Arsenal have a crisistunity but they must approach Bayern like West Ham away

Dave Tickner
Bayern Munich v Arsenal is massive.
Bayern Munich v Arsenal is massive.

We’re coming straight in here with the most molten of takes. Hope you’re ready for it. Hope you’re prepared to have your socks blown all the way clean off. For the take is this: Arsenal’s Champions League quarter-final second leg against Bayern Munich is a huge game of association football.

Yeah, you heard us. But…it really is, isn’t it? In the immortal words of Spartacus Mills, ‘It’s bigger than that, Chris, it’s large.’

It was always massive, but events of the last week have elevated it to the stratosphere. It’s suddenly somehow an even more crucial staging post in Arsenal’s trajectory than it already was.

Really, it’s a perfect storm of a fixture.

We wrote recently about how what Mikel Arteta has done with Arsenal over the last two years has been so swiftly and thoroughly normalised that the scale of the achievement is still underrated and underappreciated outside the Emirates.

The equally harsh counterpoint of that situation is that failing to make The Next Step can very quickly be perceived as failure, and that makes this fixture horrible if it goes wrong.

By all reasonable measure, this Arsenal season is a success. They have proved last season was no one-off and ‘getting through a Champions League knockout round’ was another hurdle cleared – one one that had stood for a mortifyingly long time for a club of Arsenal’s status.

Now, though, Arsenal face their biggest game of the season at a time of rare uncertainty. It’s so easy for the familiar narratives to kick back in, and while the talk of bottling and choking after the weekend is absurd, Arsenal gave those attack lines an opportunity to worm their way back in. It isn’t fair, but it is life.

Mikel Arteta and his Arsenal team have shown us decisively that they’re going to hang around at the top of English football. What they haven’t yet shown us is that they’re going to truly scale its heights. Not doing so in just their second season returning to this level of the game is not terminal to the overall plan, but it would be a setback. It would create doubt.

And fate has not been kind. Aston Villa at home was, in hindsight, a dastardly game to sit between the Bayern fixtures. It’s right in the sweet spot of games that are obviously difficult against an obviously good team but that still sit firmly in the Expected Win category. That’s a pain.

But the warning signs from that first leg against Bayern were there. Before that game Arsenal had, for pretty much the whole of 2024, been a team untroubled by doubt or uncertainty. They have won pretty much every game they’ve played, often by comically vast margins, and when they didn’t win – a 0-0 draw at City, for example – it was still enormously acceptable. Part of the plan, even.

The two games where Arsenal looked less than sure of themselves were the two Champions League last-16 legs against a spirited but really quite limited Porto side. Arsenal prevailed, and ended that knockout hoodoo, but it was not in any way convincing. They did not emerge from that tie looking like a team that had put concerns to bed. They were simply relieved not to have f***ed it.

Those doubts were increased rather than dispelled against a Bayern Munich team that is absolutely there for the taking. A Bayern team itself wracked by self-doubt and coming to terms with the fact that, for the first time in more than a decade, they are not the best team in the land.

And yet, when placed in what was for them the familiar and comfortable setting of a Champions League knockout game against Arsenal, they rose to it and their opponents shrank. That Arsenal still emerged from such a nervous, uncertain performance with a draw highlights what both teams’ seasons already tell us: Arsenal are better than these.

It’s entirely conjecture, but if Arsenal had drawn Bayern Munich in the group stage, we’re enormously confident this particular Arsenal team would pocket at least four points from two games against this particular, Spurs-infected Bayern team.

(As an aside, we’re not entirely ruling out a theory that Arsenal’s recent strife is in fact its own virulent strand of Spurs infection. Bayern, Villa, Bayern was a run of three games where objectively the best result each time for Spurs – if not necessarily Spurs fans – has been an Arsenal win. And just look what’s happened. Makes you think.)

But a Champions League knockout tie is a different animal. Even an uncertain and wounded Bayern know this terrain better than Arsenal do.

Yet this remains a crisitunity for the Gunners. They are still better than Bayern Munich. They are, for one thing, still in their own title race despite the weekend’s painful setback. A side that has gone to the Etihad and played so cleverly and courageously to stymie City can absolutely go to Munich and deal with this lot. It would be a huge statement of where Arsenal are and where they’re going.

But to do it, Arsenal will have to stay out of their own heads and treat it as just another game, no more important or challenging than West Ham away.

And that’s easier said than done when it’s bigger than that, Chris.