There was a moment, late in Bayern Munich’s 2-0 victory over Arsenal on Wednesday, that seemed to sum up the German side’s approach.
Arjen Robben, the persona non grata of the Emirates Stadium following his earlier involvement in the incident that ended with Wojciech Szczesny’s dismissal, was making another run into space down the right flank, as right-back Rafinha received the ball 10 yards behind him.
The Brazilian spotted the run of Robben and duly tried to feed him, as he had done already numerous times that half, but the ball was slightly underhit, and Robben, annoyed, clapped his hands in frustration even as he was checking his run to collect the ball.
The Dutchman had no problem gathering the pass—it was perhaps three yards behind its ideal spot, if that—but the momentum of the attack was ever-so-slightly stunted.
It was an example of the high standards against which Bayern’s players judge themselves, and that all starts from the man on the sidelines.
"Football is a mistakes game," Pep Guardiola noted in his press conference, when asked about the Szczesny-Robben incident that changed the game. Yet it was a comment that seemed to apply more generally to his philosophy; limit the mistakes from your side and try to force them from the opposition.
While Arsene Wenger invariably remained glued to his seat over the course of the 90 minutes, even as his side were struggling manfully to beat back wave after wave of attacks, there was rarely a moment where Guardiola was not barking instructions and notes to his team.
Initially, he was ensuring Javi Martinez, Jerome Boateng and Dante knew how they were to deal with Yaya Sanogo and Mesut Ozil, before turning his attentions further forward as the balance of the game changed.
By the end, even as Bayern exuded total control over almost all they surveyed, he was still critiquing and correcting his charges, sometimes even before they got on the pitch.
In one amusing exchange Guardiola was seen dressing down Claudio Pizarro moments before the striker was brought on, after the Peruvian seemingly failed to correctly understand some final instructions from his coach.
Whatever Guardiola was saying to his charges seemed to be astute and productive, however, especially when Bayern doubled their advantage late on.
Laurent Koscielny was caught upfield after a rare attacking Arsenal free-kick, and exploiting that positional issue, Pizarro made a darting run to drag Per Mertesacker away from the middle, freeing fellow attacking substitute Thomas Muller to spin into the box and head home Philipp Lahm’s clipped cross.
GIF via Fansided.com
Both Muller and Pizarro looked to Guardiola as they ran off to celebrate with the travelling Bayern fans, suggesting that, while Guardiola had not played any direct part in the goal itself, he had in some ways been its architect.
"It is not over because we will fight until the end," Wenger told reporters, when asked about the impact of Muller’s strike on the tie. "We wanted to score on the free-kick and got caught a little bit on the counter-attack."
The Frenchman did not expand on that nor was he asked whether Koscielny’s decision to go upfield at that late stage was a mistake (it should be noted, though, that a similar set piece earlier in the half had presented Koscielny with what seemed to be Arsenal’s only opening for a goal).
You sense, however, that he did not blame Koscielny; if Guardiola likes to remain on top of his players at all times, then Wenger is a far more relaxed presence, preferring to let them make their own decisions once the game starts.
"Confidence is the petrol of the players," Wenger said after the match, which seemed to underline the general sentiment of his pre-match programme notes, which seemed to stress the importance of elements like "focus" and "team spirit."
In one passage, Wenger wrote:
It’s down to us to show the same focus and spirit we had against Liverpool [in Sunday’s 2-1 FA Cup win].
At the moment we have a strong team spirit—that is for sure—a strong desire to do well and a united team.
I believe we have had these kind of qualities but we have not always had the belief. That is built by the results.
If that is true, then Bayern surely cannot lack for belief, having lost just twice (once against Arsenal, in a tie they still won, and once in the semi-competitive match that is the German Supercup) in 2013.
Against that run of success, Guardiola’s constant demands and instructions would seem only to risk antagonising his players or eroding their confidence, yet if Wednesday is an example, then—the first 30 minutes apart—it seems to ensure those standards do not slip.
As it was, on Wednesday night it fell to Mathieu Flamini to issue the home side’s orders and rebukes as Guardiola was from the sidelines, the Frenchman eventually ending up focused on Mesut Ozil as the German struggled to commit himself 100 per cent to his defensive duties.
"He tries to keep everyone alive and that is massive for the team so I won't assess that as an argument," Mertesacker told reporters when asked if Flamini had singled out Ozil.
"It is good to be alive and to show each other that we are ready to fight. We need everyone on the pitch with this full mental strength and maturity."
Wenger seems happy to let his players organise themselves like that in matches, believing above all that they are the ones in control of their own destiny.
"Football is not a chess game," he concluded in the programme. "It belongs to the players; when the game starts, it is about making the right decisions on the pitch.
:As managers, we prepare the team to do well, we take responsibility when it doesn’t go but do not forget that the main heroes are on the pitch, not on the bench."
That is a valid point, and the excessive focus on managers remains something of an oddity in football—a perhaps inevitable result of them being the ones most often made available to the media and, thus, most often setting the news agenda.
Yet you have to wonder whether Wenger takes his willingness to allow his players freedom to express themselves too far.
Bayern are currently the best team in the game, yet Guardiola continues to demand more and more from them and sees mistakes where everyone else sees near-perfection.
That is perhaps why Bayern look primed to reach greater and greater heights. And perhaps Wenger’s different approach is why Arsenal are still to make that leap.
The Gunners, in contrast, have progressed from the group stages of the Champions League for 14 consecutive seasons yet only once have they reached the final (and only one other time have they made a semi-final).
Five of the last nine years, they have been dumped out at the last-16 stage, and that does not include this year’s likely (some might say impending) exit.
The law of averages would produce a better record than that.
Added to the well-documented trophy drought (closing in on nine years) and it is tempting to wonder whether a more disciplinarian approach on the touchlines would eke out an extra 1-3 per cent in performances, the sort of improvement that makes the difference when trophies are on the line.
Different players need to be man-managed in different ways and, in the same way, managers have different styles.
Yet, surely as in any other walk of life, when you come up against the industry leader, the one setting the standards and raising the bar, it would surely be foolish not to look at what might be learned from them and what methods could be incorporated.