Naive Arsenal give Neville ’emotional’ ammunition against Kane’s old dark arts

Matt Stead
Bayern Munich striker Harry Kane, Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta, and Bukayo Saka clashing with Manuel Neuer
A classic Champions League game at the Emirates

Gary Neville will have nodded sagely as Arsenal became too excited and ’emotional’ against Bayern Munich. Fair play to Mikel Arteta for salvaging the tie.


It was one of those Mikel Arteta marginal gain flourishes which look or sound anything ranging from absurd to futile until the precise point they don’t. The lightbulb-based motivational team talks, You’ll Never Walk Alone-enriched training sessions and non-negotiable process-trusting can be filed alongside Jurgen Klopp celebrating a home draw against West Brom as the actions of madmen which only became proof of genius over time.

Little over a year ago, Arteta explained how Arsenal’s substitutes were now “impactors”. That was before a European knockout tie they led at home before shooting themselves in the foot and ultimately getting knocked out, with the game having wider implications in causing their Premier League title bid to collapse.

Even the most calamitous of performances could not have delivered such a fate in the first leg of their Champions League quarter-final against Bayern Munich, but the Gunners tried their utmost to capture the essence of that ruinous evening against Sporting last March.

Their start matched both the occasion and the build-up. There was a sense that an anti-climax would be inevitable as soon as the background noise was a secondary factor upon the blow of the referee’s whistle. Bayern hogged the ball for the first five minutes to take the sting out of the atmosphere. But the hosts responded with three unanswered shots in the first quarter of an hour.

That included both the opening goal and a sliding-doors moment. Bukayo Saka’s finish was sublime after positive work from Benjamin White and Kai Havertz, the England forward already having earned Alphonso Davies a booking which rules the Bayern defender out of the return leg.

Four minutes later, White should have scored when put through by Havertz. It would have prompted a check for a close offside but the game nevertheless seemed to shift on that moment. Arsenal were comfortably outplaying Bayern but a miscommunication between David Raya and Gabriel meant the roaming keeper was no longer a passing option for his centre-half, whose ball down the line was not anticipated by Jakub Kiwior. Leroy Sane intercepted and found the rampaging Leon Goretzka with a pass as inch-perfect as the assist which followed for Serge Gnabry.

There was an element of the Bruno Fernandes goal against Liverpool about it: Bayern’s first shot had come from an Arsenal mistake – or a series of them – which was nevertheless punished through incredibly ruthless skill and technique.

It would be an exaggeration to suggest Arsenal lost their composure immediately thereafter. It was more of a slow burn, a gradual descent into the sort of naivety which underpinned those three consecutive 5-1 defeats to Bayern the supporters were so desperate to avenge. And it manifested itself on the half-hour mark, when Leroy Sane turned Kiwior gloriously, burst into the area thanks to a touch from a sliding Jorginho, and was sent tumbling by William Saliba.

Arsenal are a ludicrously well-oiled defensive machine in the Premier League; in Europe, not so much. Bayern’s first two shots, underpinned by disastrous opposition errors, resulted in two goals.

Harry Kane converted from 12 yards because of course he did. The returning Spurs hero was the subject of one of the two loudest roars for the next 40 minutes or so, when his backing-into-the-defender dark arts were penalised with a yellow card after Gabriel’s throat decided to get into the way of his elbow.

The other was as damning as any moment for Arsenal. White’s determination to catch and delay Sane to precipitate a Martin Odegaard tackle was admirable, but the high line which was breached by a single pass was remarkably foolish. The Gunners were pushing forward on the attack and allowed themselves to be pulled in to the frenzy, playing as if there were five minutes left to score an equaliser rather than two more hours to manage the overall tie. Gary Neville’s branding of Arsenal as “emotional” is often overplayed and simplistic, but not here.

It is to their eventual credit that they found a way through against a Bayern side not struggling to contain them. It never seemed likely when Declan Rice and Odegaard wasted free-kicks from presentable positions on either side in a second half summed up by Jorginho passing to the phenomenal Konrad Laimer on the edge of his own area. Yet this is the most durable of Arsenal teams – and one with “impactors” to help them through.

Arteta had already called on one at half-time, replacing the poor Kiwior with Oleksandr Zinchenko, in turn likely accepting he made a mistake with his starting line-up. The introduction of Gabriel Jesus and Leandro Trossard 20 minutes later was the decision upon which the game swung. The stunning footwork and quick thinking of the former finally panicked and unsettled the more experienced Bayern; the latter capitalised with a sweeping and certain first-time finish.

Arsenal vs Bayern
Leandro Trossard and Kai Havertz celebrate.

And still there was time for the game and thus the tie to oscillate: between Kingsley Coman hitting the post in the 90th minute and Saka initiating contact with Manuel Neuer’s leg in the area in stoppage-time, either side could have won this and the loser would only have had themselves to blame.

It underlines how far Arsenal have come that there should be disappointment at drawing a European knockout leg against any iteration of Bayern Munich, and no fear of going to Germany with the tie so balanced. Arteta has long since proven his authenticity as one of the finest coaches around, but his team barely fell on the right side of that line between genius and insanity here.

MAILBOX: An ’embarrassing display of cheating’ from Bukayo Saka or ‘stepping over a short barrier’

📣 Straight to the comments! Have Arsenal got the nous to complete the job in Munich? Join the debate here