Failure in philosophy sees Arsenal exit
"I'm very proud because everybody urged us to play differently to our nature. We can be proud of the result, but more than pride it can strengthen the belief in our philosophy."
Arsene Wenger's words after the first leg victory over Barcelona were laced with more than a hint of personal triumph. His use of "we" and "us" failed to conceal what he undoubtedly felt was his own victory in a battle he believes he has been fighting for many years. Nicknamed 'the Professor' in his early years at Arsenal, the Premier League masses have been lectured for some time by a man who seems intent on preserving his own legacy.
But his crusade to educate English football's 'ignorant' majority about the value of wholesome football has been consistently undermined by his failure to claim trophies. For the past few years, Arsenal fans and football onlookers alike have had to sit and listen to the same stale rhetoric from Wenger. How his players are finally ready to step up to the plate; how they have matured and learned from their disappointments, and are both physically and mentally ready to move onto the next level. The trouble is that Wenger's faith in his players appears totally misguided.
The Carling Cup final provided a perfect opportunity for Arsenal's trophy-shy personnel to justify their manager's unshakable faith. But they again left their boss looking like a fool. At the Camp Nou on Wednesday, the taste of failure was once again on Wenger's lips, but a more repugnant flavour was present because of the spineless manner of the defeat. He and his players may have at least emerged with some credit against one of the world's greatest ever club sides, had they adhered to the Frenchman's oft-preached 'philosophy'. They didn't.
Gunners' supporters will inevitably be irate with Robin van Persie's 56th-minute dismissal and many will insist it was the moment that changed the course of their side's Champions League fate this season. But those claims will merely be the latest in a string of desperate attempts to explain away their side's inability to shed their reputation as bottlers.
While Arsenal fans can understandably be perturbed by the Dutchman's ridiculous dismissal by a referee who showed not one iota of common sense, they should be more concerned by the key statistic to emerge from their second successive European exit to Barcelona. Quite simply, no side can expect to progress in the Champions League without posting a single shot on, or even off, goal.
"We played awesome" was Pep Guardiola's post-match assessment, and it is difficult to disagree with a coach who oversaw the complete domination of an Arsenal outfit lauded week-in week-out for their proclivity to thread their way through teams with the intricacy of, well, Barcelona. One can only imagine the personal torment that Guardiola's achievements in Catalonia have caused Wenger. That the Spaniard has put together a side that combines both exceptional football and extraordinary success must rile the Frenchman, who had the chance to create a similar legacy with his 'Invincibles', but whose stubborn principles prevented that legacy from being cemented.
One cannot understate the role that Barcelona played in stifling this Arsenal crop: the Gunners were chasing shadows and just couldn't get near Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi as they dictated play in their inimitable style. But it was embarrassing to watch at times. When Arsenal did get the ball, Messrs Wilshere, Nasri and Fabregas were not afforded any space to prove their highly-acclaimed ball-playing abilities and Barca's high pressing game ensured that possession was always quickly stolen back. Fabregas apologised for his personal performance after the game, though all of the players should be penning rueful remarks to Arsenal's success-starved supporters.
Unlike last season's semi-final against Inter Milan, when Jose Mourinho's midfield biters Esteban Cambiasso and Javier Zanetti frustrated the Catalans, Guardiola's side remained calm and patient against Arsenal and their belief that the breakthrough would come appeared unwavering. Arsenal had no players of a similar ilk to upset Barca's rhythm and while the absence of Alex Song will be lamented, he would not have possessed the necessary influence to block, obstruct and hinder the Catalans' multiple creative threats.
That Arsenal didn't have the personnel to compete is a fault of Wenger. Barcelona also lost their chief defensive midfielder in Sergio Busquets, who was forced to play as a makeshift centre-back, but they were able to call on the superb Javier Mascherano. Wenger did not have any other options in his squad, though the inclusion of Denilson may have at least afforded some protection of a back four exposed by the defensive failings of midfielders Fabregas, Wilshere and Diaby. Wenger may also bemoan the absence of injured centre-back Thomas Vermaelen, but he is deluded if he believes that either Laurent Koscielny and Johann Djourou are good enough to join the Belgian as the bedrock of a defence good enough to win top honours.
Barcelona must rightly be praised for a stunning performance - a complete destruction of a collection of such talented players - but Arsenal's third defeat to the Blaugranas in the past five years will be remembered as their worst, a night when Wenger's proud philosophy went AWOL.