Thursday, February 2, 2017

When Arsenal looked set to finish second in their Champions League group this year, Arsene Wenger said that he would feel “guilty” if they did so and drew a top team again. This time he does not even have himself to blame: Arsenal finished top of their group and still drew Bayern Munich.
For a team who is desperate to break out of the last-16 for the first time since 2010, it is rotten luck to face arguably the strongest team from the non-seeds. It might also trigger flashbacks to any of Arsenal’s three meetings with Bayern in the last four years. They were knocked out at this very stage by them in 2013 and 2014, and were thumped 5-1 at the Allianz Arena in the group stage last season.
But all is not lost and Arsenal would be wrong to get too sullen about their bad luck. Of course they would have had a better chance against Bayer Leverkusen, Porto or Benfica. But this Bayern Munich is not the same as Pep Guardiola’s Bayern or Jupp Heynckes’ Bayern before him. Even if the German champions go in as favourites, Arsenal have a chance.
To see Bayern play this year is to see a team which has finally taken its foot off the gas. They have not been able to find the same intensity and speed that characterised their play with Guardiola. They are top of the Bundesliga, thanks to RB Leipzig’s shock defeat to Ingolstadt this week. But they have dropped nine points already, after just 14 games. Under Guardiola it took until 29, 18 and 24 league games to drop that many. It is their worst start to a league season since 2011-12, when Heynckes was starting his rescue job from the mess Louis van Gaal left behind. 
Combined with Bayern’s missing out on top spot in Group D, it is not the same team that it has been for the last few years.
But this should not be a surprise. Bayern had been due a hangover for years and it is only because of the direction that Guardiola gave them that they did not have one. Most teams that win the treble tend to suffer the following season – Internazionale have never recovered from their 2010 treble – but Guardiola managed to inspire Bayern to the next level when he took over in 2013. The historic Heynckes era gave way to three years under Guardiola in which Bayern played unprecedentedly good football. They missed out on a return to the Champions League final after losing by the finest of margins to Atletico Madrid earlier this year.
Now that Guardiola has gone, that long-overdue drop-off has happened. It was inevitable, especially with the decision to replace him with Carlo Ancelotti. He is a manager very good at setting the tone and finding the balance among a group of senior players. But by his own admission, his style is to take the pressure off rather than keeping it on.
This is why he has proven so adept in cup football, winning three Champions Leagues as a manager, but has underperformed in league titles. He has been managing at the top level for 20 years now, at teams – Parma, Juventus, Milan, Chelsea, PSG and Real Madrid – who can expect to win league titles. He has won just three. Guardiola and Jose Mourinho, in careers half as long, have six and eight league titles respectively.
This explains where Bayern’s intensity has gone. This is why they are not the same team they were for the last four years, the team that put Arsenal out twice in the last 16. They still have great players, but so do plenty of sides at this stage of competition. They used to have an aura too, but as that fades, Arsenal must know that they have a chance.