Per Mertesacker says right mentality missing in limp first leg

When the final whistle went at the Stade Louis II in Monaco, Mesut Ozil sank to his knees and buried his face in the turf.

It seemed almost as if he was praying. Perhaps he was.

The man whose signing heralded a new dawn at Arsenal is getting used to disappointment.

In his three years at Real Madrid he reached three Champions League semi-finals. Two years at Arsenal have not even yielded an appearance in the last eight.

It didn’t matter that Ozil was superb in Monaco, or that he has been excellent since returning from injury in January.

His frustration symbolised the effects of the Arsenal disease, one that wipes memories clean and ensures lessons and not learnt.

If there was an induction pack for new signings, it would surely include a guide on ‘How to collapse in the first leg of a Champions League last-16 tie’.

“In the first game, we didn’t have that mental level you need to compete at the highest level,” said centre-back Per Mertesacker after Arsenal’s exit was confirmed on away goals, despite a 2-0 win on the Cote d’Azur.

“That was missing but you could see last night how good we are as a team and how well organised we can be.

“We need to consider that every day in training and in games. That is why we are so far away from winning the Champions League.

“When you get knocked out, you are far away (from winning it).”

It was a blunt but fair assessment from the German. The team has changed almost completely in the last few years but the problems have remained largely the same.

Only one player who started on Tuesday night – Laurent Koscielny – started the 4-0 defeat against AC Milan in 2012 that began this awful run of first-leg defeats.

The remainder arrived after that chastening loss but they, too, have not learnt.

“We seem to always get ourselves a hard test from the first game,” said Aaron Ramsey. “That seems to be the story of the last few years but we have to start learning we need to keep ourselves in the game in the first leg.

“We just need to be a bit more wise and keep ourselves in it.”

The frustration for their fans is that Arsenal are extremely close to being a very good side. Not good enough to win the title, despite what Jose Mourinho may say, but a fine team all the same. The squad needs work in almost all areas, but the core of the team – Sanchez, Ozil, Santi Cazorla, Aaron Ramsey, Koscielny – is excellent.

With that being the case, more and more supporters are asking questions of Wenger. It is a simple fact that the Frenchman has always found Europe a tough nut to crack.

His one Champions League final was reached with a water-tight back four of Emmanuel Eboue, Kolo Toure, Philippe Senderos and Mathieu Flamini that only played together due to necessity.

Over the last four years, with a more talented squad, Arsenal’s aggregate score from the first legs of their last 16-ties is 12-2.

It is now, as Mertesacker alluded to, a question of mentality rather than talent. The manager has to take ultimate responsibility for that.

There is, though, some evidence he is closer to getting it right. Winning the FA Cup and finishing third would be a small improvement on last season and not the leap forward many expected. But it would be progress.

The signings this summer have to be decisive. Genuine upgrades – the likes of Petr Cech, for example – must be purchased.

Signing Ozil and Sanchez in the last two summers made a statement. Build on that. Due to Financial Fair Play, Chelsea and Manchester City are unable to dominate the transfer market as once they did.

This is the time to take advantage of Manchester United’s malaise and what looks likely to be another summer of upheaval at City.

Be bold, go for the big names. FA Cup wins are fantastic. But big Champions League nights are what the top players want. Ozil and Sanchez will not stick around if Arsenal cannot provide them.

At present, exiting at the last 16 is the norm. For six successive years, it was the norm at Real Madrid. Then they reached three semi-finals in a row before finally winning it.

Arsenal must use this frustration, the knowledge they are far better than they have shown in this competition, to fuel them. Then maybe Ozil will not have to bury his face in some corner of a foreign field.


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