“We have to be more consistent.” That’s the phrase that passes from the lips of countless managers, without regard for borders or language. That’s because consistency is widely understood to be the key to success.
Across Europe, no team matches Arsenal for consistency. No team provides a guaranteed performance over the course of two legs of a major knockout tournament quite like the Gunners. No team can guarantee fans the same unmitigated path to heartache and despair. Arsenal has cornered the market on losing high-stakes games with style. It has perfected the art of losing.
Arsenal is the true definition of insanity, if the cliché is correct, because it keeps doing the same thing over and over again and people keep expecting them to progress to the Champions League quarterfinals, despite the fact that it’s never going to happen. At least that’s what the empirical data shows.
Over the past four seasons, Arsenal has masterfully exited the Champions League round of 16 stage with more or less the same formula: hope, pray, get smashed, lose all hope, come back, create just enough false hope that it almost looks real, and then die. The club’s consistent run of form using this tried and tested formula is stunning.
The run began, in earnest, back in 2011. The earth wasn’t dying as bad as it is now, then. Those fortunate enough to remember those days will recall a thing called hope. In the 2011 Champions League Round of 16, Arsenal faced an AC Milan team boasting Robinho in its starting XI. In 2011, that was enough to give any team hope. But that hope was quickly smothered. Milan trampled Arsenal 4-0 at the San Siro in the first leg. The scoreline, alone, did an impressive enough job deflating the Londoners’ chances of progress, but Arsenal also allowed Robinho to score twice, ensuring that everyone fully understood that the tie wasn’t just over statistically, it was over spiritually, too.
The first leg set up mission impossible for the return leg at the Emirates. But somehow, after the first 45 minutes, Arsenal was up 3-0, one goal away from taking the tie into extra time. Progress was around the corner. It was no longer just possible; it was probable. The Emirates radiated with hope. Everyone knew it was just a matter of time until the world could mock Milan’s complete and utter capitulation. But Robin van Persie made sure to extinguish that hope when he found the only possible way not to score from two feet in front of goal.
Arsenal died a glorious death several minutes later.
The following season Arsenal met pre-Guardiola Bayern Munich in the round of 16. Would this be the year Arsenal advanced? Of course not, because consistency matters.
Bayern manhandled Arsenal in the first leg at the Emirates, running up a 3-1 scoreline and destroying the vast majority of hope among fans for the second leg. If there was any hope left in North London that day, it was false hope.
But the return leg started like Arsenal return legs begin, with an early goal providing a hint of possibility. A second goal from Laurent Koscielny in the 86th minute brought Arsenal level on aggregate, but the team was still in need of a third due to Bayern’s away goal.
As an ode to preparation, Arsenal never found that third goal. Minutes later Arsenal was buried in a private ceremony.
The next year, Arsenal was once again paired with Bayern in the round of 16. This time, however, fashionable Pep Guardiola was leading the Germans. In response to the mythical Spaniard’s presence, Arsène Wenger humbly started Yaya Sanogo, and was likely fully prepared to use the phrase “worked hard” or “gave everything” in his post-match comments explaining his team’s “unlucky” defeat.
Ninety minutes and a missed-penalty-per-team later, the Germans walked out of the Emirates with a standard two-goal lead and, once again, the vast majority of the hope.
But the return leg in Munich was an anomaly, the only mark against Arsenal during its spectacular run. Bayern opened the scoring early in the second half, effectively killing the hopes and dreams of anyone who had leftover hopes and dreams. Not even a Lukas Podolski thunderbastard of a goal, two minutes later, was enough to resuscitate hope. Arsenal’s inability to even raise expectations in the second leg was likely due to a lack of preparation and focus. Consistency requires both.
Arsenal died on the operating table in Germany. He was survived by manageable debt.
And this year? Monaco. Would Arsenal recover from its blip in form after faltering the previous year? Of course, because that’s what great teams do. It didn’t take long to discover Arsenal back to its consistent best. The tie kicked off with a textbook 3-1 Arsenal defeat at home, and was methodically followed by two Arsenal away goals, and then “going close” to a winner several times before being crushed in a tragic, emotionally taxing accident.
Arsenal died of heartbreak in Monaco, the spiritual home of its father figure, Arsène Wenger. It was the right way to go. Life appreciates full circles.
After taking a moment to reflect on Arsenal’s historic record of perfected loss, it’s hard to ignore how easy it looks. Maybe that’s because losing first legs is easy. But getting outscored 12-2 in first legs over the last four seasons? That’s truly the mark of greatness. It’s a match-fixing level of excellence. But even more impressive? Coming back to within one goal of life in three out of those four seasons. That’s magical bordering on witchcraft. In fact, it’s so magical that this achievement belongs in Arsenal lore and official club literature, right next to the Invincibles undefeated Premier League season.
Greatness in losing is still greatness, and Arsenal is the greatest, most consistent loser in recent Champions League round of 16 history. For that, the club deserve a little bit of respect. But like most abstract artists, most won’t appreciate Arsenal’s esoteric art until its gone.