If you ask me what moment most defined Arsene Wenger’s tenure at Arsenal I will of course say winning the League at White Hart Lane. For three reasons: one, we won the League there at the ground of the old enemy; two, several of the players didn’t even know that a draw would be good enough to win the League; and three, because he convinced his team to keep going after that win and finish the season undefeated which included a comeback draw against Pompey and a comeback win over Leicester on the final day of the season.
And if you ask me which image is most burned into my mind from Arsene Wenger’s years since the Invincibles it’s Wenger clutching Pat Rice in the final 4 minutes of the final game of the 2011/12 season:
That was the season that Cesc Fabregas turned his back on his “father figure” and demanded a cut-price trade to Barcelona. That was the season of the 8-2 loss to Man U, the 4-3 loss to Blackburn (who?), the trolley dash to get Per Mertesacker and Mikel Arteta, the 5-3 win over Chelsea (at the Bridge), the 5-2 win over Tottenham, and a whole season just full of madness at Arsenal. The team just couldn’t quite right the ship and went through a period where they won just two out of nine (in the League) and then ended the season winning just two of seven.
Tottenham crept up on Arsenal and in the final day of the season, because arsenal had drawn three in a row to Chelsea, Stoke and Norwich, Arsenal needed a win to finish third and absolutely secure Champions League football for the next season, because Chelsea would go on to finish 6th but win the Champions League and take the 4th place trophy away from Tottenham Hotspur.
I’ve written about this image before. I’ve written about everything in Wenger’s career before, fifteen times, but I’ll say it again: it’s so touching to me because Wenger is truly vulnerable in this moment. It’s the frantic final moments of Arsenal’s worst season under Wenger. Wenger had started Santos in the left back position but Santos had been a disastrous signing and West Brom tortured him all game (even though he scored). Late in the match, Wenger brought on Gibbs and pushed Santos forward, and it was Kieran Gibbs who tackled the ball away from Billy Jones to save Arsenal’s season.
Wenger couldn’t hold it together any more, as Gibbs went in for that tackle his studiously cool exterior dropped off and he just reached out for Pat Rice. He couldn’t bear to look.
This image symbolizes Arsene Wenger’s management philosophy as well. Instead of a well drilled team that just took West Brom apart, Wenger’s jazz ensemble blew sour notes all match, all season really, until they came up with just enough music at the end of the season to march off into third place and secure Champions League football for one more year.
Just like Wenger hugging Pat Rice, I have a feeling that Griezmann doing his chicken dance is going to stay with me for a long time as well.
All season long I’ve been able to manage my expectations. “10th place,” I said at the start of the season, “anything above 10th place in the League and I’ll be happy.” When Arsenal got to the League Cup final against Man City, I said “no chance”. After all, I’d been at the last League Cup final for Arsenal and if Arsene Wenger couldn’t beat Birmingham City we had no chance against Man City. And all season long I have scoffed at anyone suggesting that Arsenal could win the Europa League – “have you seen the other teams? This isn’t the Europa League of a few years ago. Besides they have to beat Atletico Madrid and I can’t see that happening.”
But after Wenger announced his retirement, I let the old irrational brain takeover and decided I wanted one last huzzah for Wenger. I wanted to see him lift the Europa League trophy.
Wenger clutching Pat Rice, me clutching Wenger, both of us burying our eyes and hoping for a result.
Before yesterday’s match, I just wanted to see Arsenal give it their all. I just thought that if Arsenal could play hard, stand up to Atletico Madrid, and get a few goals, we could win the match and the whole stadium could sing “there’s only one Arsene Wenger.” It’s what I want for Arsene. I want him to be cheered by the supporters on his way out.
And Arsenal nearly did. The team did play hard right from the start (or nearly) and Atletico found it very hard to keep up with Arsene’s men. They were chasing shadows and reduced to kicking Arsene’s men off the ball. Atleti left back, Vrsaljko, was rightly sent off for two stupid, studs up tackles on Arsenal. The last of which was unquestionably a yellow card and the minute in the match is irrelevant. The referee didn’t change the contest, the player, putting his foot in on Lacazette after getting a yellow card for a professional foul earlier in the match, changed the contest.
After the sending off Arsenal really went for it and between the 12th and the 30th minute, Arsenal took 10 shots, 9 of them inside the 18 yard box, and two of them “big chances”. But still they couldn’t score.
Arsenal were getting in crosses, getting off headed shots from those crosses but despite the overwhelming number of shots, Oblak only saved two shots – a header from Wilshere and a big chance from Welbeck. Arsenal were profligate.
Arsenal did take the lead eventually. Yet another headed shot, Arsenal took 10 headed shots in all in this game, which is about 10% of the total headed shots they have taken this season. This was clearly Wenger’s game plan – crosses in to headers for Lacazette to win – and it’s not a terrible one considering that nearly half of Atletico’s goals allowed this season have been off headers.
And it was an excellent all around team goal as well. Arsenal won the ball back at the edge of the box, Wilshere got into a great position and just lobbed up a ball for Lacazette who beat two much bigger men to the header and placed it exactly where Oblak couldn’t reach it.
After that, Arsenal created more chances, most notably Lacazette hitting the post just 8 minutes later. Arsenal were in cruise control. They were patiently creating chances and Atletico were doing nothing. By fulltime Atletico would create just two shots in that second half. Atletico would have just 99 passes in the second half, just 26 in the Arsenal final third.
But in what has to be the most perfectly Wengerball 2006-2018 way, Danny Welbeck tried to dribble four players at the same time, Ramsey wasn’t anywhere near enough to make a defensive move to shut down the long ball, Nacho Monreal was strolling back, Mustafi wasn’t keeping his line, and a Hail Mary pass to Griezmann set off a series of unfortunate events.
There are so many familiar problems here in this photo. Arsenal keeping the Wenger high line at or beyond the half-way mark in a match where they are winning 1-0. No pressure on the ball (though that’s a bit tough since Welbeck literally ran away from his teammate to go over and give the opposition the ball). Players all over the pitch switched off and in ridiculous positions (Monreal and Mustafi). And the space in behind. THE SPACE IN BEHIND.
Even still, Koscielny outmuscles Griezmann to the ball but only manages to clear the ball into his own face. Even still, Ospina saves the first big chance, only to palm the ball back to Griezmann. Even still, Griezmann’s shot is literally blocked into the net by Mustafi.
This disorganization-induced-calamity in big games is the exact reason why so many people have been clamoring for Wenger to leave Arsenal for so many years. Arsenal literally couldn’t have allowed a more “Arsene Wenger” goal than this one right here. We’ve seen this exact goal so many times that even pundits like Stewart Robson could see it coming.
One hand on the trophy. 10 minutes. And it was all undone by a moment of madness. It’s heartbreaking.
Yeah, I know there’s a second leg still to play but I’m crawling back to the safety of my cynical opinion: Arsenal have no chance of winning this trophy. We have seen this all before, too many times, and I’m sorry to say it but cynicism is the only way to hold off the heartbreak.