Galatasaray will punish Arsenal's porous defence
GALATASARAY v ARSENAL
(Tomorrow, 3.40am, SingTel mio TV Ch 112)
Mark Hughes hammered the most painful nail into Arsenal's coffin.
Stoke had already humbled the Gunners. But Hughes took the opportunity to humiliate them.
The Potters manager recognised what appeared to be blindingly obvious to all except Arsene Wenger.
Arsenal's back four are as hollow as they are hopeless.
Hughes had glanced at the team-sheet and knew that victory was his.
The Gunners' defenders are no longer just beatable. They can be belittled, battered into an early submission.
Stoke shamed them. The Turkish side could terrify them tomorrow morning (Singapore time). The distant echo of giggling drifts across from Galatasaray.
The Gunners' Champions League opponents are famed for their inhospitality. Their legendary banner often intimidated visitors: Welcome to hell.
The banner should be hung across Arsenal's defence.
Petrified across their own penalty box, they flap in the air with all the confidence of a dying fish on the end of a fishing hook.
Indecision eats away at their central pairing.
Per Mertesacker and Calum Chambers are an uncomfortable combination of youthful exuberance overcompensating for a distracted veteran.
The German's mental game never cleared customs at Rio's international airport. His mind is still with Die Mannschaft at the Maracana.
By his own admission, Mertesacker hasn't been the same defender since he lifted the World Cup.
Against Stoke, he was an avatar, a ghostly shell of his former self. He was present, but only in a physical sense. He was run ragged.
Ordinarily, Wenger would play the compassionate vet and discreetly intervene, putting the old warrior out of his misery with little suffering.
But Arsenal are light on defensive replacements.
Thanks to the kind of muddled thinking that led to fans booing him at a train station last Saturday, Wenger sold an able deputy in Thomas Vermaelen and stuffed the squad with mostly substandard filler.
If the Gunners were an album, Alexis Sanchez would be the only catchy hit single while everyone else would be filler to skip over.
With Vermaelen gone and Mertesacker's heart belonging to Brazil, Calum Chambers' boots are being filled far too quickly. He is treading water and gasping for air.
The 19-year-old's eagerness to impress his new master and perhaps fill gaps left by his unfocused companion has contributed to a number of rash, impetuous decisions, not least his pair of yellow cards against Stoke.
And the fault lies entirely with the fading autocrat in the dugout.
Wenger's ludicrous post-match assessment that team spirit was "great" rivalled his backline of bowling pins in its farcical value.
With breathtaking understatement, the Gunners conceded that Arsenal have been "tender in the tackle". Mothers kiss their babies less tenderly.
Arsenal are butter-soft at the back and Hughes' hungry men sliced through like a parang taking out twigs.
Kieran Gibbs and the overwhelmed Hector Bellerin present more space than Christopher Nolan's Interstellar. Like the movie, there are gaps in logic.
Most of the time, there are just gaps.
How Wenger allowed his side to sink so far is a sad tale, threatening to become a horror story. His philosophy was once a gem of real beauty, now it's cracked, pockmarked and difficult to look at.
The Gunners lost just one established defender in Laurent Koscielny. The rest unravelled. Nacho Monreal makes up the numbers. Usually, they don't add up.
At times, they struggle to grasp the game's defensive fundamentals. Their aerial incompetence was amplified by Peter Crouch, who rose above a cowering Mertesacker like Smaug the dragon soaring over a hobbit.
Tentative tackling and inept tracking are further undermined by the kind of crackly communication usually managed by tying two tin cans to a piece of string.
The classic quartet of Lee Nixon, Tony Adams, Martin Keown and Nigel Winterburn do not only belong in another era, but they also do not deserve to be manacled to the current crop. They shared a club crest, nothing more.
If the defence isn't fixed or, at the very least, seriously addressed in next month's transfer window, the call for Wenger's head will become a deafening cacophony of thousands of foaming Gunners.
And Galatasaray are poised to perhaps pour salt on the wounds.
But there will be no welcome to hell for Wenger. He's already in it.
We’ll go with a strong team of course, we want to win the game. Since the start of this season, we have played seven games in the Champions League, including the qualifiers, and we have won four. I would like to win five.
- Arsene Wenger
There are small regrets in two matches in the group stage where we didn’t play well. But it’s good to have reached the last 16 with a game to spare, especially when it is an away game and it is in Istanbul. You don’t want to be under pressure needing points in Istanbul.
- Arsenal defender Per Mertesacker
How Arsenal's best defence stacks up against the current backline
NIGEL WINTERBURN v KIERAN GIBBS
Nigel Winterburn possessed a quality almost entirely lacking in Arsenal's current back four: aggression. A tough, committed tackler, he took it personally if he was beaten, which was rare. He also delivers quality crosses with his superb left foot.
Kieran Gibbs has pace, but suffers from the same inhibitions as his teammates.
Winterburn was never caught out of position as much as Gibbs.
TONY ADAMS v PER MERTESACKER
Nicknamed Mr Arsenal, Tony Adams defined everything that is currently missing from the Arsenal first 11.
He was tough, brave, committed, dependable, inspirational and devoted to the pursuit of victory. He gave everything and feared nothing.
Per Mertesacker is cut from similar cloth. But his communication will never rival Adams', who encouraged and cajoled those around him.
MARTIN KEOWN v LAURENT KOSCIELNY
Martin Keown's finest attribute is too sorely missing in the current line-up. He was unflappable, one of the most solid centre backs of his generation.
Keown's game was unapologetically no-frills and no-nonsense.
Laurent Koscielny is a better footballer, the best among the back four. But, in those key games against legitimate challengers, the Gunners would want Keown around.
LEE DIXON v CALUM CHAMBERS
For Lee Dixon, it was always about the consistency.
Across 15 years and a remarkable 619 appearances, he rarely put a foot wrong, and he scored goals too as a fullback.
It seems almost cruel to compare Arsenal's greatest right back against a raw 19-year-old, but that's exactly what Wenger did by picking Calum Chambers. The potential is huge, but his inexperience shows with too many cards.