Arsenal Admirable, but Punished by Ruthless Bayern

Arsenal created excitement and showed resilience tonight, but mistakes proved costly.  

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Thomas Müller pounces on a late Arsenal lapse to all but seal the tie in its first leg. © Guardian

It may sound a weird time to say it – Arsenal lost a home game 2-0 and are on the brink of going out at the earliest knockout round in the Champions League for the fourth year in a row – but that was an Arsenal performance I could feel proud of as a fan.  Arsenal showed character, matched Bayern München at times and showed resolve in defence in what must have been an exhausting game both physically and mentally.  But they missed opportunities, made individual errors and against the best side in the world, you can rarely afford to do that and leave unscathed.

Arsenal flew out of the box impressively early doors.  Arsenal would like to think they play a style which isn’t too dissimilar to a Pep Guardiola side; eager for possession and at times slow build up through a great number of short passes.  They themselves have fallen victim to early pressing by teams this season, mainly v Borruisa Dortmund at home, Southampton away and, most recently, Liverpool.  For sides which are so used to having the ball and the opposition defending deep against them that they can often be unsettled by a sudden lack of time on the ball.  Dortmund showed in the final last year and even in a league defeat against Bayern in November, that they can still be unsettled by such tactics, especially early on.  Ironically I predicted Bayern would be the side to fly out of the blocks and potentially catch Arsenal out, but it was the opposite and Arsenal attacked Bayern at pace and harassed them on the ball.  The rabbit out of the hat Yaya Sanago provided energy and pace upfront which Olivier Giourd hasn’t shown since the early months of the season and Arsenal should have had an early lead but not for Manuel Neuer saving Mesut Özil’s penalty.  Pretty much the whole mainstream media is waiting eagerly for any trip up Özil makes at the moment, but it’s worth remembering it was his wonderful turn which earned the penalty in the first place, so in that respect he did no harm, merely no good.

Maybe the failure to convert the penalty deflated the energy in the stadium a bit, but Arsenal’s early pressure gradually deflated and Bayern grew into the game.  The last year has shown, including the Champions League final, that despite sides occasionally being able to dominate Bayern through early pressing, it’s not sustainable over 90 minutes, and Bayern will inevitably get a stranglehold on the game.  Such is the physical effect such tactics have on sides, they duly tire and Bayern are too good on the ball for sides to be able to dominate them without full energy.

Then came the second mistake of the night.  Toni Kroos – who bossed the game all night – played a lovely chipped through ball through to Arjen Robben who was clobbered down by Wojciech Szczesny.  A straight red and Arsenal were down to ten men against the best side in the world who thrive on keeping the ball.  It was never going to be an even game after that.

To their credit, Arsenal fought hard.  Great sides have been humiliated by recent Bayern München teams, and with ten men Arsenal did well just to prevent a rout.  They kept their defensive shape, were resilient but they just couldn’t keep the ball on the rare times they got it, and with so much pressure from such high quality players goals were always going to come.  Arsenal’s left wing was a particular area of persistent threat from Bayern and Özil, who seemed to be occupying a deep left midfield role in the second half, looked exhausted after covering nearly 12km trying to keep up with Robben, Lahm and Rafinha.  Tomorrow morning he’ll be slated for being lazy.

If they’d managed to keep it to one-nil, they could have traveled to Munich with hope, knowing a 2-1 win would see them through to the next ground.  However, Laurent Koscielny – who, coincidently, was immense for 88 minutes – was drawn forward and upon returning Arsenal’s back line was disturbed and Thomas Müller, self proclaimed ruler of space, was there to pounce.  A clever run from the Bayern veteran Cladio Pizzaro drew Per Mertesacker away from the danger area, and Müller rarely misses out from inside the box.  For a player of his size and technical quality, he’s a stunningly good header of a football.

In the end it was a night of missed chances and costly lapses.  Even Kroos’ stunning opener, hit like a curved snipper bullet into the top corner, was notable for the amount of space he found himself in on the edge of the box.  For Kroos these are strange times.  Despite featuring in every Bayern game up until mid January rumours about his future persist, as contract talks have stalled.  Those in the know in German football reckon it’s purely political, Kroos wants to earn what the best senior players are earning.  After a performance like tonight, he might just get it.  Bayern showed they can be a remarkably ruthless team when they need to be and they were tonight.  For Arsenal a 2-0 loss was not the disaster some of the papers will make it out to be tomorrow morning, but there will be a sense of regret because of the chance there was to prevent it, or even pull of something special.

It’s not all doom and gloom though.  Arsenal put in an admirable performance – a few brief moments aside – and showed an improved display to what we’ve seen in the last month.  Besides, an early exit in the Champions League could, like it did last season, lead to stronger performances domestically.  Maybe this could be the catalyst to Arsenal going on to win their first domestic silverware in nine years.

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