Arsenal’s defining Champions League night asks the ultimate Mikel Arteta question

In the energetic training sessions before Arsenal’s trip to Bayern Munich, Thomas Tuchel’s staff were talking the players through Bukayo Saka’s runs, and told to use their “experience”. It was a word stated six times by either the manager or Harry Kane in the German side’s pre-match media duties, and may well prove the difference in this Champions League quarter-final. A previously porous Bayern dug in through the 2-2 draw to make life very difficult for Arsenal.

It now makes this second leg at the Allianz Arena the defining night of Mikel Arteta’s era so far – at least unless they actually get through. That feeling is only heightened by what happened at the weekend against Aston Villa, with that 2-0 defeat that squandered top spot in the Premier League.

Because, as good as Arsenal are as a team, and as exciting as this era already is, they haven’t got anything to show for it beyond highlight reels when things are going well. It’s so far all promise and process. This young team haven’t yet offered true end product. The 2020 FA Cup came before Arteta’s overhaul.

Wednesday is now another night where they actually have to get over the line. That is of course something that has been heard before about other big games, and it’s going to be the same until they win a major trophy. Questions will remain until a time provides the ultimate response.

That isn’t completely Arsenal’s fault, of course. It’s easy to forget how young this team is, and they have over-performed for two seasons so far. This is all taking place in the state-propelled Manchester City era, too, where the perspective on performance has been totally warped. That’s why Sunday felt so seismic.

There is still a significant difference between smoothly getting to the line and then actually getting over it.

Bayern, for all their modern problems, certainly know what the other side looks like it. That knowledge fed into the big-game experience that so frustrated Arsenal for at least an hour of that first leg. It’s why the word constantly came up in the pre-game press conference, and there was definitely a sense of Tuchel trying to plant seeds by mentioning it so often.

Bukayo Saka will have a crucial role to play when Arsenal travel to Germany (AP)
Bukayo Saka will have a crucial role to play when Arsenal travel to Germany (AP)

“I think we have the slight advantage of experience in our team,” the Bayern manager said. “We have players who have won it, we have players who have played decisive matches in this competition. But to make it an advantage, we still have to bring out our very best. If the experience within our group brings us an extra 5 per cent, we are happy to bring it to the table.”

If all this sounds like empty words that people simply say in the endless discussion around football, it has demonstrable effect. The proof was that hour in the middle of the first leg, where Bayern brought out every European trick they’ve learned to frustrate Arteta’s side. There were times with the nature of the tactical fouling and gamesmanship where it looked like a Diego Simeone side. Bayern were also keeping Arsenal at arm’s length in the way the vintage Italian teams of the 1990s used to.

It is genuinely as basic as going down at the right moment, or trying a certain foul at the right moment. Martin Odegaard was having to drift all over the opposition half to try and find space. That extra 5 per cent, as Tuchel put it, was the difference between Arsenal building on their early lead to win comfortably and an eventual 2-2 draw.

This is also why it is another defining game for Arteta. Arsenal are clearly a better team than Bayern, while also being on the up.

Bayern Munich are hoping the experience of Harry Kane and other key members of the team can get them over the line (Reuters)
Bayern Munich are hoping the experience of Harry Kane and other key members of the team can get them over the line (Reuters)

While the German side’s long-awaited failure to defend the Bundesliga obviously represents a very literal drop, it’s actually a little hard to say where they are as a team right now. Bayern are a mix of different ideas and player profiles. They lack the ideological clarity they had in 2013, under Pep Guardiola, or then under Hansi Flick in that last Champions League victory of 2020. The very fact they are going back to Julian Nagelsmann, having sacked him a year ago, is a sign of that. Bayern need to figure out what they want to be.

That team profile clearly goes against the “best practice” applied by the modern super clubs. For comparison, at Bayern’s closest European equivalent, Real Madrid decided three years ago on a new philosophy and have made every single decision based on that. It is why the Spanish league leaders suddenly have the best young squad in the game.

Bayern are instead a mix of unfulfilled talent, senior club pros and expensive signings such as Kane. It is almost ideological stagnation, which feeds into a wider national debate about German football’s direction. It is also an unavoidable consequence of long-term success. Eleven successive titles isn’t exactly conducive to the most innovative thinking.

Mikel Arteta faces the defining night of his tenure as Arsenal boss to see if his team can triumph on the big stage (EPA)
Mikel Arteta faces the defining night of his tenure as Arsenal boss to see if his team can triumph on the big stage (EPA)

There are deeper questions here about how dominant teams are actually built. One view that the most respected sporting directors express is that the best modern teams tend to come from bad situations rather than good. That is because it is immediately obvious what requires fixing. The initial steps required can then create a positive momentum, as well as a focus, that takes a side further and further with every success. You only have to look at Liverpool under Jurgen Klopp, Bayern themselves at the very start of this winning era or indeed Arsenal. By contrast, it is more difficult to go from “good to good”. That is because it can involve tough decisions about discarding what used to work.

Arsenal had the biggest decision of all in eventually replacing Arsene Wenger. That went on for years, but it is also why their recent improvement has been strikingly quick. They went from an era of farce to being a real force again in the space of three seasons.

It is why they are so different to Bayern in terms of profile. Having decided on a “year zero” around 2020, Arsenal knew exactly what they needed to do. It brought a clarity of idea, with every major decision entirely influenced by that thinking. If something didn’t fit, it was discarded. You only have to look at the key player in that FA Cup win, in Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. This is why “trust the process” has almost become a cliche. Arsenal have continued along a set path, visible in Arteta’s tactical micro-management of the team. That can still come up against long-lasting limits, though.

Leandro Trossard’s equaliser at the Emirates Stadium has built belief that Arsenal can beat Bayern. (Reuters)
Leandro Trossard’s equaliser at the Emirates Stadium has built belief that Arsenal can beat Bayern. (Reuters)

Even in modern football’s rightful embrace of analytics and system, the game isn’t completely resistant to traditional thinking about resolve and mental strength. Such virtues actually become more important just as you get to the line. A moment of truth eventually arrives where simply “trusting the process” is too passive, and players have to actively make something happen. That’s when you get into old-fashioned stuff about “inches”.

It’s also why experience becomes so important in games like this, that have such a hard edge. Some players just know how.

It only makes it all the more important that Arsenal actually come through a game like this. They precisely need to develop these experiences. That is why Leandro Trossard’s equaliser in the first leg may yet prove utterly crucial. It was actually Arsenal overcoming Bayern’s canniness. It was “proof” of what they can do, something for players to look at and convince themselves in moments of doubt.

Arsenal just need more. That’s all the more fitting when both of these teams – yes – have something to prove. Bayern have just lost their league title that they monopolised for over a decade. Arsenal might have just lost their chance at a title, that they have waited on for two decades.

This now comes down to getting it done on the night. At an Allianz Arena lit up and rocking, it should be quite an experience.