As with their fortunes in the Premier League, a strong air of familiarity has followed Arsenal’s adventures in Europe since the turn of the decade. Expectations rose when they drew Monaco, but a defeat on away goals meant that for the fifth successive season the North London club have departed in the first knockout round of the Champions League; and for the fourth consecutive one it’s been the damage which was done in the first leg that has cost them their chances of progression – despite another strong performance in the second game. Wenger’s side refused to be resigned to their near inevitable fate, but yet again they failed to escape it.
After unnecessarily chasing the game with desperation in stoppage time when they were 2-1 down at The Emirates, despite there still being another 90 minutes to go in Monaco, a third away goal for the visitors turned the task from a difficult one into one which had never been pulled off in this era of Europe’s premier competition. Arsenal needed at least three goals on Tuesday night, but just two followed in their dominant showing.
Despite their supremacy of the game as a whole it was actually Monaco who took the initiative early on, resisting the temptation to sit deep and defend their lead from the start by committing players into pushing forward and pressing. That attacking impetus understandably (based on the aggregate score and Arsenal growing into the match) reduced after a 10 or 15 minute spell, and they instead reverted back into what would slowly become an increasingly defensive mind-set from then on.
Rather than trying to kill the game through getting another goal from this point onwards, for most of the game they attempted to do so by slowing down the tempo and removing Arsenal's momentum – retaining possession rather than transitioning quickly. Despite having just 31% of the ball over the course of the 90 minutes they did this rather well in periods – at least until they ended up being too deep to risk it late on – with João Moutinho (who had by far the most touches for Monaco) in particular doing a good job of it.
Their shape in the opening half an hour of the game was excellent, as expected from a side who had conceded just two goals in seven Champions League matches going into this one, sitting high enough up the pitch to avoid inviting excessive levels of pressure whilst not conceding any space behind. A compact and flat 4-4-2 was quickly formed, with Moutinho pushing forward alongside Dimitar Berbatov to block the passing lanes and restrict Arsenal’s build-up play through the centre of the pitch. Those two did well to cover the spaces ahead of Jérémy Toulalan and Geoffrey Kondogbia early on, keeping Arsenal from doing too much in the areas where they operate best.
Regardless of the congestion in the middle of the pitch, Arsenal were – largely as a by-product of their own style and having Danny Welbeck and Alexis Sánchez on the flanks – reluctant to utilise the space in the wide areas which appeared because of Monaco’s narrow shape. Héctor Bellerín created one big opportunity for Olivier Giroud in such a method, after reaching the by-line and crossing excellently to the back post, but beyond that there were few real chances early on.
Their dependence on creating centrally was a problem in the early phases, with Monaco's shape holding firm, but as the game developed and got closer to half-time small holes started to emerge. Santi Cazorla was then able to dictate more of the game from deeper areas of the pitch for Arsenal, facilitating a greater involvement from their attackers. Mesut Özil, Welbeck and Sánchez benefitted from this, with Cazorla drawing players towards him and creating spaces between the lines to allow more intricate play. This gave room for them to switch positions regularly, mainly on the right side, with Özil drifting out to the flank in order to allow the Chilean to move centrally.
This growing influence of Cazorla and space between the lines was something which played a vital part for Arsenal’s opening goal, and his pass forward took Monaco’s midfield out of the game; giving Danny Welbeck a chance to turn. Aymen Abdennour rushed out to try and stop him but the England international was still able to play a ball behind the defence for Giroud to spin onto. His initial effort was saved, but he did well to finish eventually after some not-so-glamorous control with his head gave him a second chance to put the ball in the back of the net.
Arsenal continued to create some chances through this sort of manner as the home side began to look more rattled, though there were no huge openings or decisive moments until just after the hour mark. With the away side still needing a further two goals and Monaco moving ever deeper as the pressure increased on them, Wenger opted to take even more of the initiative by bringing Aaron Ramsey on for Francis Coquelin.
The change was an important move to further their attacking advantage, with Ramsey offering greater impetus and drive alongside Cazorla from deep midfield. Removing Coquelin meant they now had no defensive midfielder on the pitch which left them susceptible to the counter-attack on the odd occasion where Monaco broke out, usually through their own substitutes Bernardo Silva and particularly Yannick Ferreira Carrasco, but with such a way to go that was a move which looked – and proved – to be worth making.
Ramsey would go on to have a massive involvement in the game from then onwards, and despite only coming on in the 63rd minute, Moutinho (72) and Toulalan (56) were the only two players from the home side that had more touches of the ball than the Welshman (53) did. He and Cazorla recycled the ball well between them, keeping it in a position where they could launch attacks from.
A rather less successful change was the one which involved bringing Theo Walcott on ten minutes after that first Arsenal switch, with Monaco too deep for him to have any prospect of stretching the defence and get in behind as he does best. In stark contrast to Ramsey he had just four touches in around 20 minutes, though one of those saw him inadvertently play a role in the goal which levelled the aggregate scores and gave more hope to Arsène Wenger’s team.
After a lovely ball over the top from Özil found Nacho Monreal inside the box, the Spaniard pulled it back across the area to Walcott who side-footed his effort against the post. The ball rebounded to Layvin Kurzawa, and his strange attempt to pass out from the back under pressure was intercepted just inside the area by Ramsey – who controlled it and fired it across goal and past the goalkeeper.
With around 15 minutes left and the tie now level on aggregate, Monaco were positioned deeper than ever by now. This proved a hindrance for Arsenal though, and from then on there was very little room of them to make the progressive, intricate passes forward which they’d have wanted to continue doing when they were near Monaco’s goal.
Instead, as a result of the lack of space and their desperation to score, Arsenal somewhat abandoned their principles late on and resorted to crossing the ball into the box. One real opportunity was created through this (forcing a good save from Danijel Subašić after Sánchez and Giroud got in the way of each other from a free-kick) but most of the deliveries were poor and struggled to beat the first man.
Carrasco made a few runs forward at the other end to try and relieve pressure, although no opportunities really arose from it and Monaco largely had their backs to the wall – they ended the game with just three shots in comparison to Arsenal’s 17. However even with all those attempts Arsenal were ultimately unsuccessful at getting the third goal that they needed, and the final whistle at the Stade Louis II confirmed another early exit from the competition for Wenger’s side.
This wasn’t truly a failure to meet their objectives away in Monaco though. Rather, it was the typical, frustratingly good performance that can almost be directly associated with Arsenal now after having thrown away the tie in the first leg. They can do it, and they were oh so close, but it’s Leonardo Jardim’s Monaco side who saw it out and scraped through to the quarter-finals.