The more realistic Arsenal fans will travel to the Emirates Stadium for the Bayern Munich game in the knowledge that it will likely be the last time they watch the Gunners at home in Europe’s elite club competition for some time. After fifteen consecutive seasons of Champions League qualification, one would hope that they would remember what a brilliant time they have had in those years; that they would recognise the work Arsène Wenger has done for Arsenal. Some hope.
When the Frenchman arrived in October 1996, the Gunners had won only five league titles since the end of the Second World War. A brief look at their complete league history shows them usually finishing in the middle of the top half, between third and seventh – occasionally higher and occasionally much lower. Arsenal fans through the ages have been more used to the odd Cup win than any period of sustained domestic success.
What followed Wenger’s appointment is one of the most repeated stories in English football history: the dietary upgrades; the innovative training programmes; the recruitment of unknown Francophone prodigies for relative peanuts; the unbelievably prolific accrual of silverware.
The legend originally endured as evidence of the manager’s genius, retold by bragging Gunners delighted by their club’s unprecedented success. These days it is reiterated as a foreword to their manager’s steady slide into irrelevance. As is typical of supporters whose side has overachieved for a considerable period of time, the majority of the Emirates crowd long ago lost its bearings and pitched its tent unequivocally in reactionary moron territory.
The same fans originally thankful to see a swaggering Arsenal dominate the domestic scene are now vocally unsatisfied if the standard set by the Invincibles is not reached every season. The club that won five leagues out of fifty-three is now expected to romp to the title every year. The same manager that made Arsenal fans happier than they have ever been is now portrayed as a cancer on the club.
There have been numerous milestones on the nose-diving trajectory of Arsène Wenger’s Arsenal tenure: the 2007 departure of David Dein; the fateful afternoon at St Andrews that saw their title challenge evaporate in 2007/08; the 2011 Carling Cup Final; that summer’s departures of Cesc Fàbregas and Samir Nasri; the 8-2 defeat at Old Trafford. The home game against Bayern could well go down as the night that the last lingering faith in Wenger disappeared.
Make no mistake about it: Arsenal face a near-impossible task. Bayern Munich are fifteen points clear in the Bundesliga, a division they have led since the opening day of the season. They have conceded seven league goals and only a single one of those was away from home. Of every top-flight team in Europe, only Barcelona enjoy more possession of the ball and no side concedes fewer shots per game.
Following on from the unmitigated disaster of last season – in which they threw away a title they should have won, conceded five in the German Cup final and lost the Champions League final in their own back yard – Bayern have approached this season with a resolve that nothing can break. They will not be embarrassed like that again.
To their already star-studded squad they have added Xherdan Shaqiri, Dante, Mario Mandžukić and Javi Martínez. The latter three have been among their best performers this season. Bastian Schweinsteiger has put the devastation of the Champions League Final shootout behind him to dominate the Bundesliga’s midfields again. Toni Kroos has taken giant steps towards filling his massive potential. Perhaps most importantly, Franck Ribéry has returned to his devilish best.
The French winger will be the player that most worries Wenger ahead of the game: he has what Wenger usually describes in press conferences as “that extra quality”. With Bacary Sagna hopelessly out of form, Ribéry will receive the ball whenever possible and look to use the channel between Sagna and Per Mertesacker. If he gets in there repeatedly, Arsenal will suffer.
While the German is unfairly maligned – despite his lack of pace he is probably the Gunners’ best defender – he will surely not be able to stop Ribéry in full flight. If Ribéry receives the ball in that channel and does not score himself, it will be because he has laid the ball on for Mandžukić or Thomas Müller to do so instead.
Indeed, Müller is arguably the most likely Bayern scorer. His eleven for the season makes him second only to Mandžukić in Bayern’s goal charts, but it is his style that makes him such a threat. He is a rather unique player – perhaps most like Clint Dempsey or Tim Cahill in terms of Premier League stars, in that his most prized attribute is his extraordinary capacity to be in the right place at the right time, but he offers so much more than those relatively limited poachers.
He sees himself as “an interpreter of space”, a description which can be seen as inspirational or nauseatingly pretentious, depending on the degree to which the reader is a football hipster, and it is to his endless quest to find the space to score that Arsenal will have to pay most attention.
In the face of this onslaught, Arsenal will send out their first eleven in their usual system and aim to fight fire with fire. They do have players capable of hurting Bayern: Santi Cazorla will find Javi Martínez rather too close for comfort on most occasions but he can produce something out of nothing; Theo Walcott will fancy his chances of getting in behind Daniel Van Buyten – a second-choice centre-back who makes Per Mertesacker look like Usain Bolt; Jack Wilshere still has not learned the meaning of the word ‘fear’ and his movement and distribution will be key to Arsenal performing.
Of course, the match itself will be absolutely enthralling. I am lucky enough to have a ticket and cannot recall ever being this excited about attending a game. One of the reasons why is that despite my belief that Bayern will win, it is impossible to be sure. Just because Arsenal go into the game as huge outsiders does not mean that they cannot emerge victorious. After all, it is eleven versus eleven and anything is possible.
However, it will most probably go down in Arsenal’s history as the night the Wenger Out brigade finally won. After eight years without a trophy, the pressure on him has become overwhelming. There is one remaining space for a nail in Wenger’s coffin. All that remains is for Bayern Munich to hammer it home.