Arsenal have more than recent history to rewrite in Champions League

Over the past few days, some of the Arsenal squad have been playing the Champions League theme to each other. There’s a giddiness around the travelling group, that has been amplified by the team’s raucous recent form. It is a welcome reminder of how the gravitas of the competition can still bring a simple thrill, even as it faces bigger questions.

The Arsenal players feel this is where they should be every season. Instead, Mikel Arteta has actually been preparing for the club’s first Champions League knockout tie in seven years. There is more to rectify than that underwhelming stat, though.

For all that Arsenal became a fixture in the competition under Arsene Wenger – they reached the last 16 for 16 consecutive seasons – their name remained missing from the one place that matters most. That is the pantheon of champions.

There’s a fair argument that Arsenal are the biggest club to never win the competition, and maybe the most underperforming. That is about more than just a huge global profile, which has seen them dwarf two-time European champions in FC Porto. Arsenal have won 13 domestic titles, which is more than any other club from the five major leagues to never win the Champions League. The next closest are Paris Saint-Germain and Atletico Madrid, both on 11. Those two have also been in many more semi-finals and finals more recently, against Arsenal's two appearances in the last four in their entire history. A great club should have a far better European heritage.

And yet there may now be a twist to that.

Although the ambition to emulate the 2003-04 title winners has come to drive Arsenal since last season, there is the possibility that the Champions League may offer a better chance of victory, as well as the opportunity to go one better than their celebrated predecessors. It is something at the back of the squad’s mind, even as Arteta tries to ensure focus.

Through that, this last-16 tie against Porto actually touches on a lot of modern themes in European football. In previous years it would have felt like a properly exacting tie for Arsenal. Porto after all are one of the great continental names themselves, and have won as many, or more, European Cup/Champions League trophies as half of the Super League 12 clubs. Their two from 1987 and 2004 are the same as Chelsea and Juventus, and more than Tottenham Hotspur, Atletico Madrid, Arsenal and of course the reigning champions Manchester City.

The economics of European football have instead ensured that Porto just couldn’t generate enough revenue to truly compete at the highest level. Their television market in the Portuguese league has been too small, which is part of the reason why there is now a renewed push for regional leagues at Uefa level. Within that, even a recruitment model that Porto had perfected – especially in bringing in the best young players from South America – was never going to continue indefinitely. They probably had a longer and better run than might have been fairly expected. It has played into a grand battle over the future of the club, as former manager Andre Villas-Boas has pitched to become president. Benfica and Sporting have meanwhile overtaken them in bringing through Portugal’s impressive succession of youthful talent.

It is indicative that, in rebuilding this new era at Arsenal, Porto were one of the clubs that Gunners sporting director Edu and his staff looked at. The main model around 2020 was what Borussia Dortmund had been, in bringing through promising young players into something that multiplied their abilities, but Porto had been the originators.

Now, even as Arsenal have built an exciting new team again, it is their very place in the biggest TV market of all that amplifies their chances this season. European football has got to the point where merely being a Premier League club and getting through the groups means they simply have to be among the favourites for the Champions League. Arsenal can represent a necessary counterweight to City along with Real Madrid and possibly Internazionale, especially amid Bayern Munich’s struggles.

Bukayo Saka is a key part of the new-built Arsenal team (Getty Images)
Bukayo Saka is a key part of the new-built Arsenal team (Getty Images)
Arsenal celebrate after scoring (Getty Images)
Arsenal celebrate after scoring (Getty Images)

All of that is admittedly worsened by what feels like a forgiving raft of last-16 clubs, but the wider trends are clear.

It’s even hard not to feel that, if Manchester United had managed to weather their bad spell before Christmas to get through, they could be eyeing up a chance at glory.

Looming over all of this are of course the European champions themselves. Arsenal have first-hand experience of what City can do to a team when it really matters, as was witnessed in last season’s relentless run to the treble. Arteta probably didn’t feel much better about watching Real Madrid get blitzed in an even more forgiving fashion than his own team did.

And yet it is that very City quality that conversely gives Arsenal a better chance in the Champions League than the Premier League.

In domestic football, after all, the sheer force of numbers means City will dominate virtually all games. They can slip up in individual fixtures, as they did against Chelsea at the weekend, but the expectation is still that they will get at least 85-plus points. It might be over 90 if they go on any kind of run similar to last year.

Either way, the threshold is high. One bad result can’t do that much damage.

That isn’t the case in Europe, though. As Pep Guardiola well knows, one bad night can undo an entire campaign. Arteta saw this first-hand given he was the City manager’s assistant for the eliminations of 2016-17 through to 2018-19.

Two of those were to English rivals, Liverpool and Spurs, who finished below City in the league during those seasons. It points to the peril and peculiar dynamics of one-country ties, that may even play into Arsenal’s hands if they do meet the champions.

Arteta would of course caution his players and anyone else that they would be wildly getting ahead of themselves to think like that.

Arsenal captain Martin Odegaard (Getty Images)
Arsenal captain Martin Odegaard (Getty Images)

Porto, a highly respectable team, must be dispatched first before Arsenal can even consider anything else. Arteta has made sure this is the attitude his players go into the game with. This isn't to be taken for granted, especially against a club with such a great record.

At the same time, this is nothing like the last Champions League knock-out that Arsenal faced. That was against a fearsome Bayern Munich, whose 10-2 aggregate evisceration of Arsene Wenger’s side hastened the departure of the managerial great. It was always one of Wenger’s laments that he didn’t do more in Europe.

Arteta can rectify that. The reality is that it would be a profound upset if Porto knocked out Arsenal.

The Basque did suffer elimination from the Europa League to a Portuguese club last season in Sporting, but it was in a lesser competition that just didn’t have the same impetus about it. Arsenal were all about the Premier League then.

The famous Champions League theme brings something out of players. And the Arsenal squad are feeling it, as they make their long-awaited trip.