Coming off the back of a painful FA Cup exit to Championship side Blackburn at the weekend, hosting a side 15 points clear in the Bundesliga was far from the comfortable ease back to normality that the Gunners would have wanted. Indeed, it is easy to look back on the game and picture a gulf of class between the two sides, but ultimately what could easily have been perceived as a game decided by talent and superior attacking play was actually decided by a strict positional awareness on behalf of Bayern.
Arsenal shocked out of a bright start
In an attacking sense, Arsenal lined up as usual whenever Theo Walcott is played up front. The 23 year old was played to try and exploit Van Buyten’s famous lack of pace, and dictated the way Arsenal would play behind him. With Walcott preferred to Giroud, Arsene Wenger opted to put another strong passer into his side on the right wing, in the form of Santi Cazorla to provide quick counter attacks against a Bayern side who would potentially dominate possession. Both sides opted to fill the midfield with their best on the ball talent and sacrifice physical presence and defensive prowess, with Francis Coquelin, Abou Diaby and Luis Gustavo all dropping to the bench. This tactic counter attacking style started well for the home side, who were able to get into good crossing positions and turn the Bayern defence to their own goal whilst the Bavarian side found their stride. However, upon Toni Kroos’s opener in the seventh minute Arsenal were upset out of their rhythm. The home side started putting long balls up to Theo Walcott that would have been more suited to Olivier Giroud, much to the joy of the of the Bayern centre backs, and the play became disjointed from there on out.
Bayern’s defensive work paid off
Arsenal, whilst playing as predicted offensively, made a switch defensively to tackle the midfield of Bavarian side. Usually, the Gunners would set up when defending with two banks of four players and two players further forward pressing the ball. However, for this game they deployed a 4-1-4-1, with Mikel Arteta designated the role of patrolling in front of the back four. This however left only one player further up the pitch to press the ball – giving Bayern more time on the ball than they should have been allowed. Furthermore, this flat bank of four stifled the fluidity of Arsenal’s usual double pivot in midfield, making their play on the ball predictable and on dimensional.
However, as much as we can criticise Arsenal, we must complement Bayern on their defensive display. Just after Toni Kroos’s opener, Jack Wilshere and Santi Cazorla combined to release Theo Walcott into a 1v1 situation within the Bayern half. However, from the position showed in the first image, Bayern were swiftly able to get bodies back behind the ball and turn a fast paced attack into the monotony that typified Arsenal’s evening as shown by the second image. To do this against one of the quickest players in world football shows how well Bayern are organised defensively, and how effectively they stifled Arsenal’s counter attacking threat.
What can be said kindly of Bayern can also be flipped in a negative light when looking at Arsenal, however. If we look at Toni Kroos’s first goal, we can see numerous mistakes in the lead up to his smart finish. Aaron Ramsey failed to clear the cross, Per Mertesacker failed to close Kroos quickly enough and Wojiech Szczesny could have done better with the shot. But even before all of that, Thomas Vermaelen was left two on one on the left flank. Lahm provided a constant threat to Arsenal’s left hand side by overlapping, and Lukas Podolski isn’t even in shot when the cross is delivered. When compared with Walcott’s chance pictured above – it shows a direct contrast in approach and organisation. Where Bayern were quick to maintain formation defensively, Arsenal were not, and they paid a heavy price for it.
Bayern target Arsenal’s left
With Kieran Gibbs still out injured, Andre Santos on loan in Brazil and new signing Nacho Monreal cup tied in the Champions League, Arsenal were looking very short of options on the left hand side of the pitch. Opting to put Centre Back Thomas Vermaelen in as a makeshift left back, Bayern chose to target this particular area of weakness. With Lukas Podolski often criticised for a lacklustre defensive work ethic, Thomas Muller and Philip Lahm were able to capitalise on this weakness in the Arsenal line up. It certainly paid off, as all three of Bayern’s goals came from down the left hand side of the pitch. It is an issue Arsene Wenger will surely have to address before the return leg, but is also an issue without an obvious solution.
Podolski’s second half goal will provide the Gunners with the slimmest of hopes for the return leg at the Allianz Arena, but ultimately the damage has already been done for the London side. In the second game it will prove even more difficult for them, as Bayern will be able to sit comfortably on their lead. It may provide an odd situation of Arsenal dominating possession when away from home – but the Gunners have been so poor breaking down defences that sit back (and far less talented ones than Bayern’s), that it is difficult to see where three goals will come from. The tie is all but decided after Bayern put in a typically efficient performance, and outmatched Arsenal in both midfield and defence.
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