Champions League

The Tragicomic Tale of Arsenal’s Six Consecutive Round of 16 Exits in The Champions League

If Arsenal go out to Bayern in their coming Round of 16 double header, it will be their seventh consecutive fall at the same hurdle. Here, we look back at their previous failures and ask: what the fuck is going on?

by Will Magee
13 February 2017, 11:05am

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"Hegel remarks somewhere that all great football facts and personages appear, so to speak, seven times. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the next six times as farce."

– Karl Marx, misquote.

If Arsenal go out to Bayern Munich in their coming Round of 16 double header, it will be their seventh consecutive fall at the same hurdle in the Champions League. If an actual, real-life hurdler did that, we, as a society, would probably encourage him to find a new sport. If an actual hurdler fell seven times during a race, yet alone over and over again at exactly the same point, it would probably end up with the St. John's ambulance people being called over and a serious loss of dignity all round. That is the state that Arsenal are in right now, when it comes to Europe's premier competition – battered, bruised, bloodied, grazed, covered in plasters, trying to pry shards of shattered hurdle out of their wibbly bits and generally feeling a bit sorry for themselves as they survey the mangled wreckage they have left behind them.

While it would be easy to shout "GROUNDHOG DAY" in the direction of Arsene Wenger and be done with it at this point, the reality of their past six Round of 16 exits is somewhat more complicated than managerial intransigence. That might well come into it, mind, but it can't be the only factor in such a bizarre and compelling trend. The Arsenal team has evolved and changed since the first of their consecutive exits against Barcelona in the 2010/11 season, and most would agree that it has gradually improved in the six years since. Nonetheless, the side which now includes the likes of Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez has, so far, done no better than that which featured Robin van Persie, Cesc Fabregas, Emmanuel Eboue and Alex Song.

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There is perhaps a clue to the trend in the opposition Arsenal have faced over the years. Counting all the consecutive Round of 16 exits since 2011, they have lost, in turn, to Barca, AC Milan, Bayern Munich, Bayern Munich again, Monaco – their most disappointing defeat – and Barca one more time for good measure. Barring perhaps Monaco, these were all fantastic sides at the very peak of their powers (though it might seem outlandish now, Milan were Serie A winners when they took on the Gunners and boasted the talents of Clarence Seedorf, Mark van Bommel, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Robinho in his pomp). With the exception of the 2011/12 season, where Arsenal topped a group containing Marseille, Olympiakos and Borussia Dortmund, the North Londoners have faced such high-calibre opposition because they have lurched to a second-placed finish in the group each time.

There is an obvious psychological disadvantage in this, because it suggests from the group stage onwards that Arsenal are an inferior and thoroughly beatable side. When the players fail to go the distance in the group, the chances of them winning three double headers and the final must feel absurdly slim. When they then come up against a side that's topped their group unbeaten, as they did with Barcelona in 2010/11 and 2015/16, they are starting on an uneven footing in terms of mental preparedness. Arsenal were always going to struggle to beat Barca, of course, but coming into those games with stuttering momentum was never likely to help their cause.

In fairness, in their narrow 2011 exit to Barcelona, Arsenal came very close to upsetting the soon-to-be European champions. Had it not been for a ludicrous red card for Robin van Persie for kicking the ball away half a second after the ref had blown his whistle, the Gunners might well have progressed at the Nou Camp and their Round of 16 hoodoo might never have begun. In the aftermath of that result and subsequent losses to Milan and Bayern, however, a longer term psychological disadvantage took hold. In more recent years, it has seemed as if Arsenal are intimidated by the Round of 16 for its own sake.

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When a team has gone out at the same stage on several consecutive occasions, it's not hard to see how that might become a mental stumbling block in itself. That certainly seemed to be the case when Arsenal took on Monaco in 2015, in a tie which, on paper, was their best chance in several years to progress. Despite fielding a strong side including Ozil, Sanchez, Olivier Giroud and their invaluable attacking lockpick, Santi Cazorla, Arsenal lost the first leg 3-1 at the Emirates, muscled into submission by an imperious midfield display from Geoffrey Kondogbia. So demoralised were they by the second half of that match, they even allowed an ageing Dimitar Berbatov to swoop nonchalantly upon them and score.

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Arsenal won the second leg 2-0, but this wasn't enough to stop them going out on away goals. One of the weirdest aspects of Arsenal's Round of 16 exits is that, for several years, pathetic first-leg showings would be followed up by rollicking second-leg heroics, though the latter would always fall just short. So, against Milan in 2012, they were battered 4-0 at the San Siro only to roar to – and ultimately end with – a 3-0 lead in the follow-up fixture. In 2013, they lost 3-1 to Bayern Munich at the Emirates, before keeping a clean sheet and winning 2-0 at the Allianz with a right flank shored up by Carl Jenkinson and the notoriously flappable Lukasz Fabianski in goal.

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This pattern seems even more representative of a team with a chronic psychological problem. In those three European campaigns, why were Arsenal only capable of excelling in the second leg when they had already blown their chances with a first-leg collapse? It was as if the side were convinced they were going to go out of the competition before a ball had even been kicked, and could only muster a decent performance when it came to saving face. The Round of 16 had become something daunting, something terrifying, and qualified failure had become a more manageable aim than progression and Champions League success.

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Last season, against Barcelona, Arsenal didn't even have a decent second leg to fall back on. They were beaten 3-1 at the Nou Camp – the scoreline flattered them – which followed hot on the heels of a 2-0 home defeat. This came in the context of a prolonged domestic slump, with Arsenal having won two from six in the league before the first leg at the Emirates. Afterwards, they lost two on the bounce against Manchester United and Swansea, subsequently drawing with Spurs and going out of the FA Cup to Watford before being emphatically dispatched on Catalan soil.

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This is indicative of another issue for Arsenal, in that the Champions League Round of 16 usually coincides with their customary mid-season struggles. It has become practically mandatory in the modern era for the Gunners to either start or finish the season strongly, with a good run at the beginning or end salvaging a campaign which has gone to shit half way through. When Arsenal were battered at the San Siro in 2012, they had lost three of their previous six league matches. When they lost to Bayern in 2013, it was two losses and two draws in seven league fixtures prior, and when they lost to them again the following year it was on the back of one loss – a 5-1 pumping at Anfield – two draws and an unconvincing win.

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Here, we perhaps come back to managerial fallibility on repeat. It is hard to write about Arsenal's six consecutive Round of 16 exits while overlooking Arsene Wenger's role. In the same way that Arsenal fans are frustrated that their title tilt seems to fade at roughly the same point every season, the consistency of their Champions League failure points, in part, to unimaginative preparation. While Wenger can do little when his side spectacularly bottles it against a team like Monaco, his own limitations on the European stage have contributed to their shaky group-stage showings and the tough draws they have received as a result.

In fairness to Arsene, few would fault this year's Champions League campaign so far. Arsenal finished the group unbeaten, even pipping PSG to top spot after the French champions drew with Ludogorets in their final game. The fact that they still drew Bayern can be put down to genuine bad luck, even if the Bavarian behemoths are not quite as formidable as they have been previously. One might even be tempted to give Arsenal a chance of progression, were it not for the telltale signs of domestic disintegration and the evidence of the last six campaigns.

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Since that golden era between 2005 and 2012 when English football provided eight Champions League finalists, the Premier League more generally has been left behind by European football. We rarely provide even semi-finalists these days, while it is not unusual for Premier League teams to go out at the first knockout stage. That said, to go out in the Round of 16 six times in a row is quite some achievement, and characteristic of a side which has been left further behind than most. Of those teams currently still in the competition, few would confidently back Arsenal over Sevilla, Napoli and Atletico, let alone the likes of Barca, Juventus and Real Madrid.

Put it down to psychology, personnel or management, the fact is that Arsenal look incapable of competing in the upper echelons of the continental game these days. Despite the evolution of the squad over the past few years and its gradual improvement, Arsenal's European competitors seem to have kicked on at a far faster rate. Arsenal's narrow miss in the 2006 final feels like centuries ago at this point, and it's almost impossible to imagine them beating Real and Juve on the way to the tournament showpiece now. Indeed, while the consistency of their Champions League exits might seem farcical, the tragedy of the situation is how utterly inevitable they feel.