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What Manchester City vs. Real Madrid tells us about Arsenal

The hottest fires make the hardest steel.

Manchester City v Real Madrid - UEFA Champions League Photo by Jose Hernandez/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

There was some interesting discourse on Arsenal Twitter during the thrilling Manchester City - Real Madrid Champions League semifinal yesterday. Some people took the open, attacking quality on display from both sides as a sign that the Gunners would get absolutely waxed in the competition. Some went as far as to suggest that it might be a good thing to not be in the CL to spare the embarrassment.***

They couldn’t be more wrong.

Arsenal don’t have the attacking talent (yet) to go punch-for-punch with Madrid, City, Liverpool, Bayern, and a few of the other top clubs in Europe. Mikel Arteta is keenly aware of this and wouldn’t set his side up to play “first to four” with any of those squads. We’ve seen this season that the Gunners can hang with City and Liverpool if they get the tactics right and play well — they managed it against City in January and against Liverpool in March. There is no reason they couldn’t do the same against any of the other top squads. Arsenal wouldn’t be favored in the tie, but it would be unfair to expect them to be boatraced.

Kim McCauley, founder of Cartilage Free Captain and very smart soccer person, wrote a great piece for ESPNFC on related topic — that strong, defensive tactics have a place in modern football. Even though it runs somewhat contrary to my love of wide-open, attacking football (that I wrote about in Cannon Fodder), she’s right. Our old friend Unai Emery is in the semifinals with a Villareal side that doesn’t have a fraction of the name-recognition or attacking talent of the other three squads. But they are organized, defend well, and have enough talent to capitalize on the one or two gilt-edged chances they get on the counter. Diego Simeone has built a perennial contender and CL nuisance at Atletico Madrid by playing resolute, defensive-minded football.

You can win without having a squad full of Galacticos, especially in a two-legged, knockout format. It’s what Mikel Arteta did in winning the FA Cup in his first year in charge at the Emirates. If you play solid defensive football, get a bit of luck, and have enough talent to capitalize, you can kill giants.

Even if Arsenal don’t have the horses to win the Champions League next season (which they likely won’t), there is significant value to simply being in the competition. The additional matches against quality opponents will help players develop. Being in the CL makes the club a more attractive destination for top players and gives the ones they have incentive to stay (*cough* Bukayo Saka *cough*). And of course, the money. Making the Champions League ahead of the presumed rebuild schedule accelerates the process because they can bring in another quality player or two with the proceeds.

There is a lot of space for a club to fall on the scale that stretches from good enough to be in the competition to the best club in Europe. I think that Arsenal are comfortably on that scale right now. The way they were playing in the fall, they weren’t. They probably would have gotten unceremoniously bounced from the group stage. But the way they are playing right now is absolutely good enough get out of the group and maybe win a knockout round or two, depending on the draw.

I really want Arsenal the make the Champions League next season. Watching the barnburner between Manchester City and Real Madrid reinforced that. I want to see how Mikel Arteta and this crop of players measure up. I want Arsenal’s young, emerging stars to play against the best in Europe. You learn and grow in different ways from playing against top players as compared to Burnley parking 10 men behind the ball. I’m not scared of the top clubs, and I’m sure the guys in the dressing room aren’t, either. Bring ‘em on.

***Yes, I know this is a bit of a straw man. No, I’m not going to link to the people involved in the conversation.