Perez had a pretty quiet game for the most part, which is understandable as he’s still getting back to full fitness after his injury, but he got his reward for being willing to get into the six-yard box from a wide position as play developed on the other flank. With Alexis dropping deep from the centre-forward role, Lucas read the play well to pop-up in the centre to score his first two goals.
Leading 2-0 at half-time, Arsenal could have played quite conservatively in the second half and just let the game drift away, but they seemed buoyed by news of Ludogorets leading in Paris and seemed determined to kill the game off against Basel as soon as possible, as that would put more pressure on the Parisians if PSG got wind of the fact that Arsenal were in no danger of dropping points. The Gunners’ tempo in the opening stages of the second half was impressive and almost surprised Basel, who might have expected Arsenal to hold back slightly.
It wasn’t long after the break before Lucas completed his hat-trick. Kieran Gibbs intercepted well before firing a pass towards Alexis, who couldn’t quite get the ball under control. However it ran into the path of Lucas, who confidently took the shot on early from just inside the box with his weaker foot, catching out the goalkeeper who couldn’t prevent the ball nestling in the bottom corner of the net.
Arsenal were then playing with a freedom that was just glorious to watch. The front four were so fluid, with Aaron Ramsey also starting to make bursts from midfield and getting involved higher up the pitch. The fourth goal was a work of art as the incisive move started back in Arsenal’s half and ended with Alexis feeding Ozil, who in turn cut the ball back for Alex Iwobi to tap home. What was incredible about the goal was how the centre-forward popped up on the left to set-up the attacking midfielder who had appeared up-front, before he put the goal on a plate for the left winger, who had come steaming in from the right to score. Total football.
Arsenal are scoring plenty of goals and sharing the goal-scoring love around the squad. Apart from Alexis and Ozil, the rest of the forward players have all contributed at different times this season. Just in the last five days, Arsenal scored five away in the league on Saturday and scored four away in Europe on Tuesday and had different scorers in both games. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain might have thought he was nailing his place in the team after an excellent showing at West Ham, but then his main rivals for a starting place both netted in Switzerland. The competition for places is bringing more out of players on the fringes and Arsene Wenger has generally rotated his squad pretty well to give everyone an opportunity at some point to make a difference. 
One of the only ways Basel could stop Arsenal was by fouling them, but even this was difficult as Arsenal’s movement and speed-of-thought was so much sharper. When Alexis was brought down 30 yards from goal, he almost punished Basel with a stunning, swerving free-kick which cannoned back off the bar. That was his last piece of action as Arsene Wenger was able to replace Alexis, Ozil and Ramsey with the game already won.
Basel, to their credit, did get a goal back with a nice piece of skill and dinked finish from Doumbia, but it didn’t change the fact it had virtually been a perfect night for Arsenal. Along with those who impressed going forward, Gabriel had another solid game at right-back, while Kieran Gibbs was exceptional on the other flank and Rob Holding looked good alongside Laurent Koscielny. Granit Xhaka handled the return to his first club superbly and ran the midfield.
There’s obviously still a chance that Arsenal will get a nasty draw in the next round because of the likes of Bayern Munich and one of Real Madrid or Borussia Dortmund lurking as a group runner-up, but Arsenal can go into the round of 16 with much more confidence. If the draw is unkind, then that’s just bad luck as the Gunners played a great group stage and deservedly won the group. It also would have been embarrassing for UEFA if PSG had topped the group just because of one additional away goal compared to Arsenal’s huge goal difference in comparison.