Small margins will define second leg between Arsenal-Bayern

LONDON — Bayern Munich‘s pedigree cancelled out Arsenal‘s promise. Tuesday’s 2-2 draw at Emirates Stadium leaves this UEFA Champions League quarterfinal tie finely poised and it will ask perhaps the one remaining question this Gunners side have yet to conclusively answer: can they deliver when the stakes are at their highest?

There is no doubting the progress manager Mikel Arteta has engendered at Arsenal, nor their resolve in coming from behind to salvage a draw through Leandro Trossard‘s 76th-minute equaliser. However, this is the third successive European game in which the Gunners have been bereft of the poise that has permeated their Premier League form, a likely consequence of their lack of experience in knockout ties at the business end of Europe’s premier club competition.

There was no gulf in class evident the last time these two sides met in 2017 — when Bayern thrashed Arsenal 10-2 on aggregate — but nervousness in defence and a lack of fluidity in attack undermined their efforts to take control of proceedings.

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“We have made some mistakes today,” said Gunners boss Arteta. “The probability for that to happen next time is less. OK, it happened today. Let’s learn from it. Let’s support those players that have been unbelievable. It’s part of football as well.

“Against these kind of players, this opposition, especially when they have space you know they can punish. We have let them run on a few occasions. That’s something in the return leg that we have to do much better.”

It is uncharacteristic of recent weeks. Arsenal conceded two goals in eight matches before Tuesday night but were breached twice in 14 minutes here as Bayern recovered from Bukayo Saka‘s excellent 12th-minute strike which put them in front. Bayern were supposedly the vulnerable side ahead of kick-off.

Facing a failure to win the Bundesliga for the first time since 2012, a manager in Thomas Tuchel whose end-of-season departure has already been confirmed and no fans inside the stadium here due to a UEFA ban, a defeat would have been in keeping with a disappointing campaign.

Yet that intangible quality, an ability to rise to the occasion and attune to the small margins and fine details of Champions League knockout football, came to the fore. They had to survive what Arteta described afterwards as “the critical moment of the match” when Ben White fired straight at Manuel Neuer when through at 1-0 up but thereafter, Arsenal looked both surprised and frightened by Bayern’s counter-attacking pace, defending with a high line looked either brave or reckless depending on its success.

Gabriel Magalhaes and William Saliba have been the best centre-back pairing in England this season but both were flustered, the former giving the ball away to allow Leon Goretzka to find Serge Gnabry to equalise on 18 minutes.

Blind panic followed 14 minutes later. Sane turned Jakub Kiwior and burst forward on a run which saw limbs flailing in his direction, Gabriel lunging in the box before Saliba caught the Bayern winger in the box. Harry Kane scored his 15th goal against Arsenal from the resulting penalty, dispatched in a highly unusual fashion, stroked into the net rather than dispatched with his trademark power.

The England captain revealed afterwards that he had watched David Raya in the previous round’s penalty shootout against Porto, noting that he “goes to the corners early” and he adjusted accordingly. Small margins, again. Those small margins extended to the officiating. 10 minutes into the second half, Kane caught Saliba with an elbow which looked worse with each replay. A yellow card was given.

In the 66th minute, Raya played the ball short to Gabriel. He handled the ball in the box to restart play even though the game was live. Bayern protested, but nothing was given. Tuchel later revealed Swedish referee Glenn Nyberg recognised the error but his explanation left him furious.

“For me, for all of us, he made a huge mistake not giving the handball penalty,” said Tuchel. “I know it is a crazy situation but they put the ball down, he whistles, he gives the ball and the defender takes the ball in his hand. “What makes us really angry is the explanation on the field. He told our players that it is a ‘kid’s mistake’ and he will not give a penalty like this in a quarterfinal. This is a horrible, horrible explanation. He is judging handballs. Kid’s mistake, adult’s mistake. Whatever. We feel angry because it is a huge decision against us.”

Arsenal deserve credit for galvanising themselves to equalise 14 minutes from time, or as Arteta put it, to not “throw your toys away and lose the tie.” He recognised what was probably a mistake to start Kiwior at left-back against Leroy Sané and introduced Oleksandr Zinchenko at half-time but two further substitutes combined to haul Arsenal level, Gabriel Jesus expertly finding Trossard to sweep home first-time right-footed.

Arsenal felt they should have had a penalty in stoppage-time when Saka went down under Neuer’s challenge in the box but Arteta did not mirror Tuchel’s annoyance at the officials.

“I haven’t seen it,” said Arteta, channelling his inner Arsene Wenger. “The decision is made. We cannot change that. We have to focus on other aspects that we can control. We could have done much better tonight.

“[The equaliser] created insecurity in the team because we gave them things that you have to earn, Then you have to defend open spaces against a team that have a huge capacity to hurt you there. After that we did well and we never gave up.”

That spirit may be enough to get Arsenal the result they need in Allianz Arena next Wednesday. But they must execute their game plan with the efficiency expected of teams accustomed to this level to lower Bayern’s colours.