02 May 2013

A few aggregates to ponder: Bayern 7-0 Barcelona. Bayern 3-3 Arsenal.

I don't think anyone foresaw last night's result. That was embarrassing, a true dressing-down of Barcelona and at the Camp Nou, no less. Of course, this was hardly a full-strength Barcelona, missing Messi, Puyol, Busquets, and Mascherano to injury and Alba to suspension. All the same, one would expect a more determined performance from them, at least enough to score one goal (against Bayern, that is). Once this one got to halftime as a scoreless draw, it's as if Barça pulled up stakes and packed it in. We'll now have an all-German Champions League final prefaced by a Bundesliga run-in between Dortmund and Bayern on Saturday. For what it's worth, Dortmund has won three of its last four matches with Bayern, having outscored them 8-3 across those four (inflated by a 5-2 drubbing in the DFB Pokal, the Bundesliga's second most-important title after the league title itself).

After the first leg, in which Bayern demolished Barcelona 4-0, I made light of the situation by suggesting we're therefore six goals better than Barcelona. Are we now nine goals better than them? Hardly. However, it is worth pointing out that, between this year and last, we outscored the Champions League finalists 6-53-3 with Bayern this year and 3-2 over Dortmund in last year's group stage.  As I took pains to remind us in that previous post, such outcomes hardly mean that we've restored our former glory. We still have to wrestle with a fair number of issues, not least of which is ensuring that we win our last three matches. I don't think anyone here would blithely assume that our run of form since beating Bayern does anything more than paper over our deficiencies and our struggles. Even if we do win out, after all, it's still possible for Spurs to squirm their way past us into 4th.

It's in moments like this, though, that I think we're all mature and level-headed enough to see the situation for what it is: when the circumstances are right, we're capable of producing some very good football, maybe even great football. Beating Bayern in their house puts us in some pretty rare company. Only one other team, 3rd-place Bayer Leverkusen, can say that. At the risk of repeating myself, it's not like Bayern simply rolled over against us, content to advance on aggregate. Once we went up 1-0, their intensity rose, never mind the near-desperation with which they played once we went up 2-0. We produced a stirring, memorable victory against a team absolutely obsessed with winning the Champions League and very nearly came away with something truly historic. Despite my own proposal that a win wouldn't matter much, we've gone on a tidy little run since that day.

Of course, an eight-game unbeaten streak has not been quite enough to compensate for a season of un-even performances and shocking losses (Bradford, Blackburn, Norwich...) or our struggles against top-of-the-table rivals, but it has strengthened our position on the table, one that we still have yet to fully consolidate. Santi Cazorla has said much the same in an interview at Arsenal's website:
We weren't very consistent for half of the season, which cost us in terms of reaching the higher positions in the league. Now we are a lot more consistent and that's the form we were lacking before being consistent and getting three points whenever we could.
Now, I would hesitate to say that our performance has been consistent, but our outcomes have been more consistent than earlier in the season. In our defense, we've had to integrate four new regulars into the squad, and that's bound to undermine consistency, not to mention the impact of injuries on top. When a player leaves, a team has to deal with more than just replacing those statistics. A new player has to overcome quite a few barriers: culture, language, style of play, position and responsibility, teamwork, and on and on. Perhaps our recent run has just as much to do with feeling like a proper team for the first time all year (with apologies to Giroud) as it has to do with the momentum generated by beating Bayern.

Whatever the proximate cause may be, we need it to continue. For now, it is gratifying to be able to watch this year's Champions League final and say, "yeah, we beat both of these teams." Let's just make sure we're there next year for a chance to do it again.