Arsenal’s ability to efficiently dispose of lesser teams this season sees them still top of the Premier League. It’s an impressive quality and could yet see them end their wait for a Premier League title, but if they are to advance any further in the Champions League they will have to raise their game to outdo the best side around. Arsenal paid the ultimate price for their concession of two late goals at Napoli in December to drop down to second in their group, leading, for the second straight year, to a last-16 tie with Bayern Munich.
It is a duel that, almost regardless of what happens in the two weeks before the first leg, Arsenal will enter in better circumstances than 12 months ago. Yet, Arsenal also have to face the fact that the same is true of their opponents.
First the positives. In a week in which Manchester City and Chelsea met in a highly anticipated clash, Arsenal continue to be the forgotten side of the title race. The fact is that they have been the most consistent team this campaign. Since the opening day of the season, just four points have been dropped against teams outside of the top seven in the division. They have developed a welcome habit of being able to get through games operating largely in second gear, seemingly in the knowledge that a short spell or two of their high-tempo passing and movement will cut through the opposition.
When they do move through the gears, Arsenal are a joy to behold. A gaggle of brilliantly creative attacking midfielders can find the gaps in opponents’ defenses, while they have consistently found different midfielders able to step up at required times and take the goal-scoring burden off of the non-prolific net finder but proficient linkup man Olivier Giroud.
When not at their best, the rest of the team knows that it now has a defense upon which it can finally rely. Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny have proven to be a wonderfully complementary partnership at the back, with the former lacking pace but oozing leadership and the latter full of speed albeit sometimes a little reckless.
What is certain is that both will have to be at their very best if their team is to see off Bayern. Having won all before them last season, their current campaign, under the guidance of Pep Guardiola, has been even more dominant. Absurdly they have dropped just four points in the Bundesliga all season, while their only defeat in all competitions came in an almost meaningless match with Manchester City.
There appeared a brief glimmer of frailty last week when they trailed at Stuttgart entering the final 15 minutes. No matter. They scored two late goals, including an outrageous last minute winner by Thiago Alcantara. They even showed some tactical flexibility, too, as a more direct approach was taken to supply a two-man frontline of Mario Mandzukic and Claudio Pizarro.
Make no mistake, though, this is a side built firmly in Guardiola’s image and one that will expect to control possession far more than against Arsenal a year ago. At Bayern’s disposal are so many players who can help dominate the ball. In a 5-0 win over Eintracht Frankfurt at the weekend Thiago set a new record for the number of touches by a player in a Bundesliga match. Alongside the Spaniard sat the reinvented Philipp Lahm, meaning that one of Europe’s best midfielders Toni Kroos was left on the bench. Also not in the starting lineup that day was Bastian Schweinsteiger, Thomas Muller, Arjen Robben and Javi Martinez. No team in the world can come close to matching that depth of midfield quality.
It is an ominous task, yet it is one that Arsenal cannot be daunted by. There will be so many problems on the pitch that Arsenal will have to overcome against the Bavarians that Wenger must ensure that his players have at least conquered the mental side of their challenge. Their poor record against the top sides in recent times has appeared as much a result of their failure to believe they can win, never more so than in their meek defeat earlier this season against a Manchester United side that were threatening in name and prestige rather than ability on the field.
Of course it will take more than merely correcting that aspect to give Arsenal the upper-hand against the all-conquering European champions. To do so Wenger is likely to have to in part break with his footballing principals. Through thick and thin the Frenchman has always instructed his team to play proactively and focus on what they can do with the ball rather than thwarting the threat of the opposition. Yet, while going toe-to-toe with a team that has more quality, like Bayern do, is admirable it is also somewhat suicidal. A perfect example was seen when Arsenal went to Manchester City this season and played their part in a riotously entertaining spectacle, yet were thumped 6-3. Contrast that with what happened when Chelsea went to the same stadium on Monday when Jose Mourinho expertly tailored his team to counter City’s threats and exploit their weaknesses.
Wenger is nothing if not stubbornly committed to his principles, yet he has also provided an example that he can be flexible when going to Bayern’s domestic rivals Borussia Dortmund in the group phase and putting in a tremendously disciplined performance and emerging with a 1-0 win.
A similar performance could pay dividends at the Allianz Arena. The worry is that, with the first leg at the Emirates, Arsenal will try to beat Bayern at their own game and will end up conceding a couple of away goals that will ultimately leave them with two much to do back in Germany.
When and where: The first leg of the Champions League last-16 tie will kick off from the Emirates on Wednesday, February 19 at 2.45 p.m. ET, with the return match getting underway from the Allianz Arena at the same time on Tuesday, March 11.