Realistically, Arsenal was never likely to beat a Bayern Munich side that is cruising to the Bundesliga title, but what Tuesday's 3-1 Champions League loss might have offered was comfort. Yes, there was always the chance of an upset, but, realistically, a promising performance would have done, something that said, yes, this team isn't perfect, but it is on the right track.
Instead, there was a sorry reminding of familiar weakness that, allied to Arsene Wenger's uncharacteristically
It's still not clear, even, why Wenger was so exercised about a report -- which he denies -- that he may be about to be offered a contract extension, something that would usually be seen as a positive, a sign of stability and the club's faith in him. A hint came later in the press conference when he said, in reference to talk of a new contract, "you will never find any story behind me that I've taken money anywhere, or things like that." What did that mean? It spoke of a pervasive paranoia, and that, in turn, suggests the pressure Wenger is under.
And while Wenger fights his demons -- real and imagined -- the team drifts. The most baffling aspect of this Arsenal side is that it so often gives the impression that it isn't far from being good. It keeps offering hope of better things to come. There are runs of five, six games in the Premier League that are good enough both to get Arsenal into the Champions League and to keep fans believing. Even against Bayern the opening minutes offered promise, Theo Walcott's pace looking as though it could unsettle Daniel van Buyten. But then, as so often, came a fatal sloppiness.
No Premier League side has made as many mistakes leading to goals this season as Arsenal: it averages a defensive error every 71 minutes. Last season it was every 117 minutes. Chelsea make a mistake only every 190 minutes. But it's not just errors; there's an institutional laxity about the side. After seven minutes that suggested a potential classic, a wounded Arsenal hurling itself at a sleek Bayern, the flaws came to the fore.
The first goal (Toni Kroos in the seventh) was permitted by a litany of errors. First Per Mertesacker, who had a horrible night, aimlessly hoofed a long ball forward having received it under no pressure. That needlessly ceded possession. Bayern worked the ball to Thomas Muller in space on the right. Why was the space there? Largely because Mertesacker's poor clearance had led to Arsenal's forward being caught upfield, although you wonder whether Lukas Podolski might have done more to get back.
Muller hit an awkward bouncing cross -- a poor cross, frankly -- along the top of the 18-yard box. Aaron Ramsey, having come too deep (arguably less his fault than one of the center backs, who, facing the play, must have recognized there was nobody in the box for him to pick up, and so he needed to be positioned to cut out any pull-back to a runner) wagged a foot at it a little tamely. Perhaps it's over-critical to blame him for that because he was having to change direction, but it looked weak. Mertesacker dawdled in coming out to Kroos, who attacked the ball untroubled by Mikel Arteta, who presumably was supposed to be picking him up, and then half-turned his back. There was no glaring error, but the goal was the result of a beautiful strike and an accumulation of minor lapses.
The second (Muller in the 21st) was even worse. All goals count the same of course, but to concede to a set play against a side as good on the ball as Bayern is galling, like the gunslinger who survives the shootout but then falls down the stairs. Again there was an accumulation of errors. Arsenal marks zonally, and the corner was delivered to Ramsey's zone: he failed to attack it. Mertesacker was standing closest to Van Buyten when he began his run so he could, conceivably, have tracked him once he saw where the corner was directed. And after goalie Wojciech Szczesny had made the initial save, Arteta failed to react as Muller slammed in the loose ball.
There could easily have been a third before halftime. Podolski failed to follow a forward surge from Philipp Lahm -- he has become notorious for not tracking and was at least partly responsible for Andre Santos' disintegration because of the lack of support he offered -- allowing the fullback to cross. He picked out Mario Mandzukic, who happily skipped between Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny, but headed just wide.
It was a shambles, and it's hard to know who to blame but the coaching staff. For all the talk of the lack of money Arsenal has spent, much of its underperformance has resulted from errors that would be unacceptable from professionals far lower down the pyramid. Former Arsenal defender Steve Bould was recruited in the summer to improve that aspect of Arsenal's play, but if anything it's even worse this season. Yet really it seems a matter of attitude rather than position of softness. That can be a matter of confidence and morale -- there can be a tendency when things are going wrong to become fatalistic, but then it is up to the manager to encourage his side to take responsibility.
"You could see that every player is confident to play with full power ..." Wenger said. "It's not completely our case at the moment. You have to give them credit for their class. In the first half in patches there was a difference in quality."
Then there is the other trait of Arsenal this season, the appearance of fight when it is already too late. In big games at least, Arsenal often seems at its best when it is 2-0 down as though it fears the possibility of success (or perhaps of failure having played well) and play without inhibition only when hope has gone.
It needed some laughably bad defending from Bayern (how do you go 11 hours without conceding and then concede a 55th-minute goal like that, with half a dozen players all leaving the ball before Podolski nodded in?) to let Arsenal back into the game. Had Olivier Giroud's shot from Walcott's cross not been straight at Manuel Neuer, who knows what might have been? But then Arjen Robben released Lahm -- again unchecked, Santi Cazorla this time the man who let him go -- and his cross was bundled in by Mandzukic in the 77th.
At 3-1 the tie is as good as over. Bayern should wrap up progress to the quarterfinal in Munich in three weeks, while Arsenal has some fundamental questions to answer.