Mikel Arteta does not rotate and exhausted Arsenal are paying price

Arsenal players looking tired and dejected - Mikel Arteta does not rotate and exhausted Arsenal are collapsing again

It is the 94th minute of a Champions League quarter-final. Every player is in the Bayern Munich penalty box, including the Arsenal goalkeeper. More than 70,000 supporters are holding their breath. Bukayo Saka stands over the ball, ready to produce a delivery that could change the course of the night and, possibly, Arsenal’s campaign.

Arsenal’s set-piece prowess has been one of their biggest weapons this season but here, at the moment when it mattered most, that excellence suddenly faded away. Saka has been Arsenal’s most reliable attacker for two years but he, too, faded away. His delivery failed to even beat the first man. Bayern cleared, the whistle sounded, the game was over.

That one dreadful corner was not the primary problem for Arsenal in this defeat. The bigger issue, in terms of the scoreline, was their failure to mark Joshua Kimmich in their penalty box. But Saka’s exhausted delivery did speak to the wider picture for this Arsenal team, which appears to have run out of ideas and energy at the defining point of the year.

As was the case against Aston Villa at the weekend, Arsenal started brightly in Munich. They controlled the game, even if there was only one real chance of note, and Mikel Arteta would have been happy at the break. Just as it was against Villa, though, they shrank in the second half. The speed in their legs was gone and so, it seemed, was the sharpness in their minds.

Worryingly for Arteta, it is not the first time that this has happened at this point of the year. This is the third-consecutive April in which Arsenal have run out of steam, and they now must succeed at Wolves on Saturday if they are to prevent the campaign from collapsing like it did last year. On this evidence, their supporters will not feel confident of victory at Molineux.

Mikel Arteta looks glum as Arsenal lose to Bayern Munich
Mikel Arteta's side have endured a chastening week - Getty Images/Daniela Porcelli

Why does this keep happening to Arsenal? A lack of rotation is, once again, a potentially crucial factor. For so much of his Arsenal tenure, Arteta has trusted only a small group of key players. In previous years, it led to those same players featuring in almost every minute of every game. It was hardly a surprise that they looked tired in the final weeks of those seasons.

This year, Arteta’s squad is stronger than ever. They also have very few injury issues, especially when compared to other Premier League teams. Arteta has, however, remained reluctant to switch it up. Only once in recent months has he made substantial changes to his team — and that was against an under-strength Luton Town earlier this month.

On Arsenal’s bench in Munich were players who, to be blunt, were simply never going to get a kick here. Mohamed Elneny and Cedric Soares are not in the frame. There were others who are no more than fringe players, who Arteta clearly does not trust in the big games. Emile Smith Rowe and Reiss Nelson remained on the sidelines, as did Fabio Vieira.

Between them, Smith Rowe, Nelson, Vieira, Eddie Nketiah and Thomas Partey have started just five matches in 2024. In the case of Vieira and Partey, that is partly – but not entirely – the result of injury, but it is primarily a result of Arteta sticking to the same core players almost all of the time.

There are seven players in Arsenal’s squad who have played more than 3,000 minutes this season: William Saliba, Gabriel Magalhaes, Declan Rice, Martin Odegaard, Saka, Ben White and David Raya. Kai Havertz has played 2,949 minutes. If these players are fit, they always play. White, and Saka, especially, looked absolutely drained in the second half in Munich.

The key question here is whether Arteta is to blame for not lessening the load on these players, or whether the problem is that his alternative options are simply not good enough. Should he show more faith in Smith Rowe, for example? Should he be more willing to remove Saka from the action? In the second half, with the team so desperately short of creative spark, it was clear that his players were struggling with the weight of it all.

Arteta could see what was happening but there was nothing, on the night and in the moment, that he could do. In the 67th minute, shortly after Bayern’s decisive goal, the Arsenal manager windmilled his arms on the touchline, urging his players to increase the tempo.

A few minutes later, Odegaard did the same. He screamed at his team-mates, demanding more energy. But there was no more energy for Arsenal to give, and by that point Bayern had a hold of the game with the tightest of fists. Arsenal, drained and dismayed, were never going to snatch it back.