It finished 2-2, just as it did when they first met. That was Arsenal’s last Uefa Champions League quarter-final; certainly for eight years, if not many more. They held the defending champions Barcelona in London in 2010 before being destroyed by Lionel Messi at the Camp Nou. It established the seasonal structure of the relationship between Arsene Wenger and Pep Guardiola. Even when the Frenchman had one positive result, the Catalan emerged on top.
Their meetings have often been entertaining, sometimes close and now and again tinged by controversy. This campaign will end with Guardiola’s Manchester City taking four points from Arsenal, and convinced it should have been six after Nacho Monreal’s late handball on Sunday went unpunished.
Rewind six years and Wenger was the manager with the grievance. Robin van Persie had been dismissed in unfortunate fashion. Arsenal, then 3-2 up on aggregate when paired again in the Champions League, duly went out. “We would have won that game,” Wenger insisted afterwards.
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Perhaps. What was definitely true was that Arsenal had troubled Barcelona. They were disparagingly nicknamed ‘Barcelona lite’ but they were stylistically similar. Arsenal players — Thierry Henry, Alexander Hleb, Cesc Fabregas, Alex Song — decamped to the Camp Nou.
In an era dominated by physically powerful, defensively sound counter-attacking teams, Arsenal and Barcelona were defiant exceptions, technicians and purists, prioritising passing above all else. They had a certain artistic integrity.
Return to the current day and Sunday showed that Arsenal are Barcelona lite no more. Wenger’s ethos seems more blurred while others have more in common with the most celebrated team of their generation. It is why Sevilla’s Jorge Sampaoli and Athletic Bilbao’s Ernesto Valverde, not Wenger, are touted as the next manager of Barcelona.
It is because of the influence Barcelona have exerted. Passing alone is no longer enough to make comparisons valid. Their intensity is aped more by Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool, playing a pressing game Arsenal cannot emulate.
It is because Guardiola exported his principles, first to Munich and then to Manchester. Arsenal do not run Barcelona close any more. They got hammered 10-2 on aggregate by a Bayern Munich side shaped by Barcelona’s most successful manager.
City may be Barcelona lite these days. They know they require a defensive revamp but City ran further than Arsenal. They completed more passes, and with greater accuracy. They brought more tactical invention, with Guardiola shifting players around. They beat Arsenal in December by outwitting and outflanking them, playing the second half without a striker. His experiments do not always work, but Guardiola overflows with ideas.
Meanwhile, after Arsenal twice came from behind to level, Wenger spoke in the manner of an old-school Brit of spirit and mental strength. A slump was halted, but scarcely in emphatic fashion. Arsenal were chaotic at the start, saved by the upright, and, as they are likely to lose their impeccable record of top-four finishes under Wenger, looking a side shorn of an identity, beyond the unwanted one of a club whose players who have lingered too long and whose progress has stalled.
Alexis Sanchez is a Barca alumnus, a player with the pace and potency to operate at the Camp Nou. Hector Bellerin, while culpable for Leroy Sane’s opener, can show why he began in Barcelona’s youth teams. But Barcelona teams have been defined by the midfield. Arsenal had the eternally frustrating Mesut Ozil, who gave the ball away in lacklustre fashion for Sergio Aguero’s goal, plus Granit Xhaka, the £35 million (Dh160.6m) enigma, and Francis Coquelin, an effective operator alongside Santi Cazorla, a Barcelona-style schemer, but not without him.
It used to be a criticism to brand Arsenal as Barcelona lite. Given the gulf that has opened up between them and the best, it would be a compliment these days. The damning element for Wenger is that his current charges evoke neither his greatest teams nor the role models who others have copied better. All of which poses the question: what do Wenger’s Arsenal stand for now?
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