A season of Arsenal progress will be undermined if their title challenge fizzles out

As Arsenal’s players reflected on the 1-0 defeat at the Allianz Arena that saw Bayern Munich progress to the Champions League semi-finals at their expense, they were downcast. It made for a sombre dressing room. “I wish I had the right words today to make the players feel better,” said manager Mikel Arteta.

Over the coming days, he must find them. They cannot allow this dispiriting defeat to precipitate a collapse.

Arsenal have developed a nasty habit of running out of gas on the home straight. Last season, they won just three of their final nine games. In 2021-22, it was six of their final 12. They must not permit a third consecutive season to end with a whimper.

Arsenal did not play especially poorly in Munich, but nor did they do enough over the two legs to suggest they deserved to win.

“It was a tie of very small margins,” said Arteta. “In the first leg we conceded two very poor goals. That has a big effect on the tie. We were still alive and came here today. I’m really proud of the players. How they stood up, the way they played and what they tried to do, especially in the first half. It was a game where you could see an error, or an individual magic moment was going to decide the tie.”

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Arteta admitted that absence of a spark — the individual brilliance required to find the breakthrough — cost Arsenal dear. “It’s true that we lacked the magic to unlock the game and open that door when the game requires,” he said. “We didn’t have it. That’s why we are out.”

That absence of another attacking dimension is something the club are well aware of, and hope to address in the summer. The Champions League knockouts showed Arsenal for what they are: an incredibly well-organised, robust team who are not blessed with too many maverick match-winners. This much we knew.

Perhaps Arteta’s biggest frustration will be the uncharacteristically sloppy goals Arsenal conspired to concede in both legs of this tie, which finished 3-2 on aggregate.

For much of the campaign, they have looked like a team making progress. They have been more mature, more measured and more tactically disciplined. They have kept pace with Liverpool and Manchester City, and reached the quarter-finals of the Champions League. But if they were to crumble now, any claims of progress may crumble too.

The most disappointing aspect of last season’s run-in was that Arsenal failed to pick up the points required to apply real pressure to City. Pep Guardiola’s team did not win either of their final two Premier League games but they did not have to. City were declared champions when Arsenal succumbed to defeat at Nottingham Forest.

The trauma of those final few weeks of 2022-23 explains why Arsenal fans feel so dejected by this Champions League exit. It marks the end of a bruising eight days, one in which the team failed to win any of their three games across two competitions. The fear is simple: “It’s happening again.”



Premier League set to miss fifth Champions League spot as Bayern beat Arsenal

Certainly, players are beginning to look weary. Ankles are strapped and legs are heavy. The likes of Declan Rice and Martin Odegaard, so full of running in the autumn, appear to have been sapped by the spring.

Hearts and minds will be hurting too. Arteta seemed to sense as much. “What me and all the coaching staff are going to do is be close to the players,” he said. “I feel so grateful to be their coach and work with them every day.

“What we need to do is stand right next to them, give them our support and our love. We have to pick it up because we have a big, big game on Saturday. We’re still playing for the Premier League and we really want it and we have to show we’re capable of turning it around.

“I can guarantee you by tomorrow we’re fully focused on Wolves and everybody is lifted. What we still have to play for is beautiful.”

Arsenal face six remaining games in the Premier League, starting at Molineux on Saturday evening. With the title out of their hands, even winning all six might not be enough to be champions. Nevertheless, that must be the target.

Arsenal are now out of all cup competitions, but the game at Wolves suddenly takes on the flavour of a final. Anything but a win there will leave them behind City, with the champions having a game in hand. If this is the time in the Premier League calendar when Arsenal typically falter, it is when City often look their strongest.

Real Madrid’s victory on penalties at the Etihad Stadium delivered another blow to Arsenal. City too can now focus fully on domestic matters. They will be firm favourites to triumph in the three-way title fight — if Arsenal and Liverpool can find the resolve to make it one.

There is a Premier League to be won, but there is arguably something even more important at stake. There is pride to be protected, and a sense of progress to be sustained.

Arsenal must prove they can run over the finish line rather than stumble.

They must escape finishing on another low. Only then will talk of progress really ring true.

(Top photo: James Gill – Danehouse/Getty Images)

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