Today in the Champions League round of 16, Arsenal are playing FC Bayern, who won the competition—and everything else—last year. This matters.
There are all sorts of reasons why this is a big match, but it's especially significant for American fans because, well, Arsenal play in the Premier League. And as soccer has become more popular in the States, we've largely adopted the Premiership, if for no other reason than that most of the coaches speak English and many of the players speak English and all of the color commentators speak English, so that we understand what's going on. Arsenal have long been one of the Premier League's top teams, and play famously attractive soccer; consequently, they have a vast fan base in the States, and even fans who don't like them tend to be interested in them in a way they aren't in, say, Galatasaray.
Arsenal's fans almost certainly won't like what they see against Bayern. Their team—partly due to the presence of Mesut Özil, one of the most talented, technically perfect creative midfielders in the world—are much improved from last year and currently sit second in the Premier League by a single point, but they're a flawed outfit. Bursting at the seams in the midfield, they have a dearth of attacking options up front outside of quickly tiring center forward Olivier Giroud, who—let's face it—isn't world class on his very best day. And their success is partly down to several players, like Welsh midfielder Aaron Ramsey, playing out of their fucking minds, and doing the work of two or three men while defending and in the attack. This doesn't feel...right, or sustainable, especially when Ramsey has been stuck on the sideline since Christmas with a thigh injury.
The point is, no one in their right mind actually thinks Arsenal have quite enough talent, quite enough bodies, quite enough enough to best FC Bayern over two Champions League legs, because Bayern today, right now, are without doubt the best team in the world.
We haven't seen a team quite like Bayern since the complete domination of the sport by Spanish club FC Barcelona in the late aughts. Barça, now a lesser shadow of themselves, boasted what many thought to be the best collection of players of all time. Tiki-taka, their playing philosophy that champions short passing and possession over all else, was the perfect marriage to their squad, and perfected by head coach Pep Guardiola. Barcelona, in fact, were seen as the world's best team until last year, when they were overrun by Bayern in the Champions League semifinals, and beaten 7-0 over two legs. The Germans, with players like Franck Ribéry and Philipp Lahm and Arjen Robben and Bastian Schweinstager and Thomas Müller and Dante and Jérôme Boateng and others, many others, both defended and attacked with a ferocity and assertiveness rarely seen or sustained in soccer before. Last year, they became the first German team to win the treble, lifting the Champions League trophy, winning the German Bundesliga by 25(!) points, and finishing first in the DFB-Pokal, Germany's season-long domestic tournament. Since then, they've only gotten better.
Bayern didn't add much over the summer, partly because outside of a true, world class center forward, there aren't many places they can improve. But they made three huge changes. The first was the hiring of manager Pep Guardiola. The Spaniard has taken over the reins, and through some evil alchemy, has managed to mix his high-pressure, high-lined philosophy with FC Bayern's slashing style to create a team even more dangerous and even more defensively sound. Guardiola also moved Lahm into the defensive midfield, where he can see more of the ball and contribute more as a fulcrum for the team. Lahm was the best outside back in the world; now he's probably the best defensive midfielder in the world. And finally, the Germans have added young superstar Mario Götze to the squad and inserted him as attacking midfielder, where he's been absolutely running wild this year. In 16 domestic appearances this year, Götze has six goals and five assists; in five Champions League matches, he's tacked on three more goals and an assist. (According to Squawka, Götze this year has actually matched and surpassed the performance of Arsenal talisman Özil.)
And so we're at a point now where Bayern are nigh unplayable. Since winning the Bundesliga, Champions League, and the DFB-Pokal, they've also won the UEFA Super Cup, and the FIFA Club World Cup this year. They've won nine straight matches. In their last loss, on December 10 against English side Manchester City, they already had the group all but wrapped up, and went up 2-0 on the Citizens early in the match before seemingly losing interest and losing 3-2. They're unbeaten in the Bundesliga this season, and are 16 points clear of second-place Bayer Leverkusen. They've scored 57 goals while only conceding nine domestically. (Chelsea, for the record, have conceded the fewest goals in the Premier League. They've let in 21.) This shit is an unmitigated joke.
So, it could be argued that FC Bayern have supplanted FC Barcelona as the greatest team to ever grace a pitch. What this means for Arsenal today is that Bayern are better over the field in virtually every position. And though Arsenal could win this match or even this tie—Bayern, after all, will be without Ribéry and his star backup Xherdan Shaqiri, and the Germans have what can now be referred to as a bit of a habit of losing interest in matches, which actually led Arsenal to beating Bayern 2-0 in the second leg of their Champions League matchup in this round last year—they probably won't. And that's why this matchup is so important to both the Arsenal and Premier League faithful.
Yesterday, Manchester City played FC Barcelona in their highly-anticipated round of 16 match. The match was intriguing because City, currently third in the league with a game in hand, are one of the top teams in England, while Barça, though greatly diminished, are generally considered the best team in Spain. The match was thus a litmus test for both teams. Are City really one of the world's best? Can they really win the Champions League? What about Barcelona?
With this Arsenal match, however, there is no doubt: FC Bayern are the standard by which all other teams judge themselves. We know that on paper and on the pitch, Bayern are better than Arsenal. But the Gunners are also in a state of transition, attempting to switch from the biggest selling club into the world into one of the biggest big clubs in the world. So far, it's been a shocking success, with Arsenal in great position to win the Premier League. Tonight, though, we'll see how much better Bayern are than Arsenal, and, by proxy, how far England's high-end soccer is behind the best Europe has to offer.
And this is why this matchup, chalked up by everyone almost everyone as a victory for the Germans, is important. While a Premier League side hasn't had a legitimate claim to the title of best in the world since the 2007 season, the league itself is considered the best in the world: the deepest, the most competitive, and the most popular. The Bundesliga, with FC Bayern pilfering the best players like Mario Götze and Robert Lewandowski (joining FC Bayern from Borussia Dortmund in the summer), from around the league, is approaching what Borussia Dortmund manager Jürgen Klopp has called "Scottish conditions," in which only one team can win. If Bayern are indeed pulling away from the rest of the world at the rate in which it feels they are, though, and if they show that there's as much distance between them and a team as good as Arsenal as everyone thinks there is, it would raise a simple and yet significant question: What's the point of being the best league if it can't raise a team that can play with the world's best?
Photo Credit: Associated Press